The ‘Siege Mentality’ of Discussing Israel

I started out by saying that I was worried about us, the whole community of us, American Jews. As Jews, inheriting a Talmudic tradition of debate and commentary, we have been a people given to disputation. We have been considered … Read More

By / September 15, 2009

I started out by saying that I was worried about us, the whole community of us, American Jews. As Jews, inheriting a Talmudic tradition of debate and commentary, we have been a people given to disputation. We have been considered a stiff-necked, stubborn people precisely because we don’t easily yield our opinions to authority and because our authorities have not felt the need to require of a Jew a rigorous structure of necessary beliefs. You can be a Jew if you believe in God or not, if you are kosher or not, if you are observant or not, if you read or have read the Bible, whether or not you observe the Sabbath and welcome the Shekinah and the extra soul she is said to bring us for the Sabbath. You could even be totally ignorant of any of this and still be a Jew.

So, how does it happen, I ask, with a tradition like this, that we have become a people who can’t tolerate a difference of opinion when it comes to Israel? I’m serious when I say we cannot tolerate it. There are at present thirty-three distinct Jewish organizations formed into a coalition to watch what is said about Israel on college campuses. Yes, yes, I’m perfectly serious. The majority of them are off-campus organizations so concerned about attitudes towards Israel that they have determined to generate on campus a "pro-active, pro-Israel agenda." This does not sound very Jewish to me. It also does not sound much like higher education and that is what worries me. I want to understand why we Jews have begun to behave as if the holding or speaking of an opinion was, in itself, a threat to the survival of Israel.

In a recent article by David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi, I read the following (Tikkun, September/ October, 2009): "We have become increasingly concerned at the ways in which scholarly critics of Israeli policy have been cavalierly and maliciously misrepresented, mostly through ad hominem attacks on their characters, reputations, and careers."

Here is their recent example: The written reports of a panel, "Human Rights and Gaza," hosted at UCLA in January of 2009 have been for the most part misleading. The papers presented by the four speakers were received in an atmosphere of general tolerance, although on one occasion, briefly, they were "interrupted by pro-Israeli jeers." I have checked this account by listening to the podcast of the proceedings. It was a peaceful and civil public event. The reports, however, give a very different impression. It has been compared to a "beer hall political rally," the panelists have been characterized as an "anti-semitic lynch mob." They have been accused of leading a frenzied audience in chants of "F–k Israel" and "Zionism is Nazism." None of this, I repeat, absolutely none of this is accurate, there was no frenzied audience and there were no chants. One of the participants was Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Can one really imagine this man as part of an anti-semitic lynch mob?

I encourage anyone interested in this issue to do what I have done and check it out online. Or you can trust me that the occasion was as I have represented it – civil, respectable, entirely appropriate for an academic setting, not the way it has been represented by Roberta Said, education director of Stand With Us, in an article entitled "Reviving 1920’s Munich Beer Halls at UCLA, Courtesy of California Taxpayers." Subsequently, articles in the Wall Street Journal (February 3, 2009), the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles (February 18, 2009) and in The Los Angeles Times use her characterization of the panel and its speakers without bothering to check facts. Could it be that the writers of these articles actually believe what they are saying? That they are so alarmed by a criticism of Israel that they experience it as a deadly attack and then unwittingly invent the mood, the atmosphere and the comments that would justify this assertion?

I have come to think about this as a "siege mentality," a state of mind in which one believes oneself and one’s people to be perpetually under attack, living at an edge where drastic measures are needed for survival. I sense in it a raw, underlying fear of immanent destruction, as if the people who see the world in this way imagine that we Jews are still living through the Holocaust. Munich beer halls, vicious anti-semitic slogans, the fascist-style chanting, all taking place on a University campus in California in 2009? I sense here a serious confusion between past and present and also between acts and thoughts, so that a verbal critique is experienced as a physical attack and then comes to be perceived as a violent action – an escalating confusion between what is said and what takes place in the world.

How unfortunate this is, how tragic that members of our community are so traumatized by the past that they cannot easily join others of us in the present. We are not outcasts and victims any longer; we are a powerful people, we have accomplished a miracle of nationhood. What are these fears and worries that seem to express love and concern and support for Israel? Are they not (although not intended to be) an undeserved insult to the Jewish accomplishment? I see these fears as a heartbreaking failure to recognize what we have in fact achieved. In the world as it is now we have an indisputable fact, which these worriers cannot see: the Jewish people has become powerful.

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