"We Are Not Like Them": Itamar Massacre Activates A Dangerous Israeli-Jewish Ethnocentrism

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March 23, 2011

In an interview with Haaretz, Yuli Edelstein, Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, defended his decision to release the graphic photos of the slain Fogel family to the general public by stating that it will cause people to recognize the reality that Israel is dealing with. When questioned about his decision, he replied:

“Every time the topic of public relations and information in Israel and abroad is raised, I’m always asked – why don’t we publish the photos? I say with a bit of cynicism that I can already answer this question in several languages. I always explained that there was the matter of the family and a desire not to cause further suffering – and also that we are not like them, we are not like the Palestinians.”

Interviewer: “So are we like the Palestinians now?”

“No, there is a huge difference. They have no problem issuing such photos a few minutes after the incident, without asking the family and without blurring anything out. It is also needless to say that, in some cases, fabricated images are released too.”

In the field of psychology, the idea that groups in conflict have an inverted image of one another falls under the rubric of Social Identity Theory (SIT). SIT stipulates that people strive to achieve/maintain a positive self-image, and that their sense of self-esteem is derived from both personal and social identity. Their social identity, to the degree that it’s positive, comes about from a perception of group accomplishments, but also from favorable comparisons with an out-group. In other words: “We are great because we are better than them,” or, “We are great because we are not them.” In times of group conflict, this dynamic is often exacerbated, increasing both in-group favoritism and out-group hostility.

Such is the case with the Israeli response to the recent massacre in the West Bank settlement of Itamar. On Friday night, March 11th, an intruder(s) entered the home of the Fogel family in Itamar. The infiltrator went from room-to-room slitting the throats of three children (including a 3-month-old baby) and stabbing to death their parents. The attack, which was particularly disturbing (even by the grisly standards of the region), left a whole nation shocked and outraged. A plethora of speeches and articles (in Israel and abroad) followed, denouncing the cruel nature of the act and its perpetrators. As usual, people sought explanations, and as usual the attacks simply confirmed whatever theory of conflict they happened to believe in prior to the attack.

A number of people on the left blamed it on the occupation and/or the settlers themselves. The settlers, the argument went, are responsible for putting their children in harm’s way and for oppressing the Palestinians. As blogger Richard Silverstein put it: “Do I wish Itamar’s residents to be ‘targets for brutal violence?’ No. But the fact is that they make themselves a target not only by living there but by engaging in brutal acts of violence and murder against surrounding Palestinian villages and international human rights workers who support them.”

Many on the right alternated between dispositional and situational explanations. Some blamed it on the workings of Amalek (the eternal and implacably evil spiritual enemy of the Jewish people), while others on Palestinian and Israeli (left-wing) incitement. David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish settlers in Hebron, wrote that the real blame lies with the Jewish leaders and public who have turned their backs on the settlers:

“The source of incitement leading to the butchering of the Fogel family are Jewish leaders who are willing to again abandon our land and our people, ‘returning’ all the heavily Arab-populated cities in Judea and Samaria to monkeys dressed up as people.”

Unfortunately, such dehumanizing language characterized a great deal of the discourse following the massacre. Talkbacks abound with noxious statements such as: “It’s a natural reaction of bloodthirsty animals. Muslims celebrate death just as we celebrate life.” But the top prize in genocidal ethnocentrism went to Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, and member of the centrist political party Kadima. Sharon wrote an article for Yedioth Ahronot (Israel’s largest circulation newspaper) which is so outrageously racist that it’s worth quoting in detail.

“Let us not forget with whom we are dealing here. You can take the wild Palestinian beast and put a mask on it, in the form of some fluent English-speaking spokesman. You can also dress it in a three-piece suit and silk tie.

“But every once in a while – during a new moon, or when a crow’s droppings hit a howling jackal, or when its pita with hyssop doesn’t come out just right – the wild beast senses that this is its night, and out of primeval instincts, it sets off to stalk its prey.”

After stating that peace is built on the assumption that they are like us, Sharon continues: “But such an assumption is a rape of reality. A society that can thus sanctify death, the best of whose youth are baby-stabbers, is simply not like ours.”

“They look at us. We are everything they never were and never will be. We have a history and culture thousands of years old, we have a functioning, developing society – while they are just the offshoot of our Zionism. Their entire national story was born in the wake of Zionism. Even their self-definition as a people has no existence without us.

“They look at themselves through our image. The more we succeed and progress, the more their hatred intensifies. We are the proof that it is possible to do it differently, that failures are not the result of destiny, but primarily of decisions and actions.

“In any arrangement that might or might not come about, remember with whom we are dealing. Our security must always remain in our hands.”

