Psychodynamics of the Middle East 101: Why America Needs Hell, and Israel Doesn’t Want Peace
With the recent flaring up of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian territory in Gaza the question has again been raised ‘will there ever be peace?’
My view, having visited the region a number of times, is that the leadership of Israel simply do not (yet) want peace. How can this be? How could a country not want to make peace with another, but carry on prodding and inciting more retaliation?
The reason is simple, and was explained to me by an Israeli activist in Jerusalem: if there was peace between Israel and Palestine, Israel would have to face up to its own internal divisions – which are rife. By projecting a huge external enemy, Israel can unite behind a struggle against it, and never have to face its own demons.
Huge divisions remain within Israeli society. This is not surprising, or a matter for finger-pointing or blame. Rather it is the inevitable place a nation will find itself in when it is formed from numerous, hugely different, returning diasporas. Russian Jews. American Jews. German Jews. British Jews. Sephardic Jews. Orthodox Jews. Atheist Jews… With all of these people coming together to form a nation less than 3 generations ago, there are bound to be tensions. And with a stormy birth narrative, it is almost inevitable that these divisions are projected onto the ‘monster’ of Palestinians… who are quite the opposite: people who have lived in that place for centuries, dug deep into that earth.
This is the same reason that America needs to have its axes of evil, its nasty monster to go do battle against – and why American Christianity needs to believe in hell. Because without these abyss-mal places, these communities would have to face up to the divisions and horrors within themselves: Christian sects fighting over tiny doctrinal issues, the clear presence of homosexual activity with these groups anyway – with the construct of hell, of the grand evil of Islam in some ‘other’ place, these things can be ignored.
It is no surprise that we are seeing Gaza attacked now. There is an election looming in Israel, so internal tensions are at their highest. Thus, in order to suppress this, Israel must ratchet up the violence in Gaza, knowing that Hamas will respond in kind – because, quite naturally given the cramped, caged conditions in Gaza, terrible tensions are within that community too, and projection back onto Israel comes easily.
In Mutiny, I examine the story of the Odyssey, and posit the question: why did Odysseus not simply go back home when he could? He had this belief that the gods were stopping him from returning to peace on Ithaca, to his family. He kept being tempted by beautiful women, and getting into more battles… and was this not simply because these ‘external’ conflicts kept him from having to go home and face the real monster within: that he was a violent and conflicted man. He projected this. He blamed ‘the gods,’ when actually this was nonsense: he simply had to have the courage to face his own demons, rather than create other ones that allowed him to remain unchallenged, and unchanged.
There is a similar story in the Acts of the Apostles, which my friend Barry Taylor has brilliantly re-framed. Paul is persecuting Christians: rounding them up, having them killed. He is travelling to Damascus when he is hit by a blinding light, and challenged about his behaviour. The orthodox interpretation of this has always been that Paul ‘saw the light,’ but Barry’s great insight is that it is the opposite: he was struck blind for 3 days, and thus forced to face the monster within, the horror of his own conflicts and actions.
American Christianity, and politics, has been a vehement and unquestioning supporter of Israel, regardless of Israel has done, good or bad. Why is this? In light of the above, perhaps it is because America cannot yet face being challenged about its own deep divisions – which were exposed so glaringly in their own recent elections.
And this is why, in fact, this is a religious conflict. Not because three faiths are somehow at war over doctrine, but because each faith posits a ‘big Other’ – and this introduction of a god, just as with Odysseus, allows America, Israel and Palestine to avoid taking the radical Pauline step of facing the darkness within the Self, and not blaming it on a divine other.
It reminds me of the electrifying scene in The Silence of the Lambs, where Starling interviews Lecter for the first time:
You know what you look like to me with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash are you Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed – Pure West Virginia. What’s your father dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamb? You know how quickly the boys found you… all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars while you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to the FBI…
You see a lot don’t you doctor. Why don’t you turn that high-powered perception at yourself and tell us what you see, or maybe you’re afraid to?
And, for sure, the Israeli-American response to all of this displays all of the insight and empathy of a psychopath… As Lecter – a brilliant psychiatrist knew, our birth stories can continue to trouble us… but we must have the courage to look inside ourselves, rather than project our conflicts onto others to avoid doing so.