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Is Israel's Aggression a Question of Pride?

Israel would rather go down fighting than survive with a damaged sense of national pride. What would happen if concessions weren't so symbolic?

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Even earlier, the first important Zionist writer, Leo Pinsker, told the Jews (in his famous tract "Self-Emancipation"): "You are foolish, because you expect of human nature something which it has never had -- humanity. You are also contemptible, because you have no real self-esteem and no national self-respect. National self-respect! Where can we find it?" Pinsker's answer, the answer of most Zionists ever since, was: only in a nation-state of our own.

Pinsker's words and Herzl's wounded pride reveal one root of the profound dilemma that has kept Israel trapped in a seemingly irrational cycle of intransigence and conflict for all these years. It is shameful and contemptible to let oneself fall victim to persecution, the argument goes. But Gentiles will always be persecutors. So Jews living in Diaspora will always feel shame and self-contempt. The mistake that Pinsker, Herzl and most other Zionists made was to assume that a state of their own would free them from this trap.

Instead, the state became a projection of the individual Jew, writ large. And the surrounding Arab nations became projections of individual Gentiles. Since Gentiles were by definition persecutors (according to the dominant Zionist worldview), the inevitable political conflicts between Israel and neighboring Arab peoples were bound to be seen as merely more of the same old persecution and victimization, bringing with it the same sense of shame.

Every tangible goal of Israeli policy became a symbol of the ultimate goal: defeating the Gentiles in order to escape from shame, to gain pride and self-respect.

Today, Israel pursues that aim by demanding the right of "natural growth" in its West Bank settlements. In other words, Israel wants the Palestinians to accept not merely the settlements that exist, but the larger settlements planned for the future, along with abandoning Jerusalem and the right of return. Inevitably, the Palestinians balk at such drastic sacrifices.

For most Jews, every such refusal becomes further "evidence" that the Palestinians are moved by the same irrational anti-Semitism that Jews suffered in Diaspora. To fail to resist it would only increase the sense of shame. So resist the Jews must, no matter what the rest of the world thinks of such intransigence. Indeed, since the rest of the world is Gentile, defying world opinion reaps the benefit of added pride.

And what if the other side does accede to Israeli demands? When the researchers asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a rational bargain -- accepting a two-state solution in return for all major Palestinian factions (including Hamas) recognizing Israel as a Jewish state -- he answered by demanding further sacrifice: "O.K., but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations."

There's more here than distrust of the enemy. Since the whole process is in the realm of symbolism, no tangible gain may ever be enough.

The ideology formulated by Pinsker has become a viciously self-confirming cycle. Israeli leaders fear that anything less than intransigence will cost them dearly at the polls. Unable to turn from resistance to reconciliation, they lock their nation into ongoing conflict and all the insecurity it brings.

Most Israelis do feel insecure. They fear that Palestinians and other Arabs will attack them, if given a chance. But a mere glance at the immense military advantage Israel has over all its neighbors makes that fear seem irrational.

It all becomes far more understandable if we recognize that what most Israelis fear, above all, is losing not their land or even their lives, but their very tenuous sense of national pride. Couple that with a natural desire to blame all the problems on the other side, so that Jews can feel morally pure and innocent, and it's hard to see how they can break out of this vicious cycle.