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?

Suppose Barack Obama really does want to herd the Israelis and Palestinians into serious, fruitful peace negotiations. How could he, or anyone, hope to get an agreement from these seemingly intractable enemies? Two researchers think they've found at least the beginning of an answer.

They asked nearly 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians what kind of peace deal they would accept. When they proposed "rational" bargains, like land for peace or sharing control of Jerusalem, the answers were generally negative. For both sides, the researchers found, the real sticking points are about values that people hold sacred. The tangible issues -- land, resources, political control, and the like -- are only symbols of these sacred values.

That's the best way for the U.S. to understand -- Israeli relations emerging over "natural growth" in the West Bank settlements. In itself it's a relatively small matter. "Natural growth" boosted the settler population by only 3 percent in 2007. Settler families that expand could easily move and find housing elsewhere, as all other expanding Israeli families do.

But the Obama administration has chosen this particular issue as the symbolic gesture Israel must make. And the Israeli government has responded by making "natural growth" the new symbol of all Israel's sacred values.

If they have to give up settlement expansion, what will they have to give up next, they ask. Jerusalem? The Jews' right to have their own state? Perhaps even the state of Israel itself? A people with such a long history of persecution might very well be afraid of losing everything the Jews hold dear. That fear could well explain their intransigence.

Except that's not quite what the research shows. For Israelis -- and for Palestinians -- the crux of the conflict is not about what values each side is afraid of losing and wants to protect. It's about how much they can force the other side to give up.

Most of the respondents on each side demanded a settlement "that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures." The respondents said they would make concessions as long as "the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values."

What sacred values? The researchers offered only examples of actions: Palestinians want an apology from the Jews, while Jews want recognition of Israel's right to exist. But what are the deeper values symbolized by these actions? And why is forcing sacrifice from the other side the crucial goal?

I don't know much about the Palestinians. But having grown up in an observant Jewish home, been active in Jewish community life, studied and taught the history of Judaism for decades, and had close relatives living in Israel for decades, I have a pretty good idea of the values driving the Jewish side of the conflict.

One of the key values, perhaps the most important of all, is national pride. And the most cherished symbol of pride is a victory over an enemy -- forcing it to give up something, anything, that symbolizes a loss of its pride.

I first saw this clearly on Yom Kippur 1973. I was in synagogue, observing the holiest day of the Jewish year, when I heard that the Egyptians had crossed the Suez Canal and attacked the Israeli troops stationed on the other side. My immediate response was something like this:

The Israelis are at the Suez Canal because they captured the Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War in 1967. Why do the Egyptians want the Sinai back? It's a barren desert with no resources of any value. So I jumped to the conclusion (as a young man I was quicker to make assumptions about people I didn't know or understand) that the Egyptians did not want the land back. They wanted their national pride back. They had been humiliated in '67, and now they were going to recoup their self-esteem.

Therefore, I said, the Israelis can gain a huge advantage by withdrawing to the 1967 border, letting Egypt have the Sinai, throwing up their hands and crying "We lost!" They would have lost nothing of value. The Egyptians would be content. The way would be open for peace and security.

A few years later, the Israelis did give Sinai back to Egypt as part of a peace deal, and few Israelis expressed any regrets. How much easier to have done it on Yom Kippur 1973 and saved all that bloodshed.

But when I shared my logical solution with others in the synagogue, they simply didn't get it. I had no more success with my best friend, as I drove him to JFK Airport so he could fly back to Israel and rejoin his army unit for the Sinai war. To most Jews then, as to most Jews now, it was just obvious that when the enemy attacks, you fight back and inflict a loss on the attacker. That's how you bolster your national pride.

Is national pride a truly sacred value? Few Jews will say so directly. But for many Israeli Jews, and for most American Jews since the Six Day War, religion and nationalism have been intertwined. The theologian Emil Fackenheim fused them in his very influential idea that, since the Holocaust, God has given the Jews a new commandment that trumps all others: The Jewish people must survive as a distinct people, or else Hitler's goal of a Jew-free world will be realized.

Now Israel is the fundamental symbol of Jewish survival. So Israel's war victories have an "inescapably religious dimension" because they keep Israel safe from destruction.

But when I heard Fackenheim speak a few years after the Yom Kippur war, I discovered that his real belief was rather different. Someone in the audience asked a question: "You say that Israel must fight its enemies to insure Jewish survival. Yet what guarantee is there that Israel will win every war and always insure Jewish survival?"

The distinguished theologian gave this rather shocking reply: "There is no guarantee. Israel may indeed be destroyed. But the important point is that next time we will go down fighting."

There was no need to spell out the obvious implication: If we go down fighting, we can feel proud of ourselves, even if the last Jew disappears from the earth. Survival is not as sacred to us as pride, and pride comes from fighting the enemy. "Never Again" means never again will we let ourselves be shamefully herded to slaughter without resisting to the last woman and man.

This commitment has always been a central pillar of Israeli life. The widely admired, recently deceased Israeli author Amos Elon wrote (in his 1971 best-seller, The Israelis) that the memory of the Holocaust "explains the obsessive suspicion [and] the towering urge for self-reliance" that marks Israeli Jews. But he added that the same memory also plagues Israelis with "a suspended confusion, a neurotic constriction ... compounded by pangs of conscience, guilt and shame."

Israeli children are taught in school about "the disgraceful shame and cowardice" of all victims of anti-Semitic massacres in the Diaspora, to convince them that only a Jewish state with an invincible army could take away the shame. And Israelis exaggerate the degree of Jewish resistance to the Nazis because it "seems essential to their dignity as a group."

Elon knew that the theme of shame and pride lay at the very root of Zionism. In his biography of Theodore Herzl, he claimed that the father of the Zionist movement was motivated, above all, by "wounded pride" -- being denied what he thought was his rightful place among the elite of European society, simply because he was Jewish. Herzl was well aware that he was making national pride a sacred symbol. He urged the early Zionists to "turn the Jewish question into a question of Zion."

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.

Are Palestinians caught in the same trap? The researchers who studied both sides found them equally focused on inflicting symbolic defeats on the other side. Perhaps Palestinians are as afraid, as are Israelis, of losing their pride. Perhaps that's why Hamas leaders resist formal recognition of Israel, even though they have clearly signaled their de facto acceptance of the Jewish state for several years and affirm the same view now. But that is for Palestinians and those who know them well to say. If it does turn out that the two sides are mirror images of each other, the conflict might seem even more insoluble.

Yet, the researchers who collected all this data suggest a more hopeful view. Once mediators from outside, like George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, understand that all the tangible issues in dispute are basically counters in a symbolic contest, they can begin to work with both sides more constructively.

In principle, anything can serve equally well as a symbolic counter. So no specific issue need be a sticking point. A truly skilled mediator could identify assets that each side could afford to lose, from a practical point of view, and suggest that they be sacrificed in a show of graceful concession.

Then each side could do what I wish the Israelis had done way back in 1973: throw up its hands, cry "We lost!" this or that or some other thing, and give the other side a reason to feel proud of its victory. As implausible as it sounds, that may be the only way to Middle East peace.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.