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February 9, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu is not liked here. When it comes to Bibi, one hears none of the fondness of the sort that Rabin or Golda or Begin enjoyed. Not even in his own Likud party can you hear affection for the man. No, Bibi is not liked. But he is admired. A huge swath of Israelis admire the guy who lies straight-faced, who shuns what others say about him like rain off a duck’s back, who insults the American president, who seeks relentlessly to frighten us, who promises peace and brings only war.

What is the source of this adulation? I fear that it lies in the creeping perversion of the Israeli national character, the cumulative destruction of our moral fiber. Bibi is admired precisely because he is heartless and ruthless and deceptive, and because he gets away with it. For too many Israelis today, this is the new role model….Don’t be anyone’s sucker, screw the other guy any way you can, and whatever you do, don’t get caught. Become expert at deflecting responsibility, blame everyone, concede nothing, and live high on the hog. Run for re-election while refusing to say one word about the economic or political program you represent. Why should you commit yourself if we voters, we suckers don’t demand it?

Every day, lately, we watch leading police officers, our protectors, reflecting Bibi’s values: take advantage of people over whom you have power, enjoy yourself, they’ll never say anything. But oops, the women cops have begun to speak up, the honchos are being fired, the courts are awakening. What happened? Perhaps the contradiction was too sharp – uniformed defenders of the weak, victimizing the weak. We can be proud of the whistle-blowers, we can be proud that some of our investigators and courts can still be aroused to do their job. There remains a core of morality here, there are still good folks who don’t exploit and deceive and would rather live decently and take care of the needs of this country.

Still, how did we get here, to this dark moment? The sociologists will long argue over the sources of the deterioration of our national character. But I point to one central feature of our life here: It is endless war, the endless absence of peace, and at the heart of it is the occupation of the Palestinians, the daily denial of human rights, the domination of an entire people. It is the abuse of power that corrupts us.

We are forever at war. Whether or not we have had a “quiet day,” with no riots, bus stonings, or border skirmishes, we live with a war mentality and have done so for as long as we remember ourselves. When I came to Israel, the occupation of Palestine was five years old. The occupation is now pushing 50. Can it be that a 48 year old Israeli, during whose entire life has been an occupier, and that we will not pay a price?

We live, day in, day out, with war. It is all we know. Just as we retire from the reserves, our kids become soldiers. With grim resignation, we send our sons to police the territories, to arrest terrified 12 year olds in the middle of the night. The cruelty of war is the sea in which we swim. We don’t even notice it any more. 40 year old reservists, returning their weapons at the end of the avoidable summer war in Gaza, jokingly part from one another, “See you for the next round….” Hollow laughter, gallows laughter.

We have been subdued, our dreams destroyed. We delude ourselves that we are free, because at least the Palestinians have it worse. We have been broken, yet we don’t notice: “Tyrants in all spheres of life…have discovered that the most powerful way to break the will of another person is to coerce participation in the victimization of others….” writes Jonathan Shay, an American psychiatrist who treats Vietnam veterans. Shay continues: “The moral strength of an army is impaired by every injustice, whether it personally touches an individual soldier or not.” We, oppressing Palestinians daily, we live with the “betrayal of what’s right,” and deep inside we are not at ease, yet we harden ourselves to this reality, so that we won’t have to notice.

We have become a violent people. “The painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen,” says Shay. Rather than ignore that we are always either fighting, preparing to fight, or recovering from fighting, we must confront the post-traumatic features of the Israeli collective: A look at the World Health Organization’s Classification of Mental and Behavioral Disorders reveals personality features of traumatized people, features that have generalized throughout Israeli society: “A hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; social withdrawal; feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; a chronic feeling of being “on the edge,” as if constantly threatened; estrangement.” Can we resign ourselves to this?

Why do we not demand of our prime minister that he bring forth a vision, a plan for the Israel he hopes to continue leading? What is the mechanism that allows us to allow him to give us no hope? We have not taken care of the trauma that inundates our daily life. We bury the trauma as best we can, and order another cappuccino. “Unhealed combat trauma…destroys the unnoticed substructure of democracy, the cognitive and social capacities that enable a group of people to freely construct a cohesive narrative of their own future,” says Shay.

We obliterate hope partially by demonizing the adversary. The roots of this are as deep as the Bible. Here is the young David, appealing to Saul to allow him to fight Goliath: “Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them,” says David. Hear the scorn, the dehumanization of Goliath, as David prepares to do battle. Then hear the “Kahane-Lives” hoodlums in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, declaring the Palestinians to be animals.

We cannot rest, we cannot trust, the world is dangerous, treacherous. Unable to confront our own misdeeds, we project all evil onto the enemy, we are always on guard against whoever it is that wants to take advantage of me. “The moral dimension of severe trauma, the betrayal of ‘what’s right,’ obliterates the capacity for trust. The customary meanings of words are exchanged for new ones; fair offers from opponents are scrutinized for traps; every smile conceals a dagger.”

And yet, ironically, until we can acknowledge our adversary’s dignity, we cannot recover our own. Healing, acknowledgment of our travesties, acceptance of the other’s narrative, not as true but as valid….these acts are possible. Witness Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to indigenous peoples:

For the pain, suffering, and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry. We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

Is such generosity of spirit not possible here in Israel? Can we not acknowledge that the creation of our precious national home came at the cost of terrible suffering for the people who were here when we arrived?

What would have to happen for us to begin the process of healing ourselves and our adversaries? The robustness, feistiness, joyousness, and warmth of Israelis is still a significant part of who we are. How do we recover our humanity? While this will require effort from us all, perhaps one step toward breakthrough would be to vote ourselves a prime minister who might have the character to begin leading us back toward our better selves.

Yoav Peck

Quotes from: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Jonathan Shay MD, PhD.  Scribner, New York, 1994





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