Tuesday, January 27, 2009


For fifty years, I have been struck by the transformation which grips so many liberal, secular, humane American Jews – and I have known plenty -- when talk turns to Israel.

Recently, I think of the phenomenon as a condition of mind, an emotional affliction. Possibly something akin to William Kunstler’s highly debatable “Black Rage” syndrome, at least in its intensity and ethnic peculiarity. Sometimes I think of it as “Jewish Disease.”

By which I mean -- what?

In a word, “Israel.” In a phrase, “An emotional attachment to Israel and its perceived interests.”

The term describes a set of connected feelings, thought patterns, and behaviors -- in this case mainly verbal and expressive behaviors, except where emigrant settlers from Philadelphia and Brooklyn are involved.

I would not label Armenian-Americans’ historic sentiments this way, or Japanese-Americans’ fascination with Hawaii, or Italian-American braggadocio or Boston’s weakness for the IRA. This in a class by itself because of the involved feelings, ideation, and consequences.

Feelings Associated with Jewish Disease

This condition is distinguished by loyalty and anger.

The intensity of the sufferer’s loyalty may influence his or her susceptibility to rage. More likely, anger levels will reflect the individual’s general emotional equilibrium.

Loyalty has probably been with us from our pack days.

At the national level, it is conventionally awarded to one’s own country, native or adopted. Divided loyalties have been all too frequently attributed to “foreign” communities -- East African Hindus, Indonesian Chinese, European Jews. Such communities have been persecuted -- in at least two of these cases, genocidally -- for alleged lack of national loyalty.

Many American Jews experience deep loyalty to Israel. Even those nominally critical of Israel’s expansionist behavior or ad hoc theology identify themselves fiercely with its prerogatives. I have asked J. D. sufferers which country would command their loyalty should the two become antagonistic -- and heard a range of answers.

Most Americans do not regard Israeli loyalties as a fault. More often, Zionist sentiments are considered admirable by Jews and non-Jews alike. This will probably continue until Israel is popularly perceived as causing more trouble than it is worth.

Loyalty cannot be considered pathological, except when wrongly attached, i.e. to a criminal organization, destructive person, or wrong-headed cause. Then it may contribute to a social or political pathology. Patriotism is one good example. Many progressive J.D. sufferers reject bellicose American flag-waving for the horrors it enables. They will not renounce the other nearly so quickly.

Anger has a more distinctly harmful profile. Symptomatic of other psychiatric conditions, anger causes violence. Symptomatic of Jewish Disease, anger impedes clear thought and disrupts friendly gatherings. Get these people started and they cannot let it alone.

Some yell. Some leave the room. Some seethe. All interrupt. It is a compulsive, abiding anger. It suggests inner conflict. The people I know -- know better. I know that. They see footage of babies blown apart and think … I can’t imagine what.

But they behave as though impelled to defend the practice. Often as not, the defense become enraged.

Thought Patterns Associated with Jewish Disease

The condition permits harmonious persistence of these two fundamentally contradictory ideas: 1. Israel serves as a refuge and safe haven for all Jews, and 2. Jews face graver danger in Israel than anywhere else.

Sufferers defend this paradox largely by ignoring or denying it. They address other factual and moral contradictions with an array of well-known, vigorously asserted ideas.

Grounding all these ideas is the proposition that hostile Muslim behavior must always be seen in its worst light, and all hostile Israeli behavior in its best light. This master conceit enables:

An opportunistic attachment to the word: “terrorist.

This arrangement of syllables has come a long way since Ariel Sharon used it to describe any unappreciative person or suspect action in occupied Lebanon twenty five years ago. It got a mighty boost on 9/11. Some think that’s why Israelis jumped for joy on the Jersey side of the Hudson as they watched the towers tumble.

Since then, it has become a sacrament for hundreds of millions. J.D. sufferers pronounce it compulsively during any discussion of the Middle East. It’s used to describe all active resistance to the hostile occupation of Palestine.

