The Pathology of State Victimhood
Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America, is an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and currently president of the US Middle East Project; he has authored numerous articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see, for example, his noted 2007 critique of peace negotiations under President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, The Great Middle East Peace Process Scam). In the following essay, he responds to Ha’aretz columnist Bradley Burston’s recent charges that Siegman’s views make him an Israel-hater.
Siegman’s offense, in Burston’s view, was to have claimed recently in the New York Times that Israelis dislike President Barack Obama because they fear that he “is serious about ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.” More fundamentally, Siegman asserted in the Times article, Israelis’ refusal to support ending the occupation and removing illegal settlements demonstrates that they are unable “to adjust to the Jewish people’s reentry into history with a state of their own following 2,000 years of powerlessness and victimhood.” In light of such commentary, Burston claims that Siegman inexcusably must believe that there is something “fundamentally defective” about the Israeli people themselves.
In his response published in Ha’aretz, Siegman counters that Ha’aretz’s Burston himself has repeatedly made similar points about Israel’s dysfunctional approach to negotiations: Israelis are resorting to their “aging instincts” in defining the conflict with the Palestinians in terms of the Holocaust, Burston has argued in the past, and Israeli politicians are willing to portray any compromise as a potentially mortal sacrifice, thereby negating the need to ease the suffering of others. Siegman says this sense of victimhood is called “galut [diaspora] mentality” in Israel; I say it should really be called “bunker mentality,” to indicate the hypermilitarized doctrine that has arisen in tandem with the messianic territorial claims of the Greater Israel ideology.
Most crucially, Siegman reiterates the extent to which Israeli negotiations have relied on public declarations of sincerity accompanied by duplicitous state-supported expansion of settlements. Regarding Gaza, Siegman excoriates Jewish and Israeli leaders for having disputed the veracity of the Goldstone fact-finding report, even though the deteriorating conditions Israel imposed on Gaza during the preceding ceasefire renders hollow its excuse to have launched the assault defensively. This, too, Burston himself earlier had affirmed, against the spin emanating from the Israeli government and media, in reporting the accusations of Israeli Brigadier-General Shmuel Zakai. Zakai, who commanded the IDF’s Gaza division, minced no words: Israel had stoked Palestinian outrage during the period of truce. As Zakai put it clearly, “You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.”
The current Israeli government has refused to consider anything like a viable state for Palestinians, and has rejected even the minimal compromises previous governments had considered, while settlement construction continues at a torrid pace. This is evidence that Israel is not committed to a realistic peace settlement, despite its soothing public pronouncements. “If Israeli policy had truly aimed at a two-state solution, it could and would have happened long ago. Nothing would have more encouraged Palestinian efforts to overcome their many shortcomings, or to oppose their rejectionist groups, than a credible Israeli commitment to such a state.” In this context, “blaming Palestinians for their misery,” as Burston recommends, “is nothing more than a pretext for the continuation of a colonialist enterprise.”
Siegman, who is known internationally as one of the most well-informed commentators on the Middle East, has not “gone off the rails,” as Burston claims. He has spoken honestly at a time when, as Judge Richard Goldstone also knows, truthfulness and objectivity are not politically desirable qualities.
Response / Henry Siegman on Burston and ‘Israel’s pathology’
The following is a response by Henry Siegman to Bradley Burston’s column Why do Israelis dislike Barack Obama?
Bradley Burston is offended by my characterization of Israel’s inability to let go of the occupied territories as a pathology, a characterization he says can only be made by someone who hates Israelis.
Perhaps to soften the blow, Burston also wrote (rather bizarrely, I thought) in his column of November 3, 2009 that “No one, not even the Palestinians, hates Israelis the way Israelis do.” However, in the version of his article that appeared the following day, the sentence was omitted.
The pathology I described is invoked most frequently by Israelis themselves. The term for it in Israel is a “galut [diaspora] mentality,” the tendency of diaspora Jewry to see itself as friendless, isolated, and always at the edge of a looming pogrom.
No one has described this pathology better than – guess who? – Bradley Burston, in an earlier column (October 20, 2009) in which he criticized an “Israeli approach which borrows from the very worst of our aging instincts. It says: We’re moral, our enemies are out to exterminate us along with our state, that’s all you need to know. No modifications necessary. Stay the course. Concede nothing. Ease no siege. Give no ground. Ever.”
