The Israel Lobby and Traumatic Memory

Edward Snowden speaks of an electronic “architecture of oppression,” based on the mania of our national security state to control the communications of humankind at large. But there are other systems of control—emotional and cultural rather than digital—whose mechanisms of control are no less capable of being abused. The most effective of these are the overlapping systems of influence and control set up by the Israel Lobby. This is a generic term referring to disparate people and institutions that believe that Americans should not be allowed to publicly criticize the government of Israel, even when it does bad things; and it is with that intent in mind that they conduct extensive policing of public discussion of anything having to do with Israel.

The Lobby consists mainly of the leadership of three important organizations—the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Lobby’s most well-known public figures are Abraham Foxman, Director of the ADL, and Alan Dershowitz, an American attorney, professor lawyer and political commentator. They are backed up by an even larger contingent of rightwing Christian evangelicals, the largest and most active constituency in the Republican Party, many of whom believe that a religious war would bring about the Second Coming of Christ. All of the above-mentioned people have one thing in common: they attack American critics of the Israeli state, usually by calling them anti-Semites or self-hating Jews, often trying to ruin their reputations or drive them from their jobs.

In Congress the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) does pretty much the same thing, with one major difference: they have at their disposal immense amounts of money. Currently an actual majority of elected officials receive money from AIPAC to vote as the current government of Israel wants them to, at least on issues having to do with the Middle East. There’s nothing illegal about it—it’s called ‘bundling,’ and is basically a form of legal bribery. But one must say that it’s rather odd, not to mention unprecedented, that the Prime Minister of a foreign country would participate in the distribution of money through his proxies to the US Congress, so that its members vote as he wants them to. From the point of view of American sovereignty, not to mention political morality, it’s an astonishing situation.

But why do people and organizations in the Israel Lobby behave in this manner, and why do so many supposedly free Americans follow their dictates? Why do they cooperate in suppressing criticism of the Israeli state, when everybody knows that self-criticism and robust debate are necessary to the health of the state, any state? Why do so many people who say they love Israel embrace doctrines that ensure Israel’s eventual destruction?  And why do so many people feel constrained to think, speak and act according to the dictates of a Lobby that is often irrational? They do so because attitudes toward Israel are deeply intertwined with ongoing efforts to suppress traumatic memory of the Nazi Holocaust, and likewise to suppress the gnawing awareness of the systemic evil that drove it.  That is both troubling and dangerous, because you cannot suppress that kind of trauma (by which I mean the traumatic memory associated with the Holocaust), you can only manage it. And you can only manage it by deconstructing the aggression internalized along with the trauma. And that means accepting the ghastly but universal capacity of all human beings for evil.

Some institutions, especially the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, actually encourage and seek to enhance traumatic memory associated with the Holocaust, insisting that identification with Holocaust victims should be the basis of Jewish identity, rather than identifying with those who tried to stop the Holocaust. In my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, I call attention to the extreme danger of this approach: “To live in the same world in which the Holocaust occurred, the Wiesenthal Center is saying, you must accept it both as history’s biggest crime and the most important determinant of Jewish identity. But that is a mistaken strategy, because it gives too much power to the Holocaust. You cannot base identity on the Holocaust without internalizing its aggression, because you cannot take in one without the other.”[i] This creates a trauma bond, which bonds the victim not to the aggressor, but to his aggression. This is why so many victims appear to imitate and act out the kind of aggression with which they were once victimized; the abused child grows up to be an abuser.

It is this internalization of Holocaust aggression that one meets at every point in the Israel Lobby, and in the people who follow its cultural and political dictates, even when those dictates are disastrous for Israel. Managing traumatic memory of the Holocaust also means managing the internalized aggression that inevitably accompanies it. That is not to say that all people who uncritically support the Israeli state are affected by multigenerational trauma, nor are all the Christians and Jews who obediently do its bidding. The trauma associated with the Nazi Holocaust often affects people who have no connection whatsoever to Europe, or the historical period when the Holocaust occurred; and that is, for the most traumaswaim
part, because the Holocaust confronts people with the problem of systemic evil in a way they cannot ignore or avoid. Modern people are so unused to confronting the omnipresence of evil that even trying to do so can be traumatizing, because modernity has no philosophy, no theology, and no detailed explanation whatsoever, that can explain why aggression and evil are so powerful in human affairs. And while institutional religion tries to identify evil, it can’t stop it, and often makes it worse.

