Prisoners of Context

Photo by Ye Jinghan

One of the first things they tell you in tenth grade biology class is that we are all submerged in an ocean of air. That is an ocean made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% other gases plus water vapor. Just like a fish out of water, we can’t survive outside of this environment. However, what they don’t tell you in tenth grade, though they really should, is there are other environments just as pervasive that surround us and, for better or worse, help shape us by their content.

We are always living and behaving within a context: familial, fellowship circles, school-related, job-related, economic, political, religious, and others. If, like most people, you remain within the same relatively stable surroundings for long periods of time, your behavior will reflect your context. That is why someone born and raised in a racist environment will, barring meaningful countervailing influences, tend to be racist, etc. There are, of course, degrees of attachment to different elements of longstanding context. For instance, a good number of people tie themselves to a local home/work environment and are disinterested in broader issues such as politics and government. This does not mean they have escaped the political teachings of their national culture, but it does suggest that they will be less conscious of it and expressive about it compared to local happenings.

You might protest that this is just all too obvious. But that is part of the problem. Just like the air you breathe, your default context is so obvious that most folks never give this shaping environment any thought. This is a problem because to really begin to understand individual or group behavior you have to understand the context out of which the behavior comes.

Three Examples of Context Driven Behavior

Example One:

It was about 13 years ago that I ran across an article describing what, from my liberal American contextual setting, was really odd behavior among Israeli Jewish teenagers. Being Jewish myself this sort of reporting concerning “the only Democracy in the Middle East” interested me. The story went like this:

— On 26 July 2010, Israeli police armed with tear gas, a water cannon, and two helicopters forced the 200 Bedouin residents of the southern Israeli village of al-Arakib (these were non-Jewish citizens of the State of Israel) out of their homes.

—This sort of thing happens all the time in both the Occupied Territories and Israel within the Green Line. The vast majority of homes destroyed on a relatively regular basis are those of Palestinians. This makes Israel’s “law of eminent domain” a weapon within a context of ethnic cleansing.

— So far this story, within the Israeli context, is commonplace. But then something new was added. The story actually warranted a report on CNN which included the following, “the Israeli forces arrived in the village accompanied by busloads of civilians who cheered as the dwellings were demolished.” Looking out from my own particular context—one that tells me racism involving young people is really bad news—this part of it all made me sit up and take notice.

—As it turns out, the cheering civilians were Israeli Jewish high school students who had volunteered as “police civilian guards” to take part in this assault. And, they did more than just cheer. According to CNN, “prior to the demolitions, the teens were sent into the villagers’ homes to remove furniture and belongings.” In the process, they vandalized the sites, “smashing windows and mirrors…and defacing family photographs.” With the furniture piled up outside, the students “lounged around” on the now discarded sofas while waiting for the bulldozers. This was done “in plain sight of the owners.” Then, while the bulldozers were doing their work, the teens “celebrated.”

There is no way of accurately understanding the behavior of these teenagers apart from their context—which here means their upbringing in and absorption of the community narrative of Zionist Israel. When we are raised to one specific worldview or storyline, via nationalism, religion, tribal aggrandizement, etc., it becomes difficult for most of us to objectively think about events touching on that story. The Israelis are taught an historical story from early childhood that is reinforced in various ways throughout life. It is a nationalist story laced with a strong sense of victimhood. In some versions of the story it takes on a holy biblical aura. In all versions, the story becomes an identity affirming narrative. It provides an explanatory “moral” rationale—the claim of self-defense—for actions and policies toward real or imagined enemies. This narrative is so dominant in the case of