Anyone who follows the debate over Israel-Palestine knows how automatic and routine it is for one side to label those who disagree with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people as self-hating Jews, Israel haters or anti-Semites. Hoping to calm the hysteria and add much-needed clarity to the issue, and unwilling to be silenced by these accusations, I’ve decided to share a brief adaptation from the “The Self-Hating Jew” chapter of my book, Breakthrough: Transforming Fear Into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict. As an American Jew with Ultra-Orthodox relatives living in Israel, a former member of AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) and a reflexive defender of Israel for more than fifty years I believe I am as qualified as anyone to share my insights.
The Self-Hating Jew
by Richard Forer
In the past the label self-hating Jew, though rarely used, was associated with Jews who were ashamed of or who hid their religious and cultural heritage. But as the debate over Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people has intensified, self-hating Jew, like anti-Semite, has become a routinely brandished and emotionally charged retaliatory weapon. The idea that a three-word label can encapsulate the character of a person is problematic. A human being is far more than what a single phrase can say about him, and self-hating Jew is so divisive that it makes tolerance and cooperation impossible; and it eradicates the possibility for real understanding.
For some Jews, support for Israeli policy is unconditional, even if it conflicts with traditional Jewish values. For other Jews, these values are primary and ought to be associated with Israel’s compliance with international law. If the former would make an effort to discover why the latter campaign for Palestinian equality, they would learn that they are making a conscious choice not to remain silent when witnessing one group’s denial of basic human rights to another group. These Jews see their people, like the rest of mankind, as complex beings, capable of acts of inhumanity as well as acts of kindness. They are able to concede that at times Israel does violate the rights of others, that it has used torture and mistreated and killed innocent people, and that its leaders do not always tell the truth about these acts. They believe that the Israeli government has hijacked their heritage by replacing morality and brotherhood, once so valued in Judaism, with bigotry and exclusion. Nearly every Jewish critic I’ve met believes that by opposing policies that relegate Palestinians to lives of second-class citizenship, that they are rescuing the integrity of their religious tradition. They are, therefore, true friends of Israel.
A true friend will admonish his friend when he sees him acting irrationally toward his neighbor. These critics have no desire to harm the state of Israel. Their desire is to prevent the state of Israel from harming Palestinians. They advocate equal rights for all because they know that equal rights lead to peace.
This begs the question: What exactly is self-hating (or anti-Semitic) in such a position? Is honoring the humanistic values many Jews were taught at synagogue a betrayal of their Jewish roots? Is caring about another people synonymous with hatred? Is learning about a painful subject likewise symptomatic of hatred? Isn’t thirst for knowledge a hallmark of Judaism and isn’t it fundamental to solving problems? If criticism of deliberate violations of international law expresses hatred, what does turning one’s back on the suffering of millions express? If calling on Israel to end its human rights abuses expresses hatred, are we to forsake a people who cry out against the destruction of their own homes or the traumatizing of their own children?
So where is the hatred? The hatred is conceived in the minds of those who are afraid to ask why someone is critical of Israel. Rather than conducting honest research to refute or confirm the criticism, the accuser victimizes himself with self-generated feelings of fear, confusion and anger, all of which are animated by unexamined beliefs and images within his own mind. This mind colors his perception so that he sees the world in terms of personal victimhood versus the world’s hostility.
Because he is unconscious of the effect his feelings have on his perception, the accuser can only project his perception onto the world and then presume that the world he sees proves the reality of his perception. Creating his own suffering, he narcissistically scapegoats and blames the world (in this case Palestinians and their sympathizers) for his suffering. Triggered through denial, this inner thought process attributes to Palestinians and their sympathizers the accuser’s own hatred. In other words, the accuser makes the other responsible for, and the repository of, his unresolved pain. He objectifies the other and rejects his humanity. Then he supports inhumane policies, which he justifies under the guise of an existential danger to Israel. In so doing, he brings the world’s anger down upon Israel which reinforces and perpetuates the cycle of perceived victimhood. This entire process is a defense mechanism that stems from the fear of inquiring into one’s presumed identity through the questioning of one’s beliefs and images.
Labeling as hateful or anti-Semitic honest criticism of Israeli oppression is no different than labeling as anti-American honest criticism of America’s history of oppression toward people of color. And holding Israel to normative standards of conduct does not delegitimize anyone. What delegitimizes Israel are the behavior and attitudes that humiliate an indigenous people.
I have not met one defender of Israeli policy who has impartially studied the actual history. If they had the decency to do so, most would discover that they have character assassinated the Palestinians and facilitated their misfortune. The real conflict for these defenders is not Israel versus a hostile world or Israel versus the Palestinians. The real conflict – and the basis for claims of self-hatred and anti-Semitism – is the failure to integrate the hard-to-believe but inescapable awareness of Israel’s treatment of non-Jews with unquestioned loyalty to the Jewish state. One consideration acknowledges Israel’s dark side. The other denies the dark side exists. If these defenders want to distinguish the source of conflict and find peace they need to inquire within. But there are no excuses! Under certain conditions, willful blindness is a crime against humanity.
