Reflections on Israel’s Victim Mentality

To identify as a victim, regardless of the objective criteria that defines what a victim is, is meant to serve a social-psychological function. Given the right context, victimhood is utilised to ensure social cohesion, validation, and, above all, societal approval.

More often than not, however, the desire to be socially recognised as a victim entails an expectation of privileged treatment, or in other words, a special sense of entitlement. One that devalues anyone who does not offer special recognition and validation of the victim status or compensation for it.

Abuse victims build automatic defence systems generally characterised by a reactive form of narcissism, transforming — in many cases — victims into abusers. After all, it is known that the extreme self-centredness resulted from victimisation, real or perceptual, increases the ‘victim’s’ tendency to develop certain narcissistic traits, such as grandiosity, apathy, emotional isolation and resentment, as unhealthy methods of self-preservation.

In Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler presented himself and the German people as victims, using the victimhood narrative to rationalise and justify a form of narcissistic, supremacist nationalism that led to the systematic persecution and extermination of many groups of people. Ones who were either deemed racially inferior or were viewed as a complicit in Germany’s defeat in World War I. Little did many at the time know that such narcissistic victimhood would lead to the most horrifying genocide in the twentieth century. 

Today, ironically, this genocide, having become the ultimate symbol of Jewish victimhood and the extreme result of Hitler’s victim mentality, itself evolved into a controversial paradox. The Shoah has become a perpetual, ahistorical trauma that defines Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. 

Similar to a traumatised adult who survived childhood abuse, Israel struggles to separate the past of persecution from her current affairs with the Palestinians and Arabs. To make sense of her anxious existence, the country overcompensates through overemphasising its identity as a victim. The result, expectedly, would be an emphasis on survivability at any cost — a process the New York Times’ Roger Cohen (2006)(2) described as the ‘annihilation psychosis’ — even if that meant victimising others along the way. 

The three major Israeli assaults on Gaza between 2008 and 2014 are solid examples of such mentality. They were repeatedly viewed and presented to the Jewish public and the world as a desperate effort to ensure the very survival of the Jewish people, giving little or no regard to the asymmetrical power relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The occupier-occupied hierarchal relationship, in a way of explanation, was trivialised in favour of preserving Israel’s self-image as a victim. It is not about the occupation and oppression but, rather, about the continuation of Jewish suffering since the exodus from Egypt. The Palestinians, in a way, are only the last phase of a long history of anti-Semitism, the new Amaleks.  

In their authoritative review of victimhood in intractable conflicts, A Sense Of Self-Perceived Collective Victimhood In Intractable Conflicts, in 2009 social psychologists Daniel Bar-Tal and Lily Chernyak-Hai wrote that collective victim mentality develops from a progression of self-realisation, social recognition, and eventual attempts to maintain victimhood status.

By asking Israeli Jews about their memory of the conflict with the ‘Arabs’ from its inception to the present, the study found that their “consciousness was characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering.” It is essentially a constructed collective memory using both the past persecution of the Jews and the Shoah as a moral justification in the conflict.

Nothing reflects Israel’s self-perceived victimhood like the concept of self-defence. The recent wars on Gaza (2008-2009, 2012, 2014) resurrected and reshaped of the Israeli doctrine of ‘ein breira’ (no alternative). It means that every Israeli war is unavoidable and necessary for the survival of the Jewish people. In other words, every war is by definition a form of self-defence irrespective of the geopolitical circumstances. Questioning the country’s motives and operations on the ground is not permissible and increasingly will not stand any scrutiny.

During Operation Protective edge in Gaza, 2014, we had been showered with a barrage of Israeli media reports and official statements in a fashion similar to what Irish Senator David Norris described as ‘’Israel bombs first and weeps later.’’ The impression was that if you were an Israeli Jew, you would see yourself as David against the Islamist Goliath. You were meant to see a powerful elephant, Israel, against a very aggressive mouse, the Palestinians. And I dare to say that Israeli Jews, in general, believe that their very existence is threatened by this mouse and endeavour to convey their perception of this ‘reality’ to the world.

This mentality is also common amongst many non-Israeli Jews, mainly, in Western Europe and the US. According to Jewish organisations in the United Kingdom, for instance, there has been a noticeable increase in anti-Semitic sentiment since the beginning of the Gaza war(s). Expectedly, this phenomenon saw periods of heightened waves every time there was an Israeli onslaught against the Palestinians or the wider Arab world – take for example the 2006 Lebanon war. Instead of speaking out for justice, condemning the occupation, or at least expressing some understanding of the grief of the Palestinians, a significant number of European Jews chose to defend Israel against criticism and justify her actions. Some went as far as labelling the criticism of Israel’s policies as an anti-Semitic slur.

For many, given that Israel is perceived as an extension of their identity, turning a blind eye to Palestinian suffering is somewhat necessary to maintain the self-image of the ever-victimised Jew, a narcissistic self-preservation. There is a genuine belief that the Palestinians do, in fact, pose an existential threat to Israel and therefore defending Israel unconditionally is the right, if not the only, thing to do. 

The sad fact, however, is that until Israel’s Jews and their supporters begin to fathom that the Jewish suffering of the past, however terrible, does not apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any possible solutions appear to be unattainable. Israeli Jews at some point will have to stop and draw some comparison between those dead Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto and the Palestinian kids in the Gaza.

It is indeed disturbing to believe that there is something unique and more righteous about Jewish suffering.

About the Author
British-Palestinian academic specialised in the political and social psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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