By Yoav Litvin, Ph.D.
I am an Israeli-American. I was raised in a middle-class academic ‘Liberal Zionist’ household (aligned with the Israeli Labor Party and Meretz), which is an inherent contradiction. Liberal Zionism maintains a belief in universal human rights yet it supports a Zionist ideology that endorses and promotes Israel as a Jewish state – one that has been systematically carrying out a project of apartheid and ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinian people.
Since I can remember, my birth town of Jerusalem has been highly segregated. Growing up, I never interacted with Palestinians other than Abed the soft-spoken gardener from Hebron (aka El Halil), Rada the lady who cleaned our home on occasion (and would delight me with a bottle of delicious home-made olive oil from her groves in Beit Jala) and the delivery boy from East Jerusalem who was my age and worked at the local grocery store.
The Zionist narrative was deeply entrenched within me from an early age. I was convinced Israel is the David eternally pitted against the Arabs, who were the Goliaths out to get me and my fellow Jewish tribesmen and women. In school I learned about the succession of Jewish traumas and the various Israeli wars, which were always framed as romantic, just and heroic yet defensive and unavoidable. At home I heard about the horrific abuses members of my family went through and their incredible journeys to the shores of Palestine. Alternative narratives of settler-colonialism and occupation were completely absent and even the word “Palestinian” was considered radically political and controversial.
At the age of 18, I enlisted into the standard three-year military service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as a medic in the paratroopers. During my service I was stationed in multiple “hot zones”, predominantly South Lebanon (which was occupied by Israel at the time) and Hebron (aka El Halil in Arabic) in the West Bank. I manned checkpoints and participated in raids, ambushes and other military operations and exercises. During this time, I was also exposed to the fundamentalism, violence and racism of the Israeli settlers against native Palestinians.
I believed I held high moral ground and could serve as a positive influence within the military. But the Israeli state’s trinity of nationalism, religion and capitalism had managed to thoroughly indoctrinate me with propaganda (aka “Hasbara”) that dehumanized the Palestinian ‘other’ and was meant to alleviate any moral dilemmas I encountered while carrying out policies of oppression.
Following the army, the intensity and barrage of stressful and traumatic news that constitute the Israeli experience caused me to shut myself off from my environment. As a result, and similar to many Israelis my age, I willfully disengaged from any political involvement. The occupation was just too “complicated” and I opted to focus solely on my personal development.
Fear and Propaganda – an Evolutionary Perspective
I went on to study biological psychology in the United States specializing in the behavioral neuroscience of fear, stress, social behaviors, aggression and trauma. My studies have afforded me the opportunity to investigate the neurobehavioral pathways involved in conflict and its resolution from the aspects of both aggressor and victim. I have found that studying the science of trauma and its healing can benefit our efforts to understand and find effective solutions to political conflict.
At some point during my studies, I was challenged on my Zionist beliefs. I realized I was spewing propaganda that I could not back with facts, as I was accustomed to with my scientific research. My ignorance and emotionality regarding Zionism, in addition to my newfound ability and curiosity to reengage with politics due to the geographical and mental distance from the once overwhelming Israeli propaganda machine, inspired me to conduct my own research into the history of Israel and Zionism, the occupation of Palestine and the subjugation of Palestinians. It has helped me come to terms with my own history as aggressor and as a purveyor of a narrative that is inconsistent with historical truth, has created gross injustice for an entire people and continues to cause great pain and misery within the Middle East and the world.
Zionism is based on a rather simplistic Darwinian outlook, which employs a dualistic, ‘us versus them’ racist and exclusivist philosophy, i.e. in the ‘rough neighborhood of the Middle East only the strong tribe survives’. We see that perspective represented by a long line of pro-aggression, expansionist and militaristic Israeli governments that instill and potentiate fear in order to control public opinion and facilitate their political and economic goals.
Since its inception, Israeli politicians invoke fear by perpetuating a victim narrative based on centuries of real persecution of Jewish peoples. In effect, they reinforce a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), whereby annihilation is eternally around the corner. Thus, fear enables a level of aggression and oppression that is a part of daily life in the reality of occupation.
However, ‘survival of the fittest’ is not the only dominant force in human development. Evolution also emphasizes the adaptive utility of altruistic and cooperative behavior based on humans’ natural qualities as a social species. Though it is very difficult to overcome fear and cultivate empathy in an environment of separation, aggression and hatred, it is possible through a principled and sustained process of education, communication and collaboration, which can be achieved using universal human languages to connect and bridge gaps, such as art and music.
The Psychology of Healing
In my experiments in the laboratory, I trained rodents to become afraid of certain stimuli (odors/lights/tones) by pairing them to innate fears or pain (“fear conditioning”) and then to overcome those conditioned fears by a process of re-exposure to those same stimuli in neutral settings (“extinction of fear”). Once extinguished, I could “reinstate” the fears of these stimuli by scaring or hurting these animals without the presence of the neutral stimuli. As these neural systems are conserved in all mammals, it is valid to extrapolate findings on trauma and its healing in rodents to humans.
In order for Israeli aggressors to heal, en route to re-humanization and reconciliation with our Palestinian victims, we must break the cycle of violence and inequality, which is based on a similar process of conditioning and its reinstatement by various means, such as fear mongering and trauma. For this to happen, Israelis need to go through a painful internal process of deconstruction and reconstruction of our internal narratives, which includes a humble yet relentless quest for historical truth, a sense of deep outrage at the lies, tribalism and fear we were indoctrinated with, and a true reckoning with the profound shame and guilt at the crimes we were involved in both directly and indirectly by association or via our collective silence. Further, Israelis need to channel our outrage toward dissent; i.e. undermining state systems of oppression. Lastly, we must communicate and forge bonds with Palestinians that are based on the universal values of equality, freedom and justice.
Today is a perfect day of reckoning for Israelis: the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), when Zionist forces ethnically cleansed Palestine of its native peoples in order to fulfill their goal of Judaizing the land. Perfectly representing the tragic chasm and inequality between the two, Israelis celebrate Independence Day, while the native Palestinians’ memorial day is ignored and outlawed in their own home.
To heal, we as Israelis must abandon exclusivity and choose the evolutionary path of empathy and altruism. This painful process includes acknowledging shame and guilt and embracing historical truth over propaganda. Once the bond between Zionism and the self is broken Israelis will be able to engage in dissent as a legitimate and natural means of building an inclusive and just society in Israel/Palestine.
– Yoav Litvin is a doctor of psychology/behavioral neuroscience, a documentary photographer and writer living in New York City. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.