There are many puzzling things about how “progressives” in the West view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To hear them tell it, progressives are advocates of human freedoms. Their core concerns are human rights, social justice and fairness, which they feel have been denied to groups that have been exploited by the more powerful, white members of society. These groups include ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians.
Progressives are advocates of the underdog. They search out situations in which members of underdog groups have lower social and economic achievement than others. According to progressives, it is the role of government to guarantee that all groups have equal opportunity to achieve social and economic success, and to make extra efforts to even out inequality.
Progressives do not confine their humanitarian concerns to the U.S. They decry the colonialism of white Americans and Europeans who have a history of exploiting ethnic peoples in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They readily expose the inherent unfairness in US and European colonialism and vigorously defend the liberation of people from western colonial domination. They believe that western colonialism has been entirely an unjust project harmful to non-western peoples.1
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
Hundreds of millions of people outside the western world are oppressed, impoverished and exploited. But out of this mass of oppressed people, the western progressive has zeroed in on one relatively small group of underdogs: the Palestinians. Nothing will raise the dander of a progressive more than a discussion about the plight of the Palestinians and, by extension, the offenses of the Israelis (by which they mean Jews).
A word of explanation: When progressives say “Palestinian” they mean Arabs who live today in Israel proper, in the Israeli territories, and in surrounding countries. Few are aware of the historical confusion of this term. What is Israel today was sparsely populated prior to the beginning of the twentieth century. Large numbers of both Arabs and Jews migrated to this area after 1900 due to the economic development brought to the area by Jews. Yet, a Jewish person who settled in the area in 1890 is not a Palestinian, even though an Arab who settled there half a century later is.
But for simplicity of argument, let’s accept the progressive terms for Arabs as Palestinians and Jews as Jews.
It is odd that progressives have chosen to focus obsessively on the conflict between Palestinians and Jews over all other, much larger and more violent conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East and the world. These conflicts afflict people who are far more impoverished, threatened and oppressed than Palestinians.
It is also odd that progressives uncritically support Palestinians against Jews. That is because, as I noted above, progressives believe in western values of human rights and fairness, especially the rights of women, gays, ethnic, religious and other minorities. And while Israel embodies these rights, that is not the case in a single Arab country. Nor is it the case under the Palestinian Authority, the government that rules over the vast majority of Arabs in the Israeli territories.
So why have progressives sided with the group that violates the very values they say they hold dear?
Various commentators have suggested answers to this question. The preference for the Palestinian side may be due to the progressive’s sympathy for the victim. It may be due to anti-Semitism. Perhaps it is because the Palestinians have been better than the Jews at telling their story.
All these explanations hold some truth. But recently I came across another explanation from an unlikely source: Transactional Analysis (TA). TA is a psychological theory that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than focus on psychodynamics, it focuses instead on ways in which people habitually interact. Eric Berne, the founder of TA, believed that functional and dysfunctional human interactions are governed by “games.” That is, in their interactions, people play out fixed roles in a variety of patterned ways that follow the rules of a game.2
I read about this in a blog written by social commentator John Michael Greer. Greer writes specifically about TA’s Rescue Game.3
Although Greer did not intend his framework to apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think it fits well. It explains many puzzling things about the one-sided support of progressives for the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
According to Greer, controversial issues in every society are governed by narratives. For example, after the US Civil War, white southerners understood their relationship to blacks by confining all discussion to a narrative that claimed that southern whites had been unfairly persecuted by the newly-freed blacks as well as the northern carpetbaggers who encouraged them. These narratives are pervasive in that all discussion and thinking are channeled into them. No alternative views are permitted. The narratives obscure important relationships among groups and they prevent questions that would challenge the dominant view presented by the narrative. In the post-bellum example, because the narrative served the needs of wealthy white southerners, it was this group that reaped the greatest rewards from adoption of the narrative.
In his blog post, Greer focuses on the key element of TA: interpersonal games. At any given time, several games are “played” in a family or society. Like board games, there are players with defined roles, a set of rules, and rewards or payoffs for the players. In many games, players are not aware of their roles or the rules of the game.
The Rescue Game
TA theory describes a number of games. The game relevant to this post is called the Rescue Game. In this game there are three types of players: Victims, Persecutors and Rescuers. Each type of player has a role. The role of Victims is to suffer, and of Persecutors, to make the Victims suffer. Rescuers have a larger set of roles and more say in the game. Rescuers sympathize with the Victims and they punish the Persecutors. Because Rescuers generally come from more powerful societal groups, they get to say who is a Victim, Persecutor or Rescuer.
The purpose of this game is not to help the victims (although that is not obvious to the players). That would end the game.
How does the Rescue Game apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How does it explain the zeal of western progressives to sympathize with the Palestinians and punish the Jews?
Western progressives are Rescuers. They define the Palestinians as Victims and the Jews as Persecutors. What does this look like in practice?
In the Rescue Game, the roles are fixed, regardless of players’ behavior. Victims are always Victims. Persecutors are always Persecutors. Rescuers are always Rescuers.
As an example, let’s look at recent events on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, a site holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Three Palestinians smuggled weapons into the Temple Mount, hid them in the holy al-Aqsa mosque, later retrieved them and used them to murder two Israeli policemen who were protecting the safety of visitors to the area. Despite this very Persecutor-like behavior, the Palestinians remain Victims. The Palestinian “Victims” and their enabling progressive Rescuers claimed that the Palestinian violence is really a form of resistance. To a progressive, this characterization is justified.
If Jews were to engage in the same violent acts, that would merely reinforce their role as Persecutors. The Palestinian Victims and their western Rescuers would loudly condemn the Jews. What happened in this instance was egregious. In order to prevent further terrorist attacks on the holy site, the Israelis installed metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount (just as metal detectors have been installed at holy sites across the world). The Palestinians and their Rescuers condemned this as an infringement and crime against Palestinian rights. In this game, the Israelis continued in their role of Persecutors.
Once a player has assumed a role, every action of that player is defined and re-defined as an action consistent with that role. Thus, no matter what they do, Persecutors are always Persecutors.
If anyone attempts to show that a Victim has perpetrated a wrong against another player, or a Persecutor has relieved the suffering of a victim, that person has violated the rules of the Rescue Game. In order to keep the game going, the role violation will be labelled as irrelevant or will be denounced as a malicious way of distracting attention from the persecution of the Victims by the Persecutors.
So for example, if an observer criticizes an Arab street party held to celebrate the killing of Jewish civilians by a Palestinian, that criticism is declared to be irrelevant: “It doesn’t change the fact that Jews oppress Arabs.” And anyone who points out that Israelis protect the rights of gays and lesbians (while Arabs imprison or murder them) is told that he is engaging in illegitimate “pink washing.” That is, the Rescuers condemn Israel for the imaginary crime of using their respectful treatment of gays and lesbians as a way to distract attention from supposed human rights crimes against Palestinians.
Pin the Tail on the Persecutor
According to Greer, the Rescue Game plays out in three phases. The first two phases are relevant here. The first phase is called “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor.” In this phase, Victims plead their case, as they try to convince the Rescuers they are suffering at the hands of the Persecutors. Successful victims attract enough Rescuers to make the game possible.
Palestinians have become masters at attracting the attention of Western Rescuers by showcasing their suffering, at times even inventing it, and blaming that suffering on the Persecuting Jews, rather than on their own corrupt and violent leaders. An example is the phenomenon that has become known as Pallywood. In their armed conflicts with the Israelis, the Palestinians stage scenes in which Arab actors feign injuries and death. Strategically placed cameramen then record the staged scenes which are released to willing Rescuers in the international media. These scenes, casting the Israelis as Persecutors, are then played and re-played in the media. Anyone who cares to look, can find internet videos in which “dead” or “injured” Palestinians are loaded onto ambulances and driven off, only to reappear later, walking out of the ambulances, unhurt.
One enterprising Palestinian family turned Pallywood into a family affair. Mother, father, and their teenage daughter and son launched an unprovoked attack against an Israeli soldier. The press cameras began to role after the attack, showing just the soldiers’ struggle with his attackers. As the soldier struggled to free himself from his attackers’ blows, the little girl repeatedly bit his hand. But the Pallywood family made an error. In the initial footage, the boy sported a cast on his left arm (How could that evil Israeli soldier fight an injured boy?) In footage taken moments later, the boy’s cast appeared on his other arm. The entire episode—-including the boy’s fake injury—-was deliberately staged. The news reporter-Rescuers must have known what was going on. But they played the Rescue Game, reporting only that part of the story that presented the Israeli soldier as a Persecutor. This was not an isolated incident. Arab staging like this goes on all the time and the accommodating Rescuers of the international press play their part in the Rescue game.
The second phase of the Rescue Game is called “Show Trial.” This phase provides an ingredient necessary for continuation of the game: an audience. The audience must applaud the Victims and bully the Persecutors. This requirement is easily met in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in that the world is obsessed with the conflict, devoting far greater attention to it than other, larger conflicts. To keep the Rescue Game going, the press provides coverage that sympathizes with the plight of Palestinians, overlooks Palestinian incitement, and assigns blame to Israelis. This was illustrated in an article by Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press Reporter, in which he criticized the international press corps for distorting the truth by adopting a narrative in which Israelis are Persecutors and Palestinians are Victims.4
The Show Trial phase of the Rescue Game also requires that the Persecutors show up to the game. In the case of Israelis, they have no choice. Israelis fend off a constant stream of Palestinian attacks. To defend themselves, to protect their families from being murdered, they are obligated to show up for the game.
Now the Rescue Games begins in earnest. As Greer explains,
…..once the Persecutors arrive, the action of the game is stereotyped. The Victims accuse the Persecutors of maltreating them, the Persecutors try to defend themselves, and then the Victims and Rescuers get to bully the Persecutors into silence….
Greer’s description of this phase of the Rescue Game is eerily similar to what has happened to Israel and its defenders. In business, academia and the arts, well organized boycott movements bully Israelis by making false and outrageous charges of “human rights abuses.” The boycotts also attempt to punish every segment of Israeli society.
A parallel process takes place on many US and European college campuses where Jewish and pro-Israel students are literally bullied and threatened. Pro-Israel speakers and even non-political Jewish events are disrupted or shut down altogether.
The Rescue Game continues only because there is a payoff for all the players. But the payoff or reward is not the same for every player.
The payoff for the Victims is straightforward. They get to air their grievances in public, and they get society’s approval to bully a group they don’t like. There are significant psychological benefits to these payoffs.
All the Persecutors get is criticism. This may help solidify group cohesion among Persecutors. (As some Israelis say, “The whole world is against us. We must be unified.”) But it may not be enough to convince the Persecutors to stay in the game. The Israelis stay only because they have no choice.
By far, the greatest payoff goes to the Rescuers, in this case, western progressives. They get to decide who will be allowed to play the Victim and who will be cast as the Persecutor. They enforce the rules. They get to interpret every act of the Victim as dignified and just, and every act of the Persecutor as evil and unjust. Greer observes that the Rescuers are inevitably more powerful and privileged than the Victims and Persecutors. He thinks this is no accident.
In the west, the Rescuers in the Israeli-Palestinian game are generally affluent, educated people. They are students and faculty at universities. They are members of government and government organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union. They are members of civil society groups such as Amnesty International and the Quaker Society. In a word, they are the privileged. What is their payoff in the Rescue Game?
Greer suggests that the Rescuers never really intend to ameliorate the suffering of the Victims. Rather, they have a vested interest in keeping the Victims as Victims, thereby continuing the Rescue Game. I will extrapolate a bit beyond Greer’s arguments.
The Rescuers’ payoffs include the psychological satisfaction of viewing themselves as saviors of the oppressed; the social status that accrues to showy humanitarianism (virtue signaling); and relief from the moral suspicion that they don’t care much about the Victims.
But the most important payoff for Rescuers in the Israeli-Palestinian Rescue Game is that the game distracts from discussion of a stunning fact: Western Rescuers live in countries that are far less legitimate than the State of Israel.5 And most were built, at least in part, sometimes entirely, by displacing, evicting and massacring the people who used to live where they now live.
- Progressives rarely mention non-Western colonialism. Many of them seem unaware of the Muslim conquest and colonization of North Africa, the Middle East, and much of Europe. The Muslim colonization of these areas lasted much longer than the relatively short period of European colonization of Muslim countries, some of which had formerly been Christian. For a detailed history of Muslim colonization, see B. Lewis, Islam and the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Berne, E. Games People Play: The Basic Hand Book of Transactional Analysis. New York: Ballantine. 1964..
- Greer, J.M. American Narratives: The Rescue Game. The Archdruid Report Mirror (Blog). Retrieved August 18, 2017 from: http://archdruidmirror.blogspot.com/2017/06/american-narratives-rescue-game.html
The material that follows in my post is largely drawn from the above blog post by John Michael Greer.
- Friedman, M. An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth. Tablet Magazine. August 26, 2014. Retrieved August 19, 2017 from:
- Almost every inhabitable inch of the world has been subject to conquest, re-conquest, expulsion, settlement, and migration. Israel is no exception. But the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to a national homeland in Israel is rooted in 3,700 years of history as documented in Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious texts, archaeological findings, and international resolutions such as the San Remo Resolution of 1922.