Acknowledging the existence of evil often leads people to realize—including a great many that are horrified by it—that evil can be more powerful than good, and usually is. This realization is by itself quite disorienting, because it goes against what enlightened people have believed for the last three centuries. It is not based on mere philosophical speculations, but arises as the result of excruciating psychological upheavals in which people discover that the world they knew before, no longer exists. This process creates an anxiety so profound that the only way some people can suppress it is to create an imaginary system in which delusions replace unpredictable realities, and the reactions of other people must be endlessly manipulated through a kind of emotional totalitarianism. (That is, the manipulation of negative emotions—especially fear, guilt, aggression and shame—can be used to make people avoid taboo subjects, and in so doing encourage them to suppress thoughts about them.)

This is a big part of the cultural system that the Israel Lobby has set up, but there is another component to it, one that is hidden. At a very deep level uncritical supporters of the Israeli state suffer from a gnawing fear that Israel is not the perfect place that the Lobby says it is; and to control their suppressed fears, they must strive to control what everybody else thinks and feels about it, often by ritually punishing unrepentant American critics of Israel in conspicuous, public and sometimes surreal ways.

That brings up the phenomenon of ex post facto scapegoating, an expedient widely practiced by visionaries when their shimmering dreams turn into nightmares; consider, for example, the pathologies associated with Stalinism. Why were there show trials, assassinations, people sent by the thousands to the gulag? Because Communism could not deliver on its promises: therefore scapegoats had to be blamed and punished. In the case of Israel, the ideals of generations of liberals, social democrats and socialists toward a Jewish state have been mainly abandoned; so someone, or some group of people, must be blamed and punished for this failure. Thus the suppressed fury at Israel’s moral collapse is seamlessly displaced onto the critics who document that same collapse. This may partially explain the over-the-top, buffoonish nature of the accusations hurled by the Israel Lobby at those who criticize the current government of Israel: that such critics are secret crypto-fascists; that they long for the destruction of Israel; that they are planning another Holocaust; and so forth.

If you’re still wondering why people in the Israel Lobby behave as they do, consider also the following dynamics from the point of view of a Holocaust survivor, or someone who lost family members in the Holocaust. Where was God at the moment of greatest peril to his people, when 10,000 Jews were being murdered every day in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau? God was not there for his people when they needed him—no, God was nowhere to be found. Likewise the secular faith in liberal, social democratic and progressive ideas embraced by secular Jews since the Enlightenment: all of them made not the slightest difference once the Endloesung, the Final Solution, was in place. The result was a largely unconscious loss of faith in God, in liberal democracy, and in any solution to political problems except military force. Many survivors ended up believing—unconsciously more than consciously—that those who survive in this world do so only by hurting others.

This led to a process in which worship of the Israeli state slowly replaced a Torah-based God, not to mention a secular belief in progressive political solutions. People who increasingly saw God as little more than a ancient metaphor could now worship something far more concrete: the Israeli state’s victorious army, its active diplomatic corps, its vast propaganda initiatives, not to mention its Shin Bet interrogation centers and 200-400 nuclear weapons—all the furnishings of a successful theocratic state! And instead of feeling close to a mainly absent and intangible God, they could now experience tumultuous feelings of religious nationalism, the strongest and most dangerous force on the planet. Indeed, this constitutes the real secular religion of Israel, and many of its uncritical supporters in the US: the worship of religious nationalism in the service of state power, in the form of the Israeli state.

Yet religious nationalism feels like God, because it is so powerful—and considering what Jews have gone through in the past, certainly Jews need power to protect themselves. But what the Israeli Jews have done to the Palestinians, and what they continue to do to them, is the wrong kind of power. They have embraced a form of systemic evil, the addictive nature of which they are only now beginning to comprehend. The Israeli political class has internalized the aggression of the European anti-Semites, aided by the almost daily references to the Holocaust by Israeli media and rightwing politicians, the social outcome being that they now hate the Palestinians in much the same way as the Christians in Europe once hated them.

