Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Kenneth Levin, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a Princeton-trained historian, and a commentator on Israeli politics. He is the author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.
FP: Kenneth Levin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
There have been some stories circulating of Ahmadinejad’s supposed Jewish roots, but it appears that there is no substance to these stories. Even if it were true, however, no one should really be very surprised because it has been a recurrent phenomenon that some Jews would choose to join the Jews’ tormenters and even seek a leading role among them.
As a psychiatrist and the author of the Oslo Syndrome, what would you bring to the table on this phenomenon?
Levin: Well, it’s certainly true, Jamie, that time and again we’ve seen Jews joining forces with those who would do other Jews ill. But, as I wrote in The Oslo Syndrome, this is common within many communities under siege, whether minority communities under assault by the surrounding majority or small states under attack by their neighbors. Inevitably, some elements of the besieged group will embrace the indictments of the besiegers, however bigoted or absurd. They will do so in the hope of thereby extricating themselves from the wider group’s dire predicament.
Some will simply abandon the community and seek to immerse themselves in an alternative identity. Within Jewish communities under siege, such people would convert to the dominant religion, whether Christianity or Islam, to escape the Jews’ plight. Some among them, however, to more emphatically establish their distance from other Jews, and to allay any potentially dangerous suspicions among the majority that their conversion was insincere, would become spewers of anti-Jewish venom and high-profile endorsers of attacks on the Jews.
FP: And there’s a long history of this.
Levin: Absolutely. This was, for example, a recurrent phenomenon in both the Christian and Muslim worlds throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. One notable such individual was Solomon ha-Levi, who was chief rabbi of Burgos in Spain when, in 1391, a wave of murderous anti-Jewish riots and forced conversions decimated Spanish Jewry. Solomon was well enough connected that he could have escaped the choice of conversion or death, but – rather than remain a Jew under straitened circumstances and see his place in the world much diminished – he converted, underwent clerical training in Salamanca and Paris, and, as Paul de Santa Maria, ultimately became bishop of Burgos. When a second vast wave of forced conversions began in 1411, Paul took a leading role in the assault on Spain’s remaining Jews and was responsible for drawing up edicts that isolated the Jews, stripped them of many communal rights, and, most importantly, deprived them of almost all means of earning a living, leaving them with the choice of death by privation for themselves and their families or conversion.
FP: What was this story about Ahmadinejad being a Jew?
Levin: The story was that Achmadinejad’s family converted from Judaism to Shi’a Islam when he was a child. It is apparently false. But, reflecting a recurrent pattern in Persian lands, there were many episodes of forced conversion and massacre of Jews in Iran in the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth century, episodes typically instigated by Shi’a clergy; and it is a virtual certainty that some among the converts became themselves enthusiastic persecutors of those who remained Jews, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the sincerity of their conversion to their fellow Muslims.
A variation on the same theme can be seen in nineteenth century Europe. Jews were no longer subjected to waves of forced conversion, at least in western Europe, but they lived with severe limits on the educational and vocational opportunities available to them and with other significant social disabilities. Many chose to convert to improve their prospects, and some again joined forces with the Jews’ persecutors. Friedrick Julius Stahl, whose conversion enabled him to win a position on the law faculty of the University of Berlin, became head of the anti-Jewish Christian Conservative Party early in the nineteenth century and fought against the extension of political rights to Jews.
But those who abandoned their Jewish identity and became themselves defamers and attackers of the Jews did so much more typically from the political Left than from the Right, with Karl Marx being the leading example. Marx’s father had converted, apparently for the sake of professional advancement, and had had his son baptized at age six, in 1824. From his earliest entry into the public arena, Marx was clearly interested in distancing himself from “the Jews,” and he did so largely by rabidly attacking them. For example, his essay “On the Jewish Question” is both a regurgitation and an amplification of popular anti-Jewish calumnies. Marx – who knew virtually nothing about Judaism – declares that the religion of the Jews is “huckstering,” that the capitalist system reflects the Judaizing of the Western world, and that the radical agenda is therefore the quest to liberate the world from the ethos of the Jews.
In eastern Europe, which then meant mainly Czarist Russia, Jews retained a greater sense of national identity than in the West, and those who embraced socialism did so largely because they had lost faith in left-of-center liberalism bringing an end to czarist anti-Jewish depredations – including forced impoverishment, forced conversion and state-instigated physical assaults – and hoped socialist reforms would improve the lot of the Jews. Very few embraced what ultimately became Bolshevism, with its own anti-Jewish tenets. In contrast, in western Europe most Jews who joined socialist or communist movements did so as an alternative to a Jewish identity – it meant for them conversion to a new religion – and it was common for such individuals to endorse and even embellish the anti-Jewish cant that was typically a fixture of European socialism and communism, and indeed continues to be so today, if transmogrified somewhat into “anti-Zionism.”
