From the perspective of a presumed Jewish identity, I once defended any and all Israeli behavior but I never defended the real Israel. What I defended were idealistic images of Israel I had projected onto the real Israel.
Heeding the call of manifest destiny, the doctrine that white Christians had a divine mission to spread “democracy” throughout North America, Americans slaughtered the indigenous people and laid waste to their culture. Convinced of the superiority of their race, they professed biblical justification for the enslavement of Africans. When slavery was outlawed they devised Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation.
Europeans defended their genocidal loathing of Jews with accusations of deicide, the murder of Christ.
Before they can carry out their atrocities, perpetrators must project enemy images onto their prospective victims. In so doing, they deny the humanity of the other and forfeit their own humanity. But how many of us, who have never pulled a trigger or wielded a sword, have cheered on or made excuses for the atrocious behavior of groups or movements we identify with? Whether through denial, indifference or moral collaboration, how many of us have helped to create a climate where such atrocities are even possible?
An American Jew, I defended my people’s capture of most of historic Palestine and the subsequent and ongoing illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Like most of my relatives and friends, when critics accused Israel of war crimes or crimes against humanity, I labeled them anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. How blind could they be not to see that the Palestinians wanted to throw us into the sea and keep the holy land for themselves?
As I reflect back, with appreciation that it had never dawned on me that I could learn something if I studied the history of Israel-Palestine, how could I have been so confident I was right and that the critics, many of whom were reputable Israeli historians, were wrong? Why was I so blind to the punishment we were levying against a people for the crime of not being Jewish when my people had been punished for the crime of being Jewish? Reframing this question in more general terms, why do so many normally decent people, who ordinarily believe in justice, condone indecency and injustice?
Over the years, I have heard people describe Israel-Palestine as a territorial, political, ideological, religious, or cultural dispute. When I’ve asked scholars and activists to define its root cause, invariably they reply, “anti-Semitism,” “the Holocaust,” “settler colonialism,” or variations of those answers. Skeptical, my standard response has been, Why? Why is there anti-Semitism? Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did Jewish settlers colonize Palestine?
Those questions can never be fully answered until we keep asking and eventually exhaust “Why?” And when we have finally exhausted “Why,” we discover that the root cause of the Israel-Palestine dispute, and of suffering in general, is the attachment to a presumed, limited and mortal identity and to the beliefs and images that emanate from and reinforce that presumption. This answer explains why “so many normally decent people, who ordinarily believe in justice, condone indecency and injustice.”
Their presumed, limited and mortal identities compel them to respond in such a predictable and irrational manner. Moreover, the issue of identity demonstrates that the Israel-Palestine dispute is primarily psychospiritual in nature. Only secondarily is it territorial, political, ideological, religious and cultural.
We see the world through the prism of identity. Centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, traumatized an entire people, convincing them they could never trust the other because the other was a mortal threat, while revealing that if we identify with the role of the persecuted, the scapegoat, or the victim, we will interpret the behavior of those we fear, such as anyone whom we have persecuted, scapegoated, or victimized, as intending to persecute, scapegoat, or victimize us.
We cherish and protect our identities with all our might. We believe in and are committed to our self-imagery. Rejecting as part of our imagery qualities we disapprove of, we project them onto the other. With regard to my past analysis of Palestinians, I never correctly identified myself as deluded and inhumane. I always thought of myself as fair-minded and humane, but I was neither. I’ve heard Donald Trump describe himself as the most compassionate person in the world and as the least racist. How many mothers and fathers, rather than examining their beliefs, have sent their children to war to kill or be killed? Fearing what they might uncover, how many refuse to research the history of Israel-Palestine?
From the perspective of a presumed Jewish identity, I once defended any and all Israeli behavior but I never defended the real Israel. What I defended were idealistic images of Israel I had projected onto the real Israel. Those projections enabled me to deny painful observations about myself and the real Israel that I would have noticed if only I’d looked without the influence of an unexamined mind. When someone criticized Israel, I heard them criticizing me, and I refused to consider information that could tarnish my image of Israel as fair and humane.
My presumed identity goaded me into joining the chorus of fear-mongers who rationalize Israel’s actions as necessary for security and who interpret a people’s resistance to their own destruction as an existential threat to the Jewish state. It was why I judged Palestinian violence as a pathological expression of hatred, not the tormented cry 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 midst of generations of violence inflicted upon them.
Who, then, is the real enemy? The real enemy is the unexamined mind that unconsciously projects its suffering onto the other and then blames and scapegoats the other for its suffering.
The unexamined mind is a menace to humanity. If we want to preserve our planet and the lives of billions, we must find the courage to examine our minds, challenge our presumed identities, and unearth and bring to light our common humanity and common identity with all people.