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Josh Warhit

Resenting Israel out of helplessness and trauma

Answering the Jewish question was of strategic importance to liberal humanism in the early to mid-20th century. Success would have meant creating separation from competing ideological foundations — social humanism branded Jewish distinctiveness a threat to human progress and evolutionary humanism condoned Jews’ outright extermination.

However, liberal humanism was somewhat helpless in the face of antisemitism. European Jews had begun receiving equal rights in the late 18th century, but only because regimes felt compelled to implement the rights of man consistently, not because their societies had overcome bigotry. Emancipation happened, as Max Nordau told the First Zionist Congress, “only for the sake of principle.” Anti-Jewish sentiment ran as deep as ever before.

Eager to mold a modern world order but incapable of answering the Jewish question on its own, liberal humanism saw Zionism as more than a solution to Jews’ physical suffering. It saw a solution to its own sense of insecurity vis-à-vis this suffering. Liberal humanism would outsource to Zionism the task of ending all pain associated with antisemitism.

Pie in the sky

This was never possible. Jewish aspirations for sovereignty in any part of what by 1920 had become Mandatory Palestine clashed with fundamental regional conceptions of what Jews were supposed to be — inferior and humiliated — and what Arab Muslims were supposed to be — dominant and exalted. While Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland did not threaten to destroy a state, it did threaten to upend these conceptions, and thus enraged most of the people living in the area. To this day, the vast majority of people in the Middle East oppose Jewish control anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, regardless of Zionists’ compromises over the decades designed to preserve everyone’s lives, homes and democratic rights. 

Today, Palestinian society, in line with other predominantly Arab Muslim societies, deems whatever makes it upset to be evil, believes it is entitled to use any means to reverse what makes it upset, and considers all efforts that oppose these means to constitute further evil. Accordingly, the Palestinian national movement considers itself licensed to do anything, including the deliberate slaughter of Israeli non-combatants, to compel the State of Israel to surrender every inch of land it controls.

Trauma and resentment

The conflict that followed Zionism’s first steps became a source of pain and suffering for the people directly involved. In the process, it also became a source of trauma for liberal humanism. 

On top of liberal humanism’s helplessness against antisemitism, its overall support for Jewish nationalism had become inextricably linked to further suffering. Unable to cope with a Zionism that is invariably accompanied by pain, elements within liberal humanism have become resentful towards the movement.

Some elements insist that in the face of intense opposition, Jewish statehood is morally untenable and should disappear altogether — as if the refusal to live in peace and respect alongside a country should trigger that country’s dismantlement. Others refrain from calling on Israel to disappear, but insist nonetheless on the establishment of a Palestinian state, regardless of what the Palestinian national movement says and does. 

Liberal humanism’s trauma and the resentment that stems from this trauma are perilous. Beyond risking the relative safety that Israel has provided for many Jews, judging the country based on its failure to single-handedly produce an optimal outcome threatens to undo liberal humanism itself. 

Fundamental underpinnings of liberalism like individual responsibility and agency are geared towards ascribing importance to the source of pain. Judging based on approach rather than outcome is what spares people and communities the impossible task of being superhuman. Condemning Israel for its lack of peace with people dead set against making such peace is illiberal. When otherwise well-meaning people judge the Jewish state in this manner, they become prone to adopting this mindset for other contexts too.

A better way forward

For liberal humanism to overcome its trauma and solidify its future as an enduring worldview, proponents must accept that morality and happy endings are not always compatible. Liberal humanism needs to be humble rather than resentful.

For decades, the unconditional demand for peace has served as a mechanism by which liberal humanism could evade the following question: 

If Israel’s existence is bound to be accompanied by pain, may the country pursue and achieve sufficient self-defense?

Liberal humanism owes everyone a clear answer.

About the Author
Josh Warhit works in public relations. He lives in Tel Aviv.