Today, the Jews’ high-profile enemies, such as Achmadinejad, other leaders of the Iranian theocracy, and key figures in Iranian satellites such as Hezbollah and Hamas, may not themselves have Jewish roots, but there are certainly Jews among their boosters and fellow travelers.
Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah has declared that “If [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide,” and Hezbollah has in fact gone after them worldwide, as in its 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires that claimed 87 lives. But none of this has constrained Noam Chomsky from visiting with Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders, praising the organization and Nasrallah, and advocating the arming of Hezbollah. Norman Finkelstein has likewise met with Hezbollah leaders and praised the organization. It is not surprising that Nasrallah has at least temporarily exempted Chomsky and Finkelstein, and other like-minded Jews, from Hezbollah’s general death sentence on Jews.
Hamas’s charter quotes a Hadith according to which Allah declared that the Day of Judgement will not come until the Jews are all killed and even the stones and trees will help in killing them. The charter adds that Hamas “aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take.” Hamas has perpetrated innumerable attacks targeting Israeli civilians, including suicide bombings and rocket and mortar barrages, and Hamas children’s television instructs its young audience to kill Jews. Yet Jewish member of Britain’s Parliament Gerald Kaufman has affectionately compared Hamas to Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto.
FP: And there were Jews who opposed Israel taking defensive measures in Gaza.
Levin: To be sure. For years Hamas attacked Israel from Gaza, only accelerating its rocket and mortar assaults in the wake of Israel’s total withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. It built and cached its rockets and other arms in, and unleashed its attacks from, heavily populated civilian areas. When Israel finally responded forcefully to Hamas’s terror campaign, in December, 2008, myriad Jews – who almost invariably had been silent about the Hamas attacks – condemned Israel’s actions and largely maintained their silence on Hamas’s terror, instead often parroting Hamas’s skewed version of events during the war.
Jewish groups across the world – such as Independent Australia Jewish Voices – rushed for media podiums from which to publicize their censure of the Jewish state. Jewish South African Richard Goldstone’s recent report for the so-called United Nations Human Rights Council offered his conclusions from an “investigation” whose mandate preemptively condemned Israel and whitewashed Hamas. His report largely follows Hamas’s narrative of events, minimizes Hamas crimes, ignores Israel’s documented rebuttals of Hamas claims, and would deprive Israel of the right to defend itself against Hamas’s genocidal campaign against the Jewish state. Goldstone is simply among the most notable examples of Jewish participation in such travesties.
Other Jews and Jewish groups, in their stances on Middle East issues, largely choose to ignore the genocidal Jew-hatred that pervades the media, mosques and schools of Israel’s enemies. They likewise ignore or play down or relativize the explicitly trumpeted genocidal goals of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
FP: Your thoughts on the Jewish group J Street?
Levin: It has honed the relativist tack in its characterizations of last December’s Gaza fighting, declaring that “neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong” and there are “elements of truth on both sides of this gaping divide”
J Street has curried support from Jews and non-Jews who have been rabid critics of Israel and supporters of, or at least apologists for, those in the Middle East who seek the Jewish state’s destruction. They include Israel critics with close ties to Saudi Arabia, such as Ray Close, and Stephen Walt, co-author of the factual-error-filled anti-Israel screed The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Former Senator Chuck Hagel was among the senators least supportive of Israel during his tenure and often exhibited greater sympathy for the Jewish state’s enemies. When 88 senators wrote to the EU urging it to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations, Hagel was one of the handful who demurred. Yet J Street has seen fit to enlist Hagel as keynote speaker at its First National Conference this month.
In addition, while J Street incessantly declares itself to be “pro-Israel” its advisory board includes Jews and others who have long been not merely critics but defamers of the Jewish state and have even questioned the wisdom of its continued existence. For example, advisory board member Ayelet Waldman has been quoted as declaring, “I can’t help fearing that the Zionist enterprise will one day be seen to have done the Jewish people more harm than good. Our tenacious hold on this strip of homeland has become the scapegoat for the world’s terrorism and this wouldn’t be the case if we remained a people of the diaspora.”
The quote from Waldman, like perhaps most of the attacks on Israel by Jews, reflects a variation on the phenomenon of some within communities under siege seeking to separate themselves entirely from the community. In many instances, elements of communities or nations under attack will see the assault as directed at a particular segment of the community, and will seek to emphasize their own belonging to a different segment – a segment sympathetic to the besiegers’ indictments – and so deserving of exemption from the attack. Here, Waldman directs no criticism against those who regard Jews as uniquely unfit for national self-determination and want Israel destroyed. Rather, she takes that bigotry as a given and reserves her criticism for Jews not readily bowing to it. Instead of criticizing the scapegoating of Israel, she embraces the delusion that if Israel would just disappear and Jews became again only a Diaspora community – the community of which she is a part – her life and that of Jews like her would be better.
