Sadism and Masochism in International Culture

Do cultures have personalities, meaningful collections of attitudes and behaviors? If so, what does the ongoing wave of stabbings of Israelis –elderly passersby, strangers on buses, boys on bikes, infants in carriages- say about Palestinian culture? Who are they, really?

One suggestion is that Palestinian culture has been overtaken by psychosis. But what is the underlying cause for this flight to unreality? Part of the answer is sadomasochism.

All cultures have a touch of sadism. Political success requires defeating and humiliating enemies in battle, if only occasionally. Individuals capable or prone to committing terrible pain upon others are found everywhere. And all societies endorse a degree of institutional sadism – police, prisons, military – as part of their monopoly on violence. But for most, pain is only a means to an end, political success and cultural survival, which are the true pleasures.

But inflicting pain and rejoicing in suffering is so visible within Palestinian culture that it could be construed as a defining trait. Israelis being murdered, kidnapped or even just rocketed are causes to hand out sweets to strangers in the street, to publicly affirm – and to invite others to affirm – pleasure in the suffering of others. This is a cultural psychology of objectification and dehumanization. But to characterize it merely as the result of pervasive incitement is inadequate.

Sadism of course is hardly restricted to Palestinian culture. Native American tribes routinely tortured and killed their captives for sport. Torture is rife in Afghan and Pakistani society, as well as in Mexico and Central America. ISIS broadcasts its beheadings, crucifixions and mass killings as messages to their enemies and to display religious devotion and resolve.

European and North American cultures are hardly virtuous – recall Abu Ghraib, not to mention Auschwitz – but today sadism is the individual exception rather than the societal rule. Systematizing it in culture is anathema. With the exception of warfare, elites that set trends and values, religious authorities, educators, media and politicians, never endorse sadism.

The leaders of Palestinian culture do. As Gaza’s Sheikh Muhammad Sallah put it, “My brother in the West Bank: Stab! My brother is the West Bank: Stab the myths of the Talmud in their minds! My brother in the West Bank: Stab the myths about the temple in their hearts!” This merely operationalized Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ dehumanizing call to arms: “Al-Aksa is ours and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet. We won’t allow them to do so and we will do whatever we can to defend Jerusalem.” To these we may add generations of Fatah newspapers, Hamas summer camps, Friday sermons, children’s TV characters like Nahoul the bee, and much more.

Individual Palestinians of course are disgusted by kidnapping and murder, by rocket attacks and inevitable retaliation. But few speak out for fear of ostracism and violence. Palestinian culture as a whole rejects empathy with Israelis as deviance.

Why the inability to feel a human connection with Jews and Israelis? One explanation is that their experience at the hands of Israelis is so uniquely terrible that however Palestinians respond is logical and virtuous. In this narrative dispossession and ‘occupation’ legitimize Palestinian violence, which is not really violence at all but ‘ legitimate resistance’ by victims par excellence.

But the fetish of ‘resistance’ and victimhood leads to another notable Palestinian cultural trait, masochism. The ideology of steadfastness and resistance has long celebrated Palestinian ability to endure pain, much of which it creates itself.

Decades of theatrical – and individual – violence necessarily and by design provoked Israeli responses. At every step potential gains were secondary to inflicting real and psychological pain on Israeli civilians and the political-cultural goal of ‘publicizing the Palestinian cause.’ Israeli counterattacks were used to rally support, quash peaceful voices, and cement the reign of the PLO and then Hamas. Retaliation was demanded and then reveled in, amidst blood and ashes, reinforcing the self-perception of Palestinian victimhood.

The goal of Hamas’s rocket campaign of 2014 was sadistic, random destruction, but the construction of an entire battlespace within and below Gaza’s civilian population was deeply masochistic. Tunnels connected homes, clinics and schools in order to be tactically useful for fighting and strategically useful when destroyed. The population was not merely a human shield for Hamas, but a line of defense that Hamas knew would be destroyed. When tunnel entrances are behind someone’s kitchen sink, to what extent were Gaza’s civilians were also aware of Hamas’s strategy? They became, willingly and not, human sandbags.

Conventional terrorism has a group context that rationalizes violence and states ‘we are the resistance.’ Today’s interpersonal violence manifests culture at the individual level, where sadism and masochism are no longer political but supremely personal. They appear unmoored from notions of cause and effect that motivate political violence like hostage taking or even bombings, designed to provoke fear and specific actions like freeing prisoners.

Masochism has effects beyond dead civilians and the desired international condemnation. It demands that Palestinian society be dragged by the violence of the street, by factions and ‘rogue cells,’ whose unauthorized and untimely violence must be endorsed lest resistance be ‘betrayed.’ The deepest ‘cycle of violence’ is the individual who invites punishment for the whole, which must then be endorsed and endured.

The masochism of the current stabbing campaign is apparent, since any rational analysis based on experience would conclude that Israelis will suffer but Palestinians will ultimately suffer more. But against this is something else, captured neatly in Hamas’ preaching “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.” Here is a religious appeal to a higher reality that cannot be refuted by logic or experience. Masochism is an avenue to salvation, transforming murderers into heavenly beings.

Why a culture of sadism and masochism? Some of the answer is the experience of the Palestinians across the past 100 or 150 years with the Turks, British, and Jews. But it is also the mutually-reinforcing natures of patriarchal, theocratic, authoritarian (PTA) culture and Islamic ideology.

In cultures with nuclear families and not clans, where the individual is the ultimate locus of free will and where politics have no divine sanction, failures – like acts that invite retaliation – are cause to replace leaders, behavior, or ideas.

But PTA cultures have entirely different logic; predictable failures usefully generate adverse conditions that must then be overcome by more of the same. Failure reinforces the existing culture, its leaders, and general resolve. Provocations must be therefore redoubled. Failure is success; adversity has been created and must be surmounted. And proclamations that “My son is an offering to the Al-Aqsa, congratulations to him on the Martyrdom-death” are ideological keys to the continued cycle of power and suffering.

What is the response to sadomasochism and religion in international affairs? First is to recognize it for what it is, an entirely different set of cultural premises and behaviors, with self-reinforcing logic, that plays off superficial Western images of victims and victimizers.

Second, notions of collective gain, through negotiation or strategies of coercions and benefits, may apply partially or not at all. Finally, is to take Palestinian leaders at their word and recognize they are playing a zero sum game, in which Israel simply cannot exist.

When suffering is embraced, when one side truly loves death more than life, how can peace be made? What is the price and who is willing to pay? These questions remain unanswered.

About the Author
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.