The Zionist realization of a Jewish homeland necessitated the creation of a Spartan Jew that prized personal initiative and physical prowess. This new Jew, call him Hebrew 2.0, was equipped to settle a “land without people for a people without a land,” as the Zionist myth had it. Critically, he also could defend himself, unlike the Diaspora Jew widely reviled for being marched helplessly to the crematoria.
The unwelcome reception in the Promised Land by many of its inconveniently situated inhabitants as well as by regional neighbors soon tested Hebrew 2.0, and he delivered—and has done so again and again. Yet, curiously, for all his take-charge bravado and martial achievements, he remains in his own estimation distressingly weak like his detested predecessor. Though intended as an antidote to Jews’ historic victimization, Hebrew 2.0 continues to be haunted by it.
This troubled psyche is evidenced at the national level. Consider: Israel is a regional juggernaut. In addition to possessing a formidable nuclear arsenal, the Jewish state’s highly modern and well-equipped conventional force is so powerful it could defeat any conceivable alliance of its Arab enemies, and has done so repeatedly. It also enjoys unwavering and enduring support from the world’s only superpower.
Nevertheless, Israel, a modern day Sparta, conceives itself as Melos, the tiny Greek city-state whose residents, as recounted by Thucydides, were destined to “suffer what [the powerless] must.” The country’s leaders incessantly remind that Israel inhabits a “dangerous neighborhood,” and often cast threats in apocalyptic terms that unnecessarily invoke the Holocaust, as when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin justified his country’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon because “the alternative would be Treblinka [death camp], and we have decided there will be no more Treblinkas.” Meanwhile, each successive foe of Israel—Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, etc.—is presented as the second coming of Hitler. The victim symbolism is consistent and historically resonant.
Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, laments the impact of Jews’ historic suffering on Israeli’s collective consciousness. He writes in The Holocaust Is Over. We Must Rise From Its Ashes: “All is compared to the Shoah, dwarfed by the Shoah and therefore all is allowed—be it fences, sieges…curfews, food and water deprivation or unexplained killings. All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave.”
Burg likens Israel’s reflexive belligerence to that of a trauma victim, and he calls out the country’s “boundless paranoia,” which he also ascribes to Jews’ inability to reconcile their bitter past. While even paranoids have real enemies, overcome with victimization, Israel has trouble putting threats into proper perspective. Each is seen as existential. Moreover, unable to conceive of itself as anything but an injured party, Israel is largely incapable of critically assessing its own policies and taking corrective action when necessary, as doing so would require reimaging itself as having agency.
The country cannot afford this luxury in the face of one threat that, unlike the others, is genuinely grave: the absence of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Achieving the long-elusive agreement won’t be easy. Sacrifices will be required of both sides. Yet any solution is unobtainable if Israel continues to take refuge in victimization and the freedom from responsibility that it offers. And this posture becomes more and more tenuous with every incident of Israeli military adventurism on the West Bank.
Other serious challenges complicated by the victim mentality confront the Jewish state. Recently, questions have arisen over the mysterious case of “Prisoner X,” an Australian-Israeli who allegedly worked for the Mossad and who apparently committed suicide in 2010 after being held for months in a maximum-security prison in Israel. When asked about the troubling matter, Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled the victim’s card from the bottom of the deck: “We are not like other countries…we are more threatened and face more challenges; therefore we must maintain proper activity of our security agencies.”
Netanyahu’s rationalization is dead wrong. A healthy democracy requires precisely the sort of scrutiny that he cynically dismisses by evoking the specter of Jewish suffering. Uri Misgav, a blogger for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, makes this very point: “No Israeli citizen will be able to sleep comfortably in a country in which an affair such as Prisoner X can take place.”
True, and as long as Israel remains in the thrall of lachrymose memories its democracy will be stunted. It won’t be like other countries, as Netanyahu says, though for the wrong reasons. And Hebrew 2.0’s promise won’t be fulfilled.