FP: How about Tony Judt?
Levin: Judt is perhaps the poster boy for this kind of thinking. He has called for Israel’s dissolution and sought to justify his stance by arguing that Israel’s creation came too late, that a state based on religious or ethnic identity is passé, and so it should be discarded into the dustbin of history.
While singling out Israel for dissolution, Judt ignores the fact that most of the world’s states, including the other states of the Middle East, are based on a dominant ethnic or religious identity, and, Rip Van Winkle-like, he seems unaware that in the last two decades at least twenty new nations have been created based primarily on a dominant ethnic or religious identity.
But, in fact, this rationale is not the true spur to Judt’s attack on Israel. Rather, as he makes clear elsewhere, he is upset that the circles in which he travels – primarily, academic circles – include many people who are not only censorious of Israel but regard all Jews suspiciously as likely sympathetic to the Jewish state. He feels this unfair, wishes therefore to trumpet his lack of any such sympathy, and desires the demise of the Jewish state, removal of the root cause, to more definitively spare himself – as well as others who may be similarly misunderstood – from coming under such unfair suspicion and suffering such discomfort.
The Jews thus far cited as ignoring or rationalizing the genocidal agenda of Israel’s enemies and even in many instances siding with those enemies have all been Diaspora Jews. But even among Israeli Jews there are many who do the same, despite the fact that they and their families are directly threatened by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and those many others in the surrounding states who seek Israel’s destruction.
The editors of Haaretz, for example, persist in downplaying the genocidal agenda of Hamas, urging Israel to be more forthcoming to the Islamist group, and castigating the government for not doing so. Haaretz writers such as Gideon Levi, Amira Haas and Akiva Eldar rarely have a critical word for Hamas or others of those dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and when they do have something critical to say they almost invariably find a way nevertheless to lay the ultimate blame on Israel. The same pattern can be seen in the work of many Israeli academics, and even in the views of various Israeli politicians. This is true even though – in the wake of the terror war launched by Arafat and the PLO against Israel in 2000, the Second Lebanon War, and all that has transpired around Gaza in the period since Israel’s total withdrawal from the area – many fewer Israelis entertain such thinking than did so formerly.
Of those Israelis who do embrace such thinking, some, like Diaspora Jews who choose such a course, may seem to do so out of far Left ideological commitment, according to which Israel must be condemned as representing Western imperialism and its enemies embraced as embodiments of transcendent Third World virtue. But even those devoted to such an ideology have the option to change when confronted with the reality of murderous assault and genocidal intent. Many apologists for Stalin and the Soviet Union changed their politics after the Hitler-Stalin pact while others did not. Similarly, many American devotees of far Left orthodoxies had a change of heart after 9/11, while of course many clung to their former views and blamed American policy for the attacks or even embraced the madness that the U.S. was itself the agent of the attacks.
So ideological commitment is not in itself an explanation for why some Israelis cling to blaming Israel for its enemies’ hostility and ignoring or rationalizing those enemies’ genocidal intent.
FP: So what are other explanations?
Levin: Some – like many of those who abandoned the Jewish community in past centuries – no doubt do so for personal gain. For example, Israeli academics who cultivate a reputation as critics of Israel are much more likely to win visiting professorships and other desirable academic perks in Europe and the U.S. Indeed, the more extreme their attacks on Israel the better their chances.
But most Israelis who adopt and cling to blaming Israel first, and who avert their eyes from the dimensions of the genocidal threat, do so out of wishful thinking – which is yet another response by some within communities under chronic attack. Some will rationalize the threat, close their eyes, ears and their minds to what the community’s enemies are actually declaring to be their objective, and will embrace selected elements of the attackers’ indictments in the hope that if the community will only reform itself in ways that address those elements – if Israel would only give up enough land, for example – the attackers will be appeased and peace will be won.
Yet whatever the psychological dynamics driving any particular individual, one thing is certain: As the genocidal threat facing Israel from Iran and its allies and satellites, and indeed from others among Israel’s neighbors, persists and perhaps grows even more ominous, some Jews, in the Diaspora and in Israel, will respond by recognizing the threat and urging efforts to confront and defeat it, but others will respond by distancing themselves from the Jewish state and even embracing its genocidal enemies, or by seeking to rationalize the threat and advocating self-reform and appeasement, or by taking some other, related course that will likewise add to the threat rather than help diminish it.
FP: Thank you for joining us Kenneth Levin. For those readers interested in the profiles in our Collaborators series, here they are:
Editor’s note: To get the whole story of why leftist Jews reach out in solidarity to Islamist Jew-haters, order Jamie Glazov’s new book, United in Hate: The Left’s Romance With Tyranny and Terror.