As mentioned above, Sharon’s article has all the ingredients of a genocidal ideology. First, Sharon doesn’t just dehumanize Palestinians–he also demonizes them. The Palestinians are not just a beast, but a bloodthirsty beast. Second, “Palestinian beasthood” is an ontological condition that inheres not in a few psychopaths, but in a people as a whole. Third, the characterological evil of the Palestinian people is not learned, but is instinctive. Therefore, it can never be ameliorated (so long as Palestinians exist). Fourth, implicitly, the Palestinians cannot be held responsible for their behavior anymore than a wolf can be held responsible for devouring a chicken. Fifth, the Jews stand in diametrical opposition to the Palestinians. The Jews are carriers of civilization, creativity and light – in short, “We are everything they never were and never will be.” Finally, not only are the Jews superior to the Palestinians, they [the Palestinian people] would never even exist without the Jews.

One is reminded here of the words of W.H. Auden who once wrote: “If we did not have a hated “them” to turn against, there would not be a loving “us” to turn to.” Returning to social identity theory, it seems that (perhaps on an unconscious level) one of the functions of the “we are not like them” narrative is to help Israeli-Jews foster and maintain a positive collective identity. During a time in which Zionism has become a dirty word and Israel branded an apartheid state, it feels good, cleansing even, to say to the world (and to ourselves!) “Look, whatever we are, we are not like them!” It doesn’t matter that the “them” in question is an imagined nefarious community fabricated out of our own biases and collective memory (in actuality we don’t even know if the attacker was even Palestinian–though he probably was), all that matters is that “they” exist and are opposite of us.

Of course another function of the Itamar narrative is to strengthen the hand of Israel’s ultra right-wing government. In his influential work The Birth and Death of Meaning, Ernest Becker writes:

“It is [fear] that makes people so willing to follow brash, strong-looking demagogues with tight jaws and loud voices: those who focus their measured words and their sharpened eyes in the intensity of hate, and so seem most capable of cleansing the world of the vague, the weak, the uncertain, the evil. Ah, to give oneself over to their direction—what calm, what relief.”

Laboratory research shows that when people are reminded (even subliminally) of their own vulnerability and mortality – and who among us this week was not reminded of this – they are likely to prefer leaders who are strong, protective and charismatic. By presenting the events in Itamar as proof positive that Palestinian society is defined by an entrenched hatred of Jews, the government is able to garner support and advance its initiatives. Small wonder that immediately following the attack the Israeli government seized the moment by pushing for their settlement building agenda.

A final note. While a Palestinian presumably brought this tragedy on Israel, another may help the country find her way again. Two years ago, during the Gaza war, Dr. Izzaldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian gynecologist who worked inside of Israel, experienced an unimagined nightmare. Two Israeli shells hit his home and killed four of his family members: three daughters and one niece. Immediately following the blast, when Dr. Abuelaish entered his daughter’s bedroom, he found to his horror bodies decapitated and body parts strewn everywhere. Another of his daughters had her eye on her cheek, body full of puncture wounds and a hand severely damaged.

In desperation, Dr. Abuelaish called Shlomi Eldar, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 10 to try and save what was left of his family. During the war the two were in constant contact, as Dr. Abuelaish provided Eldar with on-ground witness accounts of what was happening in Gaza (all media was barred by Israel from entering Gaza during the war). It so happened that Eldar was in the studio when Dr. Abuelaish called and the emotionally charged conversation was captured on air.

After his great loss and despite his ineffable sorrow, Dr. Abuelaish, who has many professional and personal ties with Israelis, decided to do something presumably unnatural. Dr. Abuelaish refused to succumb to the temptation of holding all Israelis responsible, to become enslaved to the desire for all-out revenge, or to be seduced by nihilistic ideations. In his book, entitled I Shall Not Hate Dr. Abuelaish writes:

“The reaction of ordinary people strengthens the case for our need to talk to each other, to listen, to act. And it reinforces my lifelong belief that out of bad comes something good. Maybe now I really have to believe that; the alternative is too dark to consider. My three precious daughters and my nice are dead. Revenge, a disorder that is endemic to the Middle East, won’t get them back for me. It is important to feel anger in the wake of events like this; anger that signals that you do not accept what has happened, that spurs you to make a difference. But you have to choose not to spiral into hate. All the desire for revenge and hatred does is drive away wisdom, increase sorrow, and prolong strife. The potential good that could come out of this soul-searing bad is that together we might bridge the fractious divide that has kept us apart for six decades.”

While the circumstances around the loss of Dr. Abuelaish family may be different than the Fogel tragedy, the outcome remains the same: children’s life violently destroyed. During a time of escalating violence, we need more than ever to listen to Dr. Abuelaish and learn from his wisdom, but then again, why should we, after all, we are not like them. Right?

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