Antisemitism and the War on Gaza: Trauma and Ideology

EDITORIAL, 27 Nov 2023

#824 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

An old friend and former colleague of mine in Chicago recently posted a painfully conflicted note on Facebook that reflects the views of a great many otherwise progressive American Jews. Discussing the Israeli Defense Force’s then-imminent attack on the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, he wrote:

“What’s the right thing for Israel to do? If they can dismantle the Hamas apparatus in and/or under the hospital perhaps they can do so with a minimum of carnage to the innocent. How to fight barbaric terrorists who fight among innocent humans is a terrible dilemma. However, I and my family and many friends are Jewish. I believe that despite the dreadful Netanyahu and his even more dreadful cohort, Israel is fighting for all Jews everywhere. And I am afraid for all of us.”

There is a lot to be said about this statement. Two weeks after the attack, it is still unclear what the alleged “Hamas apparatus” beneath the hospital consisted of. The idea of “minimizing carnage” of the innocent has already proved to be a pipe dream; the massacre has taken more than 13,000 Palestinian lives, some 5,000 of whom were children. “Barbaric terrorists” seems a fair enough description of the Hamas fighters who butchered civilians; calling the murder of Israeli children “resistance” is no more justifiable than calling the murder of Palestinian children “justice.” Hamas forces do shelter among the civilians of Gaza – but one wonders what they are supposed to do instead. Armed rebels throughout history have seldom committed mass suicide by exposing themselves to destruction by occupying regimes. And those regimes (like the French in Algeria) almost always accuse them of using “civilian shields.”

All this said, however, the heart of my friend’s statement are his concluding punch lines: “Israel is fighting for all Jews everywhere. And I am afraid for all of us.”

Why does he say this, when he also understands that the war in Gaza pits an ultra-nationalist Israeli regime dedicated to the permanent suppression, if not outright expulsion, of resident Palestinians, against an ultra-violent movement of Palestinian rebels? What does this ghastly local conflict have to do with “all Jews everywhere?” And why would my friend, ordinarily a liberal egalitarian, believe that it Jewish lives are more worthy to be protected and saved than the lives of other peoples?

To answer these questions, we will want to look more closely at two questions: the role of historical trauma in shaping group consciousness and the question of the Jewish State.

Antisemitism and Chosen Traumas

Because of its savagery and especially because of its wide range and number of civilian victims, the Hamas attack of October 7, 2023, is seen by many Israelis and other Jews as the possible start of a new Holocaust – an attempt to exterminate Jews en masse because they are Jews. Considering the Jewish experience, particularly in the twentieth century, this perception is entirely understandable. At the same time, it is dangerously out of touch with present realities.

Psychologists like Dr. Vamik Volkan of the University of Virginia explain that when ethnic or religious groups feel they are under attack, not only does their sense of group identity become more intense and “total,” but present violence against them can awaken excruciating memories of past disasters involving extreme violence. Volkan calls these disasters “chosen traumas” to indicate that they have become an integral part of the story, handed down from generation to generation, that constitutes the group’s cultural and political identity.  Following Freud, he argues that these reawakened memories make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for members of formerly victimized groups to distinguish between past and present threats. Those once threatened with extermination and reminded of this horror by current events effectively live in the past. Even if the past and present threats are not comparable, the victims of trauma tend to equate the new enemy with the old, believing that if they are to survive as a people, they must obliterate the threatening force.  (For examples drawn from many cultures, see Volkan’s book, Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism, Basic Books, 1998).

Many Jews around the world view Israel’s war against Hamas as a replay of World War II and the struggle against the Nazis. Some 300,000 people demonstrated recently in Washington, D.C. to give voice to this fear. Any type of antisemitism can be dangerous to Jews, of course, as the horrific attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh showed in 2018. But the identification of current assaults on Jews with the Nazis’ “final solution” occludes the fact that Jew-hatred in modern politics is not comparable with the antisemitism that produced the Holocaust.

In older days the Jewish people, mainly concentrated in Russia, Eastern Europe, and later in the United States, were a highly vulnerable group subjected to a wide range of legal, social, and political disabilities. Although a small number were successful in business or in cultural pursuits, most Jews were poor or near-poor workers and shopkeepers. Long considered pariahs in Christian Europe, they were often distrusted and brutalized by their neighbors and used as scapegoats by rulers anxious to divert attention from their own regimes’ failings.

Antisemitic narratives in this environment constituted a direct threat to Jews and a danger to their collective survival.  In medieval times, they were massacred by Crusaders as “Christ-killers” and set upon by peasant mobs persuaded that they used black magic to cause plagues and famines. During the upheavals of the industrial revolution, antisemites accused them of controlling the banks and plotting economic crises, and, simultaneously, of controlling the labor movement and plotting working-class revolutions. And less than a century ago, Adolf Hitler and his minions combined a famous antisemitic forgery (“the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”) with pseudo-scientific race theory to convince Germans and other Europeans that Jews were conspiring to dominate the world politically and corrupt it biologically.