But if Jews struggle with aggression that they cannot acknowledge, so do Christians wrestle with a shame that dare not speak its name. After all, it was Christians who carried out the Holocaust, which was but the final act in a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. If Christians thought too much about this last fact, it might occur to some of them that Christianity has been, and is, by its own standards, a failed religion. Thus the built-in incentive to declare the Israeli project a smashing success: along with enough unacknowledged guilt to cause the Christians to give the Israelis whatever they want—for along with the guilt is a generalized fear of being publicly vilified as anti-Semites, which Zionists quickly learned to do to get what they wanted. Thus anything having to do with Israel/Palestine is hedged about with elaborate taboos, for Christians as well as Jews, to the extent that people dare not talk publicly, or even think privately, about the moral and political implications of impunity for Israel’s crimes and misdemeanors.

All of which should help us understand why Israel must be represented as perfect by the Israel Lobby, and why, according to the Lobby, it must never be criticized. The Nazi Holocaust must be morally repudiated, and its traumatic memory suppressed—but not in a way that would require anybody to make any changes or do anything; so only a Holy State, a perfect state, an exalted and utopian state thousands of miles away (that is to say, an imaginary state) can in that quick and efficient manner redeem the shame of Christians, and help to suppress the anger and internalized aggression of Jews. If the Nazi madness was pure evil, the Israeli state must now be perceived as wholly and perfectly good; only the most transcendent and eternally perfect State could help people repress the traumatic memory of the six million dead in Europe, and in so doing suppress all thought of the human evil in the present moment. (Because if the Holy State is perfect, Christians and Jews that support it are likewise perfect, and need not make any changes or do anything.) The result of this malignant, self-exculpatory fantasy is a wholly dysfunctional system in which legislators are paid to sign off on proclamations they don’t really believe, Christians and Jews are obligated to do obeisance to flagrantly mediocre leaders, and intellectuals are browbeat into pretending that they love Israel when most of them secretly wish that the state of Israel and its power-hungry supporters would go away.

Of course, it isn’t as though Western civilization has not seen fanatical, power-obsessed lobbies before. As George Orwell documented in the 1940s, the intellectual classes of Britain and Europe were obsessed for a time by the Soviet Union, which Orwell understood to be a covert form of power worship. But the Communists in the US were never strong institutionally, being confined mainly to a small following among creative intellectuals and a handful of trade unionists. The Israel Lobby, on the other hand, possesses enormous wealth from its billionaire donors, and its influence is very strong at every level of institutional life in America—furthermore, its evangelical followers constitute the most dynamic constituency in the Republican Party. The conviction that Israel cannot be criticized isn’t just the fancy of a few highly-paid fanatics in the Israel Lobby, although they define fanaticism in our time; they are also supported by what seems to be a majority of the American people.

But the fact that irrational and immoral beliefs and behavior have a great following doesn’t make those beliefs and behaviors right. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into active psychological pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not about politics, nor religion, nor even geo-politics. It is about pathology; and ultimately it is about systemic evil. The evil of the Holocaust, like the traumatic memory it generates, is by definition a wound that will never heal; it cannot be suppressed, but only acknowledged and managed. And the only way to really manage it is to deconstruct the trauma bond—the emotional bondage to aggression as the supreme arbiter of history—at its heart.

In the meantime, the real state of Israel (not the fantasy that people are supposed to believe in) keeps moving to the right, the politicians of American and Israel continue to lie about what is really happening, and the use of targeted assassinations, mass internment, torture and collective punishment of Palestinians continues. What the state of Israel really needs is what every state needs, which is educated critics denouncing what is wrong about it and supporting what is right, and working to confront injustices and correct them. But the message of the Israel Lobby, like so much American cultural and political expression, is not about reality, but about an apocalyptic idea of perfection that its apparatchiki must ram down everybody’s throat in order to suppress their own trauma—in this case, the traumatic memory of humanity’s worst crime, and their own creeping doubts about the real nature of the Holy State begotten by it.

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, a civil rights organization that opposes Islamophobia and advocates religious liberty for all. His latest book, Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil, was published in March by Psyche Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishers, Ltd.


[i] Lawrence Swaim, The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World  (Winchester UK and Washington DC: Circle Books, John Hunt Publishing, Ltd., 2013), 169.