The U.S – China relationship is one of the most important and intriguing relationships of our time as it is likely to determine the future balance of power in the world. Much is said and written about this relationship, yet there is one aspect that is usually forgotten, and that is the cultural and psychological prism through which the two people perceive each other and the way this prism influences policy making.
A short history lesson: the U.S began its official relationship with China in the mid 19th century, while American missionaries began spreading their gospel in the Far-East and China well before that. An ideology of “Manifest Destiny”, coupled with racist stereotypes, led Americans to romanticize about a different China than actually existed. Romanticism led to expectations, which in turn led to disappointments. It is fascinating to see how American decision makers, whether in the White House or in the State Department, continuously got “let down” when China acted contrary to expectations. Fast forwarding the historical account, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre (as it is dubbed in the West), seems to have finally managed to awaken Americans from their romantic day dreaming, as any remaining hopes for a liberal democracy in China were shattered.
What has this to do with Israel and the Middle-East? Well, nothing and everything. Different region, different rules. Yet what if, like in the example of the U.S – China relationship, there was a cultural and psychological prism through which Israel perceived its place in the region, and which consequently contributed to faulty decision making?
Probably the most obvious component of such a prism is a severe sense of insecurity due to a long history of tragic and traumatic events, first and foremost being the Holocaust. Persecution, expulsion, ghettoization, extermination, pogroms – all these terms resonate deeply within the Jewish collective consciousness, culminating in the creation of a survivalist identity. With the establishment of the State of Israel, this identity infiltrated the collective national awareness of the newly born state creating the “never again” mentality.
This mentality contends that there is a seamless and interconnected continuum of enemies seeking to destroy the Jewish people and Israel – starting with Amalek, continuing with Haman and Germany, and ending with Iran. The “never again” mentality is also comprised of a very virile and upright position which responds to threats and fears by seemingly stating: “We are not the Jews of Europe. We are not the weak and dependent Jews who did not control their own destiny. We will show you we are independent (even if it costs us).”
In light of historical events, Jews have ample reason to suffer from such insecurities, but the problem is that it has reached a point where Israelis perceive danger and ill intention from all sides, even when there is no objective reason to do so. Anyone disagreeing with Israeli positions is called an anti-semite. Even after proving his pro-Israel position time and again, Obama is still branded an anti-semite. Thus, legitimate and constructive criticism is often discarded, and opportunities lost.
Jewish Manifest Destiny
In formulating its vision for establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, certain Zionists (e.g., Zangwill) reused the slogan of “a land without people for a people without land”. This slogan was of course incorrect (people there were, and most were not Jews), and was coupled with a certain romanticism of the utopia to be created in Palestine.
Not all Zionists denied the existence of another population in Palestine, though they also added an element of romanticism to the Zionist dream. In 1902, Herzl published his utopian novel “Altneuland”. In his idealized description of the Zionist movement’s goal, the existing Arabs welcomed the vigorous newcomers whom he imagined settling there in the 1920s, and the new society they created. In 1907, Yitzhak Epstein wrote an article called “A Hidden Question” in which he observed: “We have forgotten one small matter: There is in our beloved land an entire nation, which has occupied it for hundreds of years and has never thought to leave it.” Zionism, Epstein warned, would have to face and solve “The Arab Question.”
So whether defined as a “problem” to be solved, or whether expected to embrace the Jewish return to their homeland with open arms – the inhabitants of Palestine were only a side-line statistic in the grand scheme of things. It seems nobody actually contemplated coming to terms with any different outcome.
This week we had the dubious pleasure of hearing Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal speaking in front of a Hamas crowd in Gaza. Though hardly pleasant to the ears, and I certainly do not discount the spiteful content, his ranting should not be taken as anything else than a political speech aimed at catering political needs and covering up harsh economic realities and devastation on the ground in the aftermath of the latest military confrontation. But instead, many Israelis looked through their national prism and saw another Hitler calling for the annihilation of the Jewish people, and another example of how the Palestinians are barbarians that (as a people) cannot be dealt with any other way other than by force.
By understanding these “scratches on our minds” we can perhaps begin to place past events in a different perspective, and more importantly, prescribe the way we make decisions in the future. The extremists in the region would have us believe in the existence of two mutually-exclusive narratives reflecting two absolute truths. Understanding that these narratives are a shadow of deep constructive psychological processes will lead us to the realization that there are other alternative narratives out there that possibly contain elements of truth as well.