The genocidal consequences of these evil fantasies are well known – and the Holocaust, for many Jews, is a live memory, not “ancient history.” I learned about Nazi antisemitism as a boy when my father, convinced that a campaign to exterminate European Jewry was under way, joined the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and tried to awaken other Americans to the truth about Hitler’s death camps. Later, to provide a haven for the survivors, he helped launch the transport ship known as the Exodus from Baltimore and ran guns to the Haganah, the fledgling Israeli army. He and my mother also worked as activists to end American antisemitism, which from the 1920s until the 1950s involved multiple forms of discrimination against Jews. Later in life I heard eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust from my mother and father-in-law, two survivors of the Auschwitz death camp who first met each other after the war in Chicago.

Antisemitism seemed a real threat to all of us. But these events took place in the shadow of World War II, when Hitler almost succeeded in solving his “Jewish Problem.”  Over the past 80 years, by contrast, it has become clear that, despite pockets of poverty, on a global scale the Jewish people now rank among the world’s most privileged groups. In terms of wealth and income levels, education, marketable skills, cultural achievements, social acceptance, and political influence they rank high on any comparative listing of ethnic and religious groups. This is particularly clear in the U.S., where AIPAC, the chief pro-Israel lobbying group, has been a very powerful influence on American foreign policy.

As soon as one talks about Jewish influence, of course, some critics will cry “antisemitism!” It is perfectly true that there are “antisemitic tropes” that falsely credit Jews with power that they do not possess, such as control of the banking system and the news media. But it is not antisemitic to recognize the power of organizations like AIPAC, or to note that the Jewish community in the U.S., which traditionally solidarized with poor and working-class groups at home and abroad, has developed an influential conservative wing that now makes common cause with billionaires and advocates an imperialist foreign policy.

At present, in my view, the most serious threat to the Jewish community is not that posed by Palestinian rebels, militant Islamists, or local antisemites. The far more potent danger is that a privileged position used to dominate less fortunate and powerful groups will over the long run generate mass hatred of Jews, along with other elite formations. Progressives in the U.S. Congress such as Barbara Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Ilhan Omar, and others understand this well, but because they are not sufficiently pro-Israel for the conservatives, they are called antisemites and opposed in primaries by AIPAC-funded rivals.

Political Post-Traumatic Stress: Costs and Cures

The antidote to living in the shadow of past trauma is a healthy dose of present social reality.  Living in the present, it is possible to recognize the dangers of elitism and the need to affirm one’s human kinship with less favored groups. “Victim consciousness,” by contrast, perpetuates a purely ethnic or “tribal” consciousness. What else but ethnic tribalism could justify the position that it is perfectly acceptable to kill 13,000 or more Palestinians in order to destroy the organization responsible for 1,200 Israeli deaths? The unspoken justifications for this position, which would otherwise seem grossly disproportionate and immoral on its face, are, first, that the enemy aims to annihilate us completely and has a chance to do so, and second, that “our” people are worth more than other people.

The first justification, we have seen, is understandable but false. The second – the supreme worth of our people, compared with others – is the unspoken major premise that supports the rest of the argument for killing alien civilians and soldiers. The German troops occupying Western Europe in the early 1940s had something like this in mind when they declared that they would kill 10 civilian hostages for every German gunned down by the Resistance. When in 2011 the Israeli regime released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of one IDF hostage, many considered this a noble gesture. But decoding the action reveals a hidden ratio – one of us is worth a thousand of them. In calculating the extent of permissible “collateral damage” in a struggle like the war in Gaza, this sort of equation represents a fatal plunge into the most murderous type of ethno-nationalism.

Of course, the Holocaust is not the only trauma operative in the context of the Gaza war. The Palestinians have their own “chosen trauma,” the Nakba or Catastrophe, which refers to the process by which some 700,000 of their people lost their homes and lands during and after the Israel-Arab War of 1948, with more than 200,000 forced to live in other nations.  Like the Jews who perceive the Hamas assault of October 7 as a potential restart of the Holocaust, many Palestinians (including the residents of Gaza, almost all of whose families fled or were driven out of pre-1948 Palestine) see the massive Israeli attack on Gaza as the start of a new Nakba.  The similarities in the traumatized parties’ thinking and emotions are striking; while Israelis were re-traumatized by Hamas’s personal violence and statements of enmity toward Jews, Palestinians were terrorized anew by the IDF’s unprecedented bombings and by statements by Israeli officials describing the Gaza residents as “animals” and favoring their mass expulsion.

How, then, faced with such serious provocations, does one learn from a trauma, keep its memory fresh, and yet learn to live in the actual present?  In Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts (Pitchstone Press, 2006), Vamik Volkan describes a form of therapeutic dialogue between group representatives that he found useful in nations plagued by serious ethnic struggles.  Other forms of trauma healing have also been attempted, sometimes with promising results. But there seems to be no substitute for a campaign of mass education waged by political movement dedicated to making clear the nature and extent of the destruction propagated by oppressive elite groups and the possibility of constructing a more just and peaceful system.