The phrase operates like a drug in bucking up outrage and short-circuiting errant focus on contravening facts or reasons.

It dominates the vast rattle of talking head opinion in print, and on radio, network, and cable TV – where the condition is endemic in its core form and its non-Jewish variation: Jewish Disease by Proxy.

Emphasis on hostile thoughts.

Hostile thoughts include belief systems and verbalizations written or spoken – real, imagined, or mistranslated for the purpose.

Often, hostile expressions and beliefs are presented as requiring a decisive physical response. For example, the Israelis must impose a devastating blockade on Gaza because Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist. Iran may need to be bombed because its leaders aspire to nuclear weapons and Ahmedinjad wants to wipe Israel off the map. The Jewish state is justified in bombing houses as long as Jew Hatred prevails because they all want to kill Jews and teach their children that Jews are bad.

Jewish Disease rules out consideration of whether or not the hostile words and thoughts suggest ability to do harm. The words are the problem; thoughts pose threats; intent equates to danger.

Listen to the language. The theme predominates.

Here, Jewish Disease resembles other paranoid formations by confusing real or imagined hostile wishes with material threats. Of course, it is the rare paranoid who gets to level the neighborhood.

The deeply held conviction that Israel faces an existential threat from the Muslim world.

The word “existential” denotes a threat to existence – in this case to the existence of the state of Israel. It has no other reasonable meaning. With regard to the existence of the Jewish state:
Israel has dominated the region militarily since 1967, when its attack on three Arab nations demonstrated invulnerability to military defeat. Its only reversal came in Israeli-occupied Egypt in 1973, from which embarrassment Israel was rescued by the United States -- then as now reliably influenced by the Israeli interest – using the arguably dangerous tactic of nuclear threat against the Soviet Union.

Since 1973 Israel has repeatedly invaded Lebanon without a hint of intervention from other Muslim lands. Israelis have overflown, invaded, and wiped out Lebanese and Palestinians at will and whim -- in ways that other nations rarely do – with fully merited confidence in their ability to do so without risk. They have bombed Syria and Iraq with equal impunity. They have meddled directly in the politics of Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq without fear of consequence.
They have occupied and exploited Syrian and Lebanese territory for decades and presently – without any physical challenge whatsoever from Syria, and only small-arms, local resistance from Hezbollah.

Having attacked Lebanon in 2006, Israel experienced only slight damage and limited casualties from the best rockets which Iran-supplied Hezbollah had available. The Gaza massacre of 1/09 encountered no respectable military resistance.

Israel has, for many years, been at formal, functioning peace with Egypt and Jordan. Currently, it enjoys tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia against Hamas and Hezbollah. Fatah maintain this alliance explicitly.

Israel’s military is described as the world’s fourth most powerful. It has a huge atomic arsenal. It confronts two non-state militias lacking heavy equipment of any kind – supplied by a beleaguered Iran which itself has slight military significance outside its borders.

Further, Iran’s alleged nuclear aspirations, even if fully realized, could never constitute a threat to Israel’s existence – unless one sees Iran willing to annihilate as many Shia and Sunni Muslims as Jews, and eager to experience its own annihilation within minutes.  

Rarely have a single year’s suicide bombing deaths approached the number of innocent Israeli men, women, and children slaughtered by other Israelis in traffic accidents. Since 1983, the ratio is about ten to one. The most successful violent killers of Jews in Israel are its notoriously homocidal and suicidal drivers. Yet even they prompt no existential uncertainty.

No hostile army has set foot on present-day Israeli soil since 1948.

Still, Jewish Disease reduces its victims to jabbering robotically about the ongoing Muslim threat to Israel’s existence.
The tactical elevation of explicit, announced intent as the sole criterion for moral culpability.

Israel has, over the years, killed and wounded many times more Palestinians than the number of Israelis killed and wounded by Palestinians.

According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just over two thousand Israeli civilians and military have been killed by Arab terrorists from 1920 to 2008. Since 2000, the IDF identifies 431. Within weeks, the IDF killed almost 1400 Gazans and wounded another six thousand including many children. In the 2006 war, another thousand Lebanese civilians died. Over time, and with military deaths included, the disparity grows dramatically.

