Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, in an interview quoted in The New York Times, repeated his objection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state: “It’s my narrative, it’s my history, it’s my story.” He continued, “I’ve never heard in the history of mankind that others must participate in defining the nature of others. It’s really ridiculous.”
Ridiculing is, indeed, one of the core human defense mechanisms, as is the appeal to “the history of mankind,” which is a version of “everybody knows.” Defense mechanisms defend against acknowledging a reality: “My child is gay,” “Obama was born in the United States,” “Israel is a Jewish state.” A neurosis is the building of a private world against the facticity of the world outside, the obstinate Other. The neurotic does everything one can to enforce that private world. When something on the outside occurs that significantly damages the world one has built on the inside, there is a neurotic need to “undo.” The Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a psychological need to “undo” Israel, as if another state just appeared yonder, Atlantis rising up out of the ocean. “Not sure what it is, but as long as it ain’t Jewish.”
If Israel were Jewish, then the last century would be real. The final collapse of Muslim dreams of world domination, at its heyday in the 11th to 14th centuries, was real in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. England and France really did divvy up the loot and plunder the land. The vast humiliation really did happen. A Western-dominated United Nations really did divide Palestine between Jews and Arabs, and the Palestinians and their co-belligerents really did lose the wars of 1948 and 1967. Lost wars often create changed borders and refugees, who eventually are resettled in new homes. To hold on to old borders, to prohibit refugees from resettling, to insist that the descendants of those refugees be repatriated is a way to undo. To prohibit Israel’s name from appearing on maps, and to drum into each succeeding generation the illegitimacy of the “Zionist entity,” is to hopefully rewind history. All are acts of denial.
When I was studying Hebrew in Jerusalem back in 1980, I was studying the prepositions that go along with the Hebrew word hi’keer. Hi’keer et means to know something — as in conocer in Spanish — that is, to be familiar with somebody or something. The term hi’keer b’ means “to recognize politically.” Here is the example our teacher, a soft-spoken young woman who suddenly had iron in her voice, gave: “Ha-palestinayim lo makeerim b’Yisrael, aval hem makeerim et Yisrael heitev.” The Palestinians don’t recognize Israel, but they are very familiar with Israel.” Up-close-and-personal familiar, as in retaliatory strikes in response to terror attacks.
Palestinians know that Israel is a Jewish state (just as Israelis had to admit that Palestinians are not just southern Syrians), otherwise they would not be committed to its eradication and feel the unpleasant effects of that commitment. I understand that for most Palestinians, a peace treaty with Israel is a suspending of the conflict to a more propitious time. This does not outrage me. But it sobers me when I think about Middle East peace.
Erekat, the moderate, admits as much. Whatever his narrative, his history, his story, is, it does not include the facticity of the last 100 years, including the rise of the Jewish state.
Looming in the background to all this, of course, is the half of Palestine not represented at the peace negotiations, Hamas. Hamas, at least, is true to its colors. Calling Israel the “Zionist entity” at least recognizes Zionism as a historical fact. Hamas will not accept the semantic sleight of hand that Erekat, Mahmoud Abbas and their ilk favor. Hamas is straight up: the eradication of Israel and its Jews, now and forever, whatever you want to call it, regardless of absent adjectives.
Perhaps this neurotic need to undo is just neurotic as a fox. Abbas and Erekat know that their hold on East Palestine is only as good as the next election. And if history is any guide, any election that Hamas wins will be the last election. If the Palestinian populace, 60 percent of whom are against recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, turns against them, they will be out of office and power permanently, which means off the United Nations dole. I believe that in their heart of hearts, they wish that Israel would be scraped off the map and the Jews shoved into the sea. Absent that, they want at least to maintain power and office. As Yasser Arafat knew, the way to stay in power is to be in constant negotiations or in non-negotiations. At Camp David in 2000, Arafat snatched war out of the jaws of peace. It gave him a few more years in power, his rep as a warrior and untold millions of U.N. largess stashed away. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would most probably fast track Abbas and Erekat to being deposed.
Abbas and Erekat don’t have to go near Camp David and find themselves on the brink of peace. Their neurotic stand is supported by another psychological malady from which much of the Western world suffers, a neurosis without which the Palestinians might have to face reality: the psychological need to work off the guilt of imperialism and colonialism. One way to work off guilt is to identity with the victim and to see oneself as working on behalf of the victim. Palestinians have ably marketed themselves as the archetypal victim of colonialism and imperialism. The effort required from those working on their behalf — thankfully for those who feel responsible for world suffering — is neither complex nor too demanding: Harm and delegitimize Israel as much as possible.
Why go after truly rapacious evil states such as North Korea, or thug-ocracies China and Russia; why not decry the massacres occurring in Syria and Nigeria, or the specter of starvation in eastern Africa, when you can engage in self-congratulatory slacktivism by going after the low-hanging fruit of the Jewish state? Delegitimizing Israel is easy and trendy to boot. Confronting any of the real evils in the world requires facing reality, complex thinking and moral fortitude — qualities that neurotics avoid. They prefer avoidance affected by slogans and neat fabrications. Western guilt and Palestinian denial form a mighty dysfunctional duo.
Not recognizing reality, that Israel actually is a Jewish state, is to enforce a neurosis, a war against the world. Unfortunately, the world targeted here is Israel, and the war is real. We’ll know that the Palestinians are no longer delusional when they publicly resign themselves to the fact that Israel is, indeed, a Jewish state and then start to get on with the rest of their lives.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue and professor of Jewish thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.