The latest round of fighting in Israel-Palestine compels me to think back-almost a decade-to when I attended a Conservative Jewish Day School in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Second Intifada.
Though Israel did not feature largely on the formal educational curriculum at Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy (only a single weekly, 45-minute class in sixth grade dealt with the state of Israel), many of the students and faculty had family in the country. Many of the students and faculty also adhered to what could be best described as a traditional Zionist viewpoint on the Palestinian question. With constant tension in the region, the topic surfaced frequently in both prayer and in the classroom.
During morning davening, a prayer was dedicated to the state of Israel followed by the relaying of news on the latest Palestinian suicide bombing or attack. The classroom where our daily Hebrew lessons took place, a map on the wall depicted מדינת ישראל (“the state of Israel”) as covering the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterrainean Sea. In sixth grade, the majority of students in my class (myself included) missed two weeks of school in order to take part in an exchange program with the Magen School in Tel-Aviv. On our trip we traveled to Masada and the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem but stayed away from Palestinian Arab locales within the West Bank or even Israel proper.
Sometimes in this environment, vicious or belittling rhetoric rose to the fore. My fifth-grade Hebrew teacher, for instance, dedicated half of the class time (this was late in 2002) to explaining why the “Jenin Massacre” was staged (with “actors”). But for the most part, I was not infused with racism so much as ignorance.
I learned that Israel was a normal, if not exemplary, nation bereft of any military occupation let alone second class arab citizenry. Moreover, I was taught to embrace Israel-as a (exclusively) Jewish and Zionist state as an integral part of my Jewish identity, all the more so when it suffered from “attacks” supposedly motivated by sheer (“anti-semitic”) hatred,
Even when I attended Pressman, however, the Israeli tendency to resort to brute force (this was the time of the Second Intifada) often troubled me for its resemblance to the adventuristic militarism of the Bush administration (which my progressive parents had taught me to criticize). The summer after I graduated Pressman (going on to a public high school), I was exposed to the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in the “Second Lebanon War.” Reading from third-party sources about Israel’s conduct during this war and, later, during Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of defense, I gradually came to see that something was often wrong, if not wholly self-defeating, with Israel’s tendency to resort to force.
I likewise learned in the ensuing years about the suffering of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories through taking classes at my university with professor James Gelvin and reading articles and books by the likes of Edward Said, Richard Silverstein and Max Blumenthal.In my senior year, I conducted a thesis on Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority, learning for the first time of the immense institutional discrimination that it suffered (and reaching the conclusion that an exclusively-defined “Jewish state” cannot be democratic).
Through it all I not only came to a more nuanced understanding of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians but acquired sympathy for the national aspirations of a Palestinian people living in Occupation.
In this most recent fighting in Gaza, therefore, I no longer see Israel as a victim but as an aggressor, having invaded Gaza to “respond” to rocket fire that the Netanyahu government provoked through its harsh crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank in the proceeding weeks (in a not-so-carefully disguised attempt to “break” Hamas’ unity government with Fatah). This, of course, on the heels of Netanyahu’s obstinance towards Palestinians in negotiating an end to the Occupation.
And yet, almost all of my day school friends-still perceiving of Israel as a “normal” state, incapable of imposing an illiberal military regime on much of the land it controls- likely only have to hear an Israeli military spokesperson mention “Hamas” rocket fire on Israel in order to reflexively come to Israel’s defense. The Netanyahu government’s line, that Israel is only fighting for Israel’s “self-defense,” is carefully tailored to the neurons of those raised to perceive Israel as a righteous, beleaguered state. Even when Israel kills over 500 civilians in the process and gets no closer to “destroying” Hamas.
In the past week, I have heard old friends and close family comment that “Hamas is pure evil,” argue that Israel should reoccupy of the Gaza Strip and dismiss hundreds of civilian deaths as the collateral byproduct of Israel’s “self-defense.”
Such comments will surely be dismissed by many of pro-Palestinian friends as hasbara. But knowing where I was ten years ago, I understand that these statements are rooted not in propaganda but in unwitting misinformation spawned in day schools, shuls and Jewish summer camps.. Amidst the political volatility of Israel-Palestine, a false perception of victimhood combines with reflexive instincts of fear, safety and loyalty to demand the defense of even the most indefensible Israeli position.
I see this psychology at work not only in the Facebook posts of my friends but in the articles, books and interviews given by the likes of Thane Rosenbaum, an Ivy League-educated law professor who justified Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza by essentially belittling the Geneva Conventions-on the same grounds used by Osama Bin Laden.
Viciousness, brought out in some of the brightest and kindest people I know, inspired by fear of the “Jew-hating” Hamas. The justifying of unlawful brutality as a means of restoring “security” to Israel’s south. The unwavering acceptance of Israeli government talking points as the absolute truth (“Hamas provoked it”) despite massive evidence, this time, to the contrary: that Netanyahu.provoked the conflict to destroy the Palestinian unity government.
In all of these aspects, the political behavior of my reflexively pro-Israel friends in this latest conflict mirrors the sentiments traditionally categorized as fascism, what I call (owing to the adherents' espoused identity rather than inherent religious qualities) “Judeofascism.”
I use the word “fascism” not as a moral judgment (as is so often the case) but as a political category, applicable to a certain breed of doctrinaire patriotism. For many, the word brings to mind a deranged cartoon dictator but rather I think of what Hannah Arendt’s “Little Eichmann’s,” ordinary people who-in the 1930s-would have fallen into lockstep with the authoritarian governance of Der Führer or Il Duce for saving national honor from defeat, personal fortune from the ruin of depression (or Bolshevism).
The narrow-mindedness and trigger-like conformity that Judeofascism instills in many American Jews are merely symptoms of a toxic disease. In Israel itself, several stages ahead in its prognosis, legislation has been put forth to ban Palestinian politicians expressing dissenting views from the Knesset.
Fortunately, like any disease Fascism can be purged through education and ecposure to multiple perspectives on (this) issue?
Changing the reflexively “pro-Israel” mindset requires that community leaders (rabbis, Jewish educators, philanthropist) begin to tell the honest truth about Israel to their flock. It requires Palestine Solidarity activists to not simply speak against falsehoods or simplicities spewed by their apparent opponents but to speak to them, with the intention of educating.
On Facebook. for a momentary break, I see that an old high school friend has put up a quote from a Times of Israel article, threatening (in his post) to unfriend anyone who posts “anti-Israel messages.”
And then, I ask myself quietly: is it too late?