J.D. ideation dictates that one crucial difference offsets this imbalance: most of the dead Gazans – like the dead Lebanese and other Arabs -- were not intended targets. (For these purposes we leave aside the many Palestinian children shot through the head and upper torso - arguably odd endings for individuals not marked as intended targets.)

Conversely, the far lesser numbers of Israelis slaughtered and maimed weigh more heavily on the scale of moral judgment because their deaths were intended.

This distinction recognizes only first degree murder as a crime. Murder in the second gets a pass. Reckless disregard has no meaning in this context. Neither does predictability of outcome. What makes homicide a culpable act is the specific, overtly avowed intention to kill civilians. Absent that single, announced intent, homicide is readily justifiable -- certainly when performed by the IDF.

This view effectively equates harm to very, very few Jews – with harm to many, many Palestinians.

The intentional deaths and woundings of tens – again, tens -- of Jews by rocket fire (and the psychological burdens imposed on thousands more) is rendered by the prism of Jewish Disease more egregious and less tolerable than the wholly predictable killing, maiming, traumatizing, and stunting of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians – although that behavior itself drives additional killings and woundings of Jews – which in turn sinks the Palestinian or Lebanese force deeper into moral culpability -- from which Israelis are excused because, in the words of the adorable scamp of an elder brother who has mutilated the younger yet again, “It was only an accident, Ma.”

This exclusive recognition of specific, first-degree intent is increasingly used to trump the notion of proportionality – the idea that you cannot invade and destroy Poland because of a border incident, or devastate Gaza within a week because toy rockets without guidance systems have killed and wounded a handful of Israelis over several years.

Proportionality is a fundamental provision of international law. Yet it is denounced as irrelevant by the noted J.D. sufferer Tom Friedman, who duly notes that only Palestinians intentionally target civilians.

I do not know Tom Friedman. But the people I do know would not allow themselves within miles of such depraved thinking – were it applied to any other set of actors in the world.
The abiding presence of anti-Semitism.

Where would J.D. sufferers be without it? In fairness, the tactic of scare-calling is as old as the Judean hills, or the Hittite plains. There have always been magical words and they have always been used to disqualify opposing ideas.

Jewish Disease is notable for its attachment to the associated beliefs that: 1. Serious criticism of Israel or frank anti-Zionism indicates hostility to Jews, or “Jewishness” 2. Hostility to Jews disqualifies the source as fair, objective, or moral, and 3. This applies to Jews as well as anyone else.

The fragrant term “self-hating Jew” has always been a red flag for the condition. This is important because Jewish Zionists and anti-Zionists lead attempts to resist the Israeli agenda – here and in Israel. As American Jews fling back the charge of self-hatred with increased vigor and public notice, the discussion opens up.

Jewish Disease also implies acceptance of anti-Semitism on the part of Israel’s friends. Most notably, whack evangelists leeringly anticipate the annihilation of unconverted Jews as they strut beside Israeli leaders and enjoy the affection of Jews skilled at spotting self-haters at fifty yards.

Billy Graham set the tone years ago, noting on the Nixon tapes that although he condemns Jewish media shennanigans (as did Nixon) Jews love him anyway because all they care about is his support for Israel.

Anti-Semitism is a dangerous sentiment with ongoing potential for great harm. It is also a social fact susceptible of rational inquiry. Jewish Disease tends to deny such analysis.

J.D. thinking extends a broad Western reluctance to analyze anti-Semitism as resulting in any way from culpable Jewish behavior (which line of inquiry has been attempted by Israeli scholars.)

Fair enough. I can understand why we decline to explore the economic impact of carpet-bagging Jewish interests on property relations in Austria after World War I as a factor shaping the direction of anti-Semitism in Vienna in the ‘20s. This may or may not represent a useful area of study – but even if it does, it seems creepy to me.

