After hearing the Director of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) deplore Israeli targeting of UN buildings on TV in the aftermath of an attack on a UN-run school in the Gaza Strip, my opinion of the Israeli government shifted from very bad to resolutely abhorrent. While Hamas is clearly a very real threat to Israel, and has mismanaged scarce resources, watching the effects of disproportionate and indiscriminate force used by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on TV has been hard.
I’ve pretty much always seen the Israeli people as damaged, fearful and defensive. Who wouldn’t be that way after such a brutal history of abuse? Growing up, you become better at identifying people that have had harder lives. In school particularly, you get to know those that have been unlucky enough to have had abusive or absent parents, or even partners for that matter. They can be insecure a lot of the time, sometimes extroverted, sometimes introverted. Sometimes, they are bullies. This character trait – damaged, scared and as a result a bully – is what strikes me whenever I try to work out why Israel is so severe in its treatment of Palestinians, in particular those that live in the Gaza Strip.
Child psychologists have developed many theories dealing with the question of why bullies do what they do. One interesting article was on the subject of bullying in Israeli schools, written by Dahlia Scheindlin for +972. She discusses the “awful dismissal of fellow human beings” by Israelis and the way in which their children are too often brought up bearing the psychological scars of war and conflict. I’ve never been to Israel or Palestine, but I lived with three Israelis during my time in Melbourne, Australia, and while they were perfectly pleasant (actually very nice people), there was a definite air of guardedness about the two girls, possibly even slight hostility. I was only 19 at the time and not clued up about the situation in Israel and Palestine, but I can remember them displaying a kind of resentment towards their conscription into the IDF. In my opinion, this indicated that whatever they had seen or however they were brought up, they are in some ways irreparably changed by these experiences. Surely that guardedness wasn’t a result of ideology in this case, seeing as the two girls came across as almost guilty or ashamed of their time spent in the military.
Feelings of guilt and shame are often cited as common feelings in bullies, which is why I found Ms Scheindlin’s article so interesting and relevant. The psychologist June Tangney once said that the more ashamed we are, “the greater our anger and the less we are able to feel empathy – because we so want to stop the painful feelings of shame that we realign our perceptions of the world so that we are not ashamed.” Is this shame that was so evident in the Israelis I met in Melbourne more widespread? Are a lot of Israelis unable to deal with feelings of shame?
I feel like a have to say that while I find this point about the parallels between the behaviours and feelings of bullies and the character and attitude of the Israelis I met and the current government, I think it’s necessary to say that these are two among a very small number of Israelis I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk to, and I’m making very detached observations about the workings of the Israeli government.
The lack of empathy and disconnectedness mentioned above rings so true for Israel in my eyes. It is a Jewish state slap bang in the centre of the Middle East. It’s about as geographically isolated as it gets on a religious and political level. No wonder, therefore, that this particular country feels like it needs to lash out and get the big international powers involved (fussy parents!). Elan Baruch, the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa once said that “Israel doesn’t look for allies, it looks for partners of convenience”. In other words, it looks for its parent with supposedly unconditional love and support for everything it does, i.e. America, and goes ahead and commits horrific acts.
Obviously things are a great deal more complex than this. For a start history is extraordinarily complex, but vastly more important is the fact that every single human individual reacts to history and any given situation differently. How a person is raised, what they have experienced, their own view of history, the present and what they want in the future is fully influential on how they act. An Israeli that has lost family members to Hamas rockets and friends during military exercises may participate in pro-peace demonstrations, just as a 16-year old from a liberal Jewish family may turn to right wing extremist groups. Everyone is different. Like most people across the world, but most crucially Palestinians and Israelis, want to see people living side by side in comfort and harmony. Depressingly, at the moment anyway, this seems like a long way off.