Only by committing myself to the truth was I able to apprehend that, in reality, criticism of Israel was never a serious concern. Incredibly, I had never defended Israel, at least the Israel that actually exists. I had always defended an idealistic image of Israel that was projected or superimposed upon the Israel that actually exists. This projection enabled me to repress or deny painful revelations that I would have learned about Israel and about myself if only I had looked without the errant influence of an unexamined mind. Denial and projection go hand in hand. What I denied about Israel and about myself, I projected onto the other who automatically and necessarily became my enemy.
The perspective formed from my projections revealed more about how I wished to see my people than how they really are when looked at in an honest light. My attachment to certain beliefs and images was a defense designed to preserve a childlike faith in Israel as guardian of freedom and humanity. Somehow, I had to reconcile my treasured images with the reality that conflicted with them. However, rather than making use of the tension between these forces as a gateway to transformation, I spurned reality and adhered to the safety of indoctrination. When friends I normally trusted pointed to Israeli deeds that seemed out of character, I reacted by ignoring or rationalizing the suffering of Palestinians.
Equating Palestinian freedom with Palestinian terrorism, I worried that if Israel relinquished strict control over its subjects, the lives of its citizens would be imperiled. Fearing annihilation, I unconsciously superimposed Nazi images onto the Palestinian people, and then refused to believe that the Jewish state could act indefensibly toward them. Fear prevented me from empathizing with the pain of Palestinians and it blinded me to the likelihood that a country I had invested so much faith in could administer such brutal policies.
I indoctrinated myself into the idea that some Jews were willfully ignorant of the evil intentions of the Palestinians, and that their willfulness demonstrated support for that which my unexamined mind feared most: the annihilation of the Jewish state.
Truthfully, my reaction to criticism was motivated more by the fear of taking on the challenge that the criticism posed to my identity than by genuine disagreement or fear for Israel’s existence. For a split second, though, before denial and repression set in, this challenge reflected the prejudice that induced me to deny the humanity of the other. And in order to avoid encountering my own lack of humanity, I ignored documented evidence, thereby consenting to the subjugation of millions. I judged Palestinian violence as a pathological expression of hatred, not the response of an oppressed people, a small minority of whom resort to violence as the only way they know to retain a measure of self-respect in the face of generations of violence inflicted upon them. By turning my back on the suffering of others, I had sacrificed the very values Israel once personified.
How is it that a person can be devoted to the well being of one group and hostile to the well being of another? Is it true that there is an inherent difference between two peoples that justifies devotion to one and hostility towards the other? Are such feelings real or has something been added that distorts feeling? In my view, the determining factor is the labels that are applied to a people and the beliefs and images associated with the labels. These labels are the mind’s attempt to resolve fear and gain security, but they occlude the very mechanism that can achieve these aims.
The ability to look and to feel is what achieves security. This ability is inherent and it functions perfectly when there is no recoil from the circumstances of existence. In simple practical situations it makes itself known. Everyone has experienced it. There is a moment when you just know there is danger, when you know that a person is not to be trusted. Then you act accordingly. You do not need one iota of belief about the situation. You have no preconceptions and you are not recoiled from the situation. You are simply being present. Then there is the real feeling that something is amiss.
What I am talking about is natural intelligence as the means for practical security. If we look and feel, then certain things become clear. But we have to renounce labels, we have to renounce the philosophy of us against them, and we have to end our recoil from the human reality of the conflict. There is nothing to fear; we needn’t wait. Do we wait until we discover the nationality, race or origin of a person before we feel concern or neglect for him or her? If so, then there is no real feeling at all. Our concern and our neglect are false. Both are manifestations of fear and confusion. Our automatic identification with one side of a conflict is selfish, founded upon an attachment that keeps us so inextricably bound that we have lost our connection to humanity. We may tell ourselves we support an end to conflict, but as bearers of inner conflict we constantly subvert our goals.
Beyond the mind lies a vast expanse of freedom, unqualified by our presumed mortality as a separate person. In this space of freedom true feeling arises; it flows from the heart. In the field of human relations its expression is compassion. Compassion is the expression of peace and the means of peace. When we know it then we also know that peace for the world is achievable.
I never used the term self-hating Jew. I am thankful I didn’t. I believe the label is a powerful barrier to understanding. The key to understanding is dispassionate intelligence. Fear and anger permeated every argument I made in defense of Israel. Invariably I moved from the quandary of fear to the apparent certainty of anger. But I never crossed over into hate. There is a special feeling that accompanies the words self-hating Jew. The key is in “hate.” Characterizing someone in any way with this word introduces viciousness to the mind. This viciousness makes the mind utterly dualistic – and utterly obtuse. The subtle awareness that my ingrained perspective was perhaps incorrect would have been extinguished if I had described Israel’s Jewish critics as self-hating. As it was, because I did not become involved in hate, I remained open to a dispassionate investigation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The notion that any Jew who dedicates him or herself to justice for all people and who protests the unfair treatment of the downtrodden harbors self-hatred defies common sense. Given the self-esteem it takes to stand for justice amidst fierce denunciation, a more accurate assessment is that they are self-loving Jews.