Zionism and Antisemitism

There are forms of antisemitism that are perfectly obvious either because they rest on well- known falsifications, malicious exaggerations, or the attribution of evil intentions to Jews.  Far more problematic is the charge that criticism of the State of Israel or its behavior that allegedly goes too far is antisemitic, since it masks hostility towards Jews or denies them the same rights that are universally recognized when claimed by other groups.  Simply to criticize Israel is OK; very few people would consider criticism of Israeli policies concerning settlements in the West Bank an expression of antisemitism, since international law does not recognize a right of those occupying conquered territory to settle or annex it, and most international organizations consider Palestinians a people who have national rights, including rights of some sort to the lands conquered by Israel in 1967.

Things get more complicated, however, when pro-Palestinian advocates (including groups like Jewish Voice for Peace) declare that the “Jewish State,” at least as defined and operated by successive Israeli governments, is illegitimate and needs to be replaced by a more pluralistic and democratic form of governance. Many anti-Zionists argue that, while the Jewish community has a right to a secure existence in the Middle East, the form of state in which it exists must recognize the injustice of the Nakba, the right of Palestinians (or at least some of them) to return to the land taken from them (or at least some of it), the right of Palestinians to have a capital in East Jerusalem, and the equal rights and status of Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews.

“Jewish State” could, of course, mean many things; the Church of England is the established church in pluralistic, democratic Great Britain, which could choose, if its people wished, to call itself an Anglican State. But what might be called the orthodox view of the Jewish State was recently expressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who stated that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

Presumably, this means that questions regarding crucial issues involving religion and civil life, such as the right of return, the law applicable to marriage, divorce, and matters of civil status, and the exemption of religious scholars from military duty, must be decided by Jews, not Muslims or others.  It also means that the security interests of the Jewish community take precedence over those of non-Jews, so that if Jews feel that they are threatened, they have a right (if not a duty) to establish checkpoints, build walls, outlaw weapons in the hands of non-Jews, and so forth.  An apparent implication of this principle is that the Jewish State must have a permanent Jewish electoral majority, thus making illegitimate any sort of “one-state” solution that threatens to produce a non-Jewish majority. (Even a two-state solution that denies the alleged right to sovereignty over the West Bank (“Judea” and “Samaria”) could in some scenarios be determined to be illegitimate.)

With these issues in mind, anti-Zionists argue that a Jewish State, as currently conceived, is not analogous to a French or Polish state, but is something closer to Iran’s Islamic Republic, which is a theocracy, and therefore an illegitimate form of governance in the post-Enlightenment world.

In any case, just as it is not “anti-Shia” to call for the replacement of the Iranian regime by something more pluralistic and democratic, it should not be considered antisemitic to level the same sort of criticism against the Jewish State. Furthermore, it is fallacious to affirm that each people on earth have a right to a country in which their own ethnic or religious interests are institutionalized and considered supreme. Hundreds of peoples in the modern world have no such country, and many of these groups do not want one.

On a deeper level than these legal and political arguments, however, is the perceived crisis of security that drives the members of certain groups such as religious Zionists to demand a state that they believe will protect them against the members of hostile groups and peoples. This was, after all, the original motivation that gave birth to the Jewish State, and a defense of that State by arguments accusing its opponents of antisemitism identifies these new adversaries with the older enemies that produced the original crisis of security.  This returns us to the first theme of this editorial – the idea that very serious traumas which threaten a group’s survival are re-lived when new threats are experienced, even if the new threats are not comparable to the older ones.

Those who defend the current Israeli government’s massive retaliation against the residents of Gaza often declare that critics of the war are “pro-Hamas” – a canard that, by washing away the distinction between Zionism and Judaism also obliterates the distinction between critics of the Jewish State and anti-Israel terrorists. Ironically, some leaders of Hamas (not all of them) have been more discriminating than this.  In 2006, Ismail Hanieh declared, “Hamas is not hostile to Jews because they are Jews. We are hostile to them because they occupied our land and expelled our people.”

Clearly, the Hamas murderers of October 7 did not distinguish between Zionists and Jews. But the self-declared apostles of the Jewish State do their constituents no favors by confirming this equation. U.S. polls confirm that support for the Jewish State among is declining rapidly, particularly among younger Americans.

Charges that the loss of support for continued Israeli violence against Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank indicate a rise in antisemitism seem based in part on a mass neurosis that involves reliving the trauma of the Holocaust, and in part on a religious-nationalist ideology embraced by the Zionist right wing but, under great political pressure, now accepted by many centrists and leftists as well.  At bottom, the drastic insecurity among Israeli Jews and many Jews in Europe and America awakened by the Hamas attack underpins this ideology.  By contrast, younger people who do not experience the same trans-generational insecurity tend to reject both the equation of Zionism with Judaism and the legitimacy of the Jewish country.

At this writing, a truce has been declared in Gaza to permit the release of hostages held by Hamas and female and young prisoners held by Israel. The Netanyahu regime has promised an early return to the violent retaliation against Gazans perpetrated, with U.S. support, by the Israeli Defense Forces.  It will not be considered antisemitic, I trust, to pray that the “pause” in hostilities becomes permanent and that all the hostages and all the prisoners will be returned alive to their home communities and their families.

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Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Nov 2023.

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