Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Jerusalem Post Review

The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege
By P. David Hornik
May. 29, 2005

Kenneth Levin, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Princeton-trained historian, has written a definitive, magisterial book about what went wrong during the Oslo era.

The malaise, Levin argues, was not just an Israeli one, but a Jewish one, typical of both Diaspora and Zionist history in the modern era. It was strikingly evident among pre-Holocaust German Jewry, many of whom attempted to win the favor of the surrounding anti-Semitic society via self-reform, and among American Jewry during the Holocaust, many of whom did not seek to aid their European brethren out of fear that such "nationalism" would offend Americans.

This Jewish pathology, in Levin's view, resembles the psychology of abused children who seek to propitiate the abuser by becoming "good" and purging themselves of their supposed failings. The syndrome often entails a "delusional grandiosity" - the idea that one can control one's environment by appeasing the aggressor.

Surveying the history of the pre-modern Jewish Diaspora to find out why it was immune to this self-abasing syndrome, Levin finds the answer in the strong communal institutions that reinforced identity and pride despite hostile environments. Even among parts of Spanish Jewry that had secular educations and relatively high access to the surrounding society, the sturdy communal scaffolding prevented wide-scale defection.

Similarly, much of Eastern European Jewry showed resilience in the modern era, even when religious institutions eroded, by replacing these with secular ones like Jewish labor unions and political parties.

Among the Jews who led the Zionist movement, however, there were many who were scarred by Diaspora anti-Semitism and for whom Zionism meant, in part, purifying Jews of their alleged defects.

Socialist Zionism sought to create a "new Jew" - a sunburned, virile laborer cleansed of the religious and bourgeois corruption of the Diaspora. The circle of German Jewish academics surrounding Hebrew University's Martin Buber and Judah Magnes fervently opposed statehood, and insisted that Judaism was strictly an ethical, universalizing mission that would win the Arabs' affection if so presented.

A countervailing force was David Ben-Gurion, an energetic realist who was able to synthesize modern secularism with healthy pride in Jewish peoplehood, land and tradition.

If this affirmative Ben-Gurionist nationalism basically prevailed in the first three decades of Israel's existence, there were two factors, Levin contends, that partially unraveled it. One was the persistence of the Arab siege, even after the victory of the Six Day War (that to many at the time seemed decisive and final). The other was the triumph of Menachem Begin's Likud Party in the 1977 elections, which finally gave much of Labor and the Left a Jewish bete noire - in the shape of Begin's largely religious and traditional constituency - analogous to the "primitive" Eastern European Jews whom an anxious German Jewry had once reviled and blamed for its woes.

IN THE decade and a half leading up to Oslo, the self-blaming mentality quickly gathered steam among the offspring of Zionist pioneers whose own Jewishness was wounded and ambivalent, and who lacked the inner resources to cope with persistent Arab hatred. They projected the bewildered self-indictment that the Arab siege induced in them.

As the more assertive Ben-Gurionist trend within Labor Zionism was increasingly conflated with the Right, a school of New Historians arose who reinterpreted Zionist history to show the Jews as colonialist aggressors and the Arabs as passive victims suing for peace.

Writers and artists increasingly expressed alienation and even loathing toward the Jewish state. Post-Zionist educators stripped curricula of Jewish content in hopes of producing deracinated, "universalist" Israelis whom no one would perceive as objectionable.

Most significantly, and unlike in other democracies, the anti-nationalism of the elites found a wide resonance in the populace. Many Israelis, worn out by the siege, were eager to believe the peace camp's promises of an end to conflict achieved via self-reform - meaning, in this case, the relinquishment of all territorial claims, the suppression of specific Jewish-Zionist values and the creation of a Palestinian state in whatever borders were demanded. They were enticed by the view that Arab hostility was a function of Israel's misbehavior, and thus within Israel's power to palliate.

Although the Labor Party, in winning the 1992 elections, still made the traditional Labor Zionist concerns about land and security a centerpiece of its campaign, this quickly emerged as political cynicism when prime minister Rabin - who had been portrayed as a holdover of the old, centrist realism - embraced the Oslo program of superdoves Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin and their comrades.

The rest of the history is painful and familiar. Yasser Arafat and the PLO lost no time turning the territories into staging grounds for brutal attacks, while the Oslo camp blindly persisted in its delusions.

It is a history that Levin traces with great eloquence and brilliance.

Although not exactly picking up his earlier theme of the importance of strong communal institutions, Levin, in his final chapter, makes the related argument that along with political pragmatism, the main remedy to the Oslo syndrome (i.e. the propensity to internalize the indictments of enemies and seek to prove one's "goodness") lies in imparting a stronger Jewish background to young Israelis. This means "educat[ing them] in Jewish history, Jewish faith, Jewish ethics... Educating the young in their intellectual and spiritual heritage can go far in inoculating them against the depredations of the 'post-Zionist' institutions they encounter as adults."

This basically sound position does not, however, anticipate two possible problems: how an adult elite that is itself infected with post-Zionism could be persuaded to institute such a program; and whether it could be successfully implemented in a society that categorizes its non-Orthodox majority as "secular" and hence to some degree separate from Jewish tradition.

If somewhat open-ended, Levin's last chapter is still a thoughtful culmination of an indispensable book.

The writer is a freelance journalist and translator living in Jerusalem.