Time To Shed The Cloak Of Victimhood


The murder of international peace activists on the Gaza flotilla by Israeli commandos marks a turning point in the international standing of the state of Israel. Even though we witnessed the horrific violence in Lebanon in 2006 and then in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, Israel has largely been able to count on the support of the Western alliance and its clients in the Arab world.

Now we have seen the unbelievable slaughter of peace activists. What have these actions achieved except to reveal to more and more people around the world the total disregard for human life, international law and rational self-interest by the State of Israel? Almost all governments internationally have called for an end to the cruel siege of Gaza. Relations with Turkey, once Israel’s only friend in the region, now seem to be thoroughly broken. How has this profited Israel?

Until the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Israel led a charmed life. The hasbara (Israeli propaganda) machine was successful in depicting Israel as paradoxically both mighty victor and defenceless victim, a people who rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust. This is the mythology of the people without a land who made the desert bloom in the land without people. This story appealed to the guilt-laced sympathy many liberals in the West have felt for Israel.

And there is a ferocious desperation in the way the Israel lobby around the world tries to ensure that only its version of events gets a run in the global media. Those who put forward other perspectives and other facts which reveal the dark side of Israel’s foreign policy, are labeled "anti-semitic" or, if they are Jewish, "self-hating Jews".

This desperation has only become more shrill as the sombre realities of Israel are exposed. Recall the frenzied attacks on Richard Goldstone and his report last year. Whatever Israel does, it seems, no matter how shocking the atrocity, their actions are justified by the right to self-defence. Reality gets turned on its head: the occupier and dispossessor are declared the victim; the occupied are framed as the aggressors.

What is it that makes these Israelis and the Jews around the world who support them so uncritically, tick? Quite apart from the amorality of these actions, observers ask themselves "How can they think this contributes to their security and self-interest? Can’t they see how this isolates them?"

The presentation of Israel as always under threat of annihilation reflects a pervasive Jewish identity as eternal victim. Indeed, it is this identity which reinforces Zionism and attachment to and dependence on Israel as the guarantee of existential security.

How can this chronic sense of vulnerability, both in regard to Israel and to the Australian community be accounted for in the face of a relatively secure reality? Many Jews see this as a silly question — "It’s obvious," they will say. "It’s the Holocaust. Anti-semitism is always with us."

But it is not only the memory and experience of actual history that is so oppressive; it is the way it is constructed in memory and in day-to-day reality. In the stories told in the community, Jewish identity is constructed as victim, regardless of time and place. "From Time Immemorial" and "the Longest Hatred" are some of the key phrases through which this victimhood is constituted. In this way, the Holocaust is presented as an almost inevitable outcome of never-ending hatred against Jews.

Victimhood has its consolations: it is a great psychic anaesthetic. One is absolved from often painful responsibility and the Other is always responsible. If the world hates us, and we are always under threat, anything is justified. This logic applies particularly to the State of Israel.

Alongside the victim identity, there is a solution: an imaginary Israel that comes to the rescue. It is an imaginary Israel, because the conditions of its birth and continuation — the dispossession and brutal occupation of the Palestinians — are denied. Again and again, the Zionist syllogism — Holocaust annihilation conquered by Israeli triumphalism — is presented as self-evident. According to Zionist ideology, the solution to the Holocaust nightmare is always Israel.

This thinking is promulgated relentlessly in Jewish communal schools, in the Jewish media, in temples and synagogues. The scars of the Holocaust are picked at over and over and healing is impossible. And this festering wound certainly serves unquestioning support for Israel.

One comment on Ben Saul’s excellent article on The Drum last week expressed this primal fear succinctly: "If the Arabs will lay down their weapons, there will be no more violence, if the Jews do the same, there will be no more Jews.

The psycho-social equation that Jewish survival equals Israel is pernicious. If one sees oneself as a totally powerless victim and Israel as the all-powerful rescuer, all power to confront potential attacks has been effectively projected onto Israel. What is left is a sense of naked terror, often unconscious, for those gripped by this belief. In this condition, nothing may be said or be permitted to be said to challenge Israel because it might then lose its all-powerful capacity to induce a sense of security. In this state of delusion, it is impossible to confront the situation as it is and consider realistic solutions.

For many Jews there is an unbridgeable chasm between what their conscience would dictate and their perceived security imperatives based on this imaginary Israel. This is an unbearable conflict that is too often resolved by denial of the dictates of conscience, and avoidance of the grim realities.

Yet the grim realities are wearing out the cloak of victimhood. More and more, people are speaking out, no longer silenced by the fear of being labeled anti-semitic. Jews too are increasingly vocal, including from within the mainstream Jewish community.

This is why the terrible killing of the peace activists of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla may well be a turning point. It may mark the point where the world will no longer be conned by the victim narrative, and will finally say to Israel, "enough is enough".

Diaspora Jews must join in this confrontation. Enough victimhood, enough apologising for Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinians, enough denying the dictates of conscience. Continuing to live out the Holocaust nightmare as if it were real and present destroys all hope, all possibility of imagining and creating peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians, all ability to take responsibility for their dispossession.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.