If that is not a perfect description of a pathological mindset, it will do until a better one comes along.
Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination by a Jewish right-wing extremist is being remembered this week in Israel, did not take much of a different view of this mindset. On the occasion of his inauguration as prime minister in 1992, Rabin told Israelis in his Knesset inauguration address that Israelis are militarily powerful, and neither friendless nor at risk. He urged that they stop thinking and acting like victims.
In my op-ed, I compared Rabin’s self-confident, proud and open-to- the- world attitude to that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hammers away at the message that the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust — a fear he invoked repeatedly during his address in September at the United Nations General Assembly in order to discredit Judge Richard Goldstone’s Gaza fact-finding report.
Burston writes that I consider Israelis “venal, deceitful, the source of the conflict and the obstruction to its solution.”
I challenge Burston to cite a single instance of my having touched on the subject of the “venality” of Israel’s leaders (i.e. that they can be bought with money) in any of the hundreds of columns I have written over the past forty years, although it is a subject that Israeli columnists have had a field day with. I have avoided it entirely, because my concern has been the damage that Israel’s occupation policies and its denial of the human rights and national rights of the Palestinian people are doing to Israel’s ability to survive as a Jewish and democratic state.
It is not true, as Burston claims, that I said Israelis lie when they tell pollsters they favor peace. I said that when the peace they favor is for all practical purposes defined as requiring Palestinians to accept the status quo, that is not a choice of peace over territory.
Yes, I have repeatedly written about the deceitfulness of proclamations by Israeli governments about their commitment to a two-state solution. The relentless pursuit by these governments of the settlement enterprise can only be understood as a commitment to prevent such an outcome. For years, successive Israeli governments have solemnly promised, again and again, to remove all “illegal” outposts and settlements (which, even if they had done it, would hardly have made a dent in the settlement enterprise). They have staged the dismantlement of one or two outposts for show, and these were immediately reoccupied.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon claimed that he removed the settlements in Gaza as a prelude to further withdrawals from the West Bank and a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But the man who negotiated the deal for President Bush’s letter of April 2004 to Sharon on the subject of settlements, Dov Weisglass, told Ari Shavit of Haaretz that Sharon’s real purpose was to “effectively remove this whole package that is called the Palestinian state from our agenda indefinitely.”
To impress President Bush, Sharon made a big show of appointing Talia Sasson to investigate alleged rogue ministerial involvement in the financing and promotion of illegal settlements, knowing that this illegal activity was ordered and orchestrated by himself. As acknowledged publicly by various of his ministers, instructions for this illegal activity came directly from the Prime Minister’s office.
And it was none other than Bradley Burston who courageously reported in one of his columns that Brigadier-General Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the IDF’s Gaza division, accused Israel’s government of having failed “to take advantage of the calm [during a six-month truce agreed to by Hamas and Israel] to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip …” Zakai added, “When you create tahdiyeh and the economic pressure on the Strip continues, it is obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire … You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.”
That is not quite the story told by Israel’s government, or by Israel’s media, of why the IDF had to scorch Gaza, is it?
I do not for a moment believe that Palestinians are faultless, and have repeatedly said so in my writings. But there is little that Palestinians could do – even if they were faultless – to compel overwhelmingly powerful and politically well-connected Israeli governments to accede to a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, as called for by the Road Map, with territorial changes made only by mutual consent. However, if Israeli policy had truly aimed at a two-state solution, it could and would have happened long ago. Nothing would have more encouraged Palestinian efforts to overcome their many shortcomings, or to oppose their rejectionist groups, than a credible Israeli commitment to such a state.
To blame Palestinians, rather than their occupiers, for their responsibility for remaining under a forty-year, oppressive military occupation when Netanyahu’s government refuses to consider anything resembling a viable or sovereign Palestinian state, insists on retaining far more Palestinian land than was demanded by previous Israeli governments, rejects the idea of equal land exchanges, and has taken Jerusalem entirely off the table, is to add insult to injury.
If and when Palestinians achieve a state, which they deserve no less than do the Jewish people, it will be time enough to hold them accountable for their shortcomings. Until then, blaming Palestinians for their misery is nothing more than a pretext for the continuation of a colonialist enterprise that every other democracy in the world has relegated to a shameful past.
Henry Siegman is president of the U.S./Middle East Project, and a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress.