Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Child in the Man's Suit: Israel's Response in Gaza

I just returned home from the Middle East, having spent the majority of my time in Israel, with shorter trips into Jordan and the West Bank. Of course, given this week's news of the confrontation in Gaza, I have been paying keen attention, and have been struck again and again by Israel's seeming inability to see its own errors and accept its own wrong doing.

For instance, this bullet point, issued in a brief by the Prime Minister's office to government workers: "Israel regrets that people have been injured, but responsibility lies with the organizers and participants of the flotilla who initiated the violence."

There is a certain subtle absurdity in such a statement, a certain tone that I could not quite pin-point until I translated the feeling into an image. In an e-mail to a fellow traveler yesterday, I wrote that such statements seem like a little boy's teary protestations of punishment after being caught red-handed swinging fists on the playground. Israel is clearly embarrassed by its fumbled response to the Gaza flotilla, but it cannot see its own errors because it is also so deeply entrenched in its own defensive posture and desire for the global community to understand the whole story: the history of anti-semitism, the terror of living surrounded by enemy states, and that the threat of Hamas and the looming flotilla, as they repeatedly claim, made them do it. They are the little boy who, when caught fighting by his mother looks at her in an emotional desperation to be seen and wails: he hit me first!

I should say that I am not without compassion for that little boy, nor for Israel. The situation's complexity can not be overemphasized, nor can the genuine fear of living surrounded by well-armed enemy states and the terror of smaller scale suicide bombings. Nonetheless, though dressed in well-tailored suits and speaking without emotional pleadings, Israel's spokesmen convey an almost childish inability to see their own part in provocation. In response to Gaza, they always start the "he made me do it" argument at just the convenient moment -- i.e. after the soldiers boarded the boat and were attacked.

I had the great fortune to spend some time with Israeli Jungian analyst Dr. Erel Shalit while I was in Tel Aviv. Last night, I began to re-read his book The Hero & His Shadow: psychopolitical aspects of myth and reality in Israel (2004) and came upon a very interesting discussion of child developmental processes as it relates to Israel. Prior to last night, I'd not yet explored this fascinating notion that nations are dealing with collective developmental struggles like individuals do, but in approaching the disconnect between Israel's self-perception and that of its observers, there are intriguing correlations. It is like Israel's militarism is the archetype of the unseen, hurt, desperate "angry young man" who woefully finds himself in trouble on the wrong side of the justice system and, despite his trangressions, still feels deeply that it is he who has been most wronged, feeling terribly unseen and unappreciated.

I wonder, is it possible that Israel, like a little boy still growing-up, just wants desperately to be seen by the international community and no longer forced to explain its fights? Does Israel want to be acknowledged for all its struggle and its history by the global community and appreciated for all its hard work and successes? Does it want to stop being accused of its imperfections because it is trying very hard to be good?

In his section titled Developmental Aspects of Fear, Aggression and Boundaries, Dr. Shalit wrote, "An examination of the relationship between fear and aggression in the child's early development might contribute to our understanding of the Israeli collective's psychological development" (p. 65). He suggests that as "basic aggression can be found in the child's very first movements" (p. 66), and as the dependent child is always struggling with a fear of non-existence and abandonment which could lead to its death, it projects its terror of annihilation onto others and wrestles with it there.
If the basic fear and threat of annihilation are too strong, or the outside threat too great, the self may disintegrate or withdraw, meaning death, autism, psychosis or
depression. The result can also be frustrated and uncontrolled violence. (p. 67)
As the international community cannot possibly give Israel what it needs in terms of a perfectly seeing parental container for growth, Israel must acknowledge its own developmental needs and raise itself psychologically. Israel must take stock and look inside itself, at itself, instead of outside at others, to see for itself its own terrible mistakes and adjust accordingly. This does not mean Israel is a "bad kid," but it does seem as though it collectively feels that the international community sees it as one.

Israeli peace demonstrator on displayed on a wall at the place of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in Tel Aviv. Photo by author.

1 comment:


    Dr. Shalit has posted on his blog now an opinion piece in defense of Israel by former Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, as well as this touching and thought provoking passage from his new novel:

    "…He recalled the words of Chaim Potok, who so poignantly gave voice to that collective concern, 'To be a Jew in this century is to understand fully the possibility of the end of mankind, while at the same time believing with certain faith that we will survive.' Living in Israel was certainly living at life’s edge, at the edge of survival."