Not so the impact of Israeli behavior on feelings toward Jews. I don’t think there’s much rational question about this: Zionism and its consequences ignite most of the anti-Semitism with which Europe, Asia, and Africa are currently afflicted. Israeli behavior and global Jewish support for that behavior trip anti-Jewish outrage among Algerians in France, Indonesians in Amsterdam, Shia and Sunni in Baghdad, Greeks and Turks together.

In terms of practical harm alleged, the worst of the old-fashioned anti-Semitic canards fail to cover what has transpired in Palestine 1947-1948, in Lebanon in 1982, 1996, and 2006, in the West Bank and Gaza, 2009 – the disappeared villages, cluster bombs, white phosphorous, self-righteous war on ambulances and schools. What blood liable approaches this scale of dispossession and carnage?

This is certainly how most of the Muslim world and many elsewhere feel about it.
Who can calculate the spread of anger loosed by these activities? Repeatedly and relentlessly, Israeli behavior creates anti-Semitism. Since World War II anti-Semitic feeling can be reasonably viewed as a cost of the Zionist project increasingly more consequential than any antidote offered by it.

However, J.D.’s symptomatic formula casts anti-Semitism as: 1. The cause of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel animus, 2. An apparently irreducible aspect of human nature, and 3. A peril faced by all Israelis and Diaspora Jews -- regardless of individual circumstance.

The unmanageable threat of anti-Semitism serves as a persistent justification for all the moral deformities we have seen. The mystique of primordial, uncaused anti-Semitism is a prominent feature of Jewish Disease.  

Consequences of Jewish Disease

The Israeli interest helps shape American policy. To do so, it draws on the money and genius of powerful American Jews backed by the reliable support of most ordinary Jews, adaptive politicians, and right-wing Christian allies (in the grip of Jewish Disease by Proxy cum Religious Mania.)

The prevalence of J.D. unifies the powerful and the ordinary, the circumcised and the goyim behind the Israeli interest – which usually asserts a right wing perspective, regardless of the Israeli party in power.

To the extent that Jewish Disease continues to dominate these groups, it will continue to enable Israel by compelling Congressional support for Israeli preferences. To the extent that J.D.’s influence retreats, the Israeli interest’s grip on American policy will be weakened, and Israel’s behavior will necessarily modify.

The Future of Jewish Disease

I believe that the main factor working to limit Jewish Disease is generational. Polls suggest that younger Jews are, on average, less afflicted than their elders. Most J-boomers grew up with Israel front and center. Many of their children did not. Now, many Jewish kids think of Israel as just another country. Increasing numbers are learning to stand against it.

Jewish Disease may undergo gradual modification as more left-leaning friends of Israel compete for influence with the entrenched rightist leadership – and as the massacres continue. As J-Street and more radical outfits offer attractive alternatives to the described ideology, some relaxation may occur.

Should these trends attenuate the impact of Jewish Disease, voices and dollars may drift from the traditional leadership and mass indifference may mitigate support for the old agenda. Liberal heroes may crawl out from under rocks to honor their finer instincts.

Then, American policy may desert Israel’s expansionist project. The Jewish State will have to accept a now gasping Geneva/Arab League solution predicated on 1967 borders, and accept the risk of civil war -- or face real pain at the hands of a fed-up world.

If this country experiences a 9/11 encore – and especially if the perpetrators identify American support for Israel as a precipitating cause – pro-Israel feeling may quicken. Jewish Disease fattens on reactive American hysteria so another attack could well give J.D. a secure and expanding place in the frightened American heart.

On the other hand, Americans might decide that continuing to underwrite the Zionist dream is no longer worth the loss of buildings, neighborhoods, or business districts in Chicago or L.A.

Bombing rice paddies is how John McCain hoped to turn Vietnam against Ho. Leveling homes and civic buildings is how Ehud Barak hoped to pry Gaza loose from Hamas. Ditto Hitler and London. It hasn’t worked yet.

But America is, by its own definition, always the great exception.

No comments: