Drew Westen
The Political Brain

An American Awakening

May 22, 2024: another blog piece on Israel and my own emotional connection to it
This is SO brilliant. It certainly fits my experience.

I grew up in a Jewish family in the southern United States that had little connection to a Jewish community after my father became disabled. My parents felt ashamed because although he was a physical chemist with a PhD, he couldn’t say where he was working, so we didn’t rejoin a temple when we moved. Before that, he had had a religious awakening (which was probably a manic episode, but I suppose you take the divine however it comes), and I would go with him to Temple on Friday nights. Then he became ill, we moved to a new city, and we never put down any roots in the Jewish community.

I know what it’s like to feel different as a teenager, and how it eats away at you. It took several years for me to re-identify as Jewish, particularly being a secular Jew. I remember singing in the Ann Arbor civic chorus, and as our holiday concert approached, people were complaining that all the Hanukkah music was awful, and one of my friends who knew that I had been a singer-songwriter turned to me and said, “Drew, you’re sort of Jewish, why don’t you write something?“ So I quipped, knowing the dynamics of what creates a self-hating Jew, “What am I going to write, a song called, ‘Oy to be a Goy on Christmas?’” And then a week later, it was on the radio. It was sort of the first time I “came out“ as Jewish, although it’s not exactly as if no one had noticed.

When my kids were little, we lived near a temple that had just opened a preschool, I loved walking them to school every day as much as they loved their little community there, and they brought me as much into it the temple as I brought them. But as for my connection to Israel, it had psychological roots in all of those years of Sunday school, learning about the Holocaust, which had only ended 15 years before my birth, and sending money to plant trees in Israel as a ritual we practiced every Sunday, but it was more theoretical than emotional. I believed in a Jewish state like I would have believed in the right of statehood for any people, but especially for a people who had dispersed across continents, been expelled and slaughtered everywhere they went, and could no longer rely on the kindness of strangers or largesse that could at any point be retracted. It was never a surprise to me why Jews had been the strongest white supporters of the civil rights movement, because we knew what it was like to be strangers in a strange land, even in our own land.

But nothing has tied me in an emotional way to Israel like the attack on October 7 – and the attacks on Jews that began in the US and around the world within two days, before Israel had laid a finger on Gaza. I told some friends on October 7 I felt uneasy about the news coverage because I felt a hint of schadenfreude – a smug satisfaction in the midst of the carnage and barbarism, that the big, bad Israeli military and intelligence somehow could have let this happen. I felt more uneasy on October 9 when violent college protests began, but they were not against Hamas. I have felt more uneasy still as the protests against the withholding of hostages have somehow been aimed at the victims of the hostage-takers, rather than at their kidnappers, who openly preach genocide against the Jews and have raped, tortured, and murdered them.

And over the ensuing months, what has bothered me perhaps the most is the inversion of causation that has betrayed widespread unconscious and increasingly conscious antisemitism from people who blame their rage against Israel at its tactics of war. Sure, those tactics have contributed to terrible suffering among the people of Gaza. But students didn’t chant genocidal slogans at the US after 911, and we were not facing an enemy who relished the death of their own civilians because it was great for public relations and, what the hell, why not proselytize and radicalize American students while creating unwitting and unwilling martyrs out of children. Why not then inflate their numbers, fail to subtract the number of those casualties who are actually militants who have been killed in war, and report them to breathless, brainless journalists who would never have quoted figures from the “al-Qaeda ministry of health.“ I’m yet to hear anyone explain how you protect your people against an army that is genocidal towards its own people. That was the horrible and haunting dilemma Harry Truman faced. How many of your own sons do you sacrifice to people who would martyr their daughters?

To those who chant, “from the river to the sea,“ where, exactly, would you like the Jews, then, to go? And to many who blame their rage on Israel‘s tactics of war, sure, most of us detest Netanyahu. But the cold, hard truth is that your hateful chants against Israel began before the first Israeli boot or bomb landed on Gaza after October 7. That means that more of the hate than you would like to admit came from you.

About the Author
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, now a full-time political message consultant and commentator based in Washington DC. His book, The Political Brain, has had a substantial impact on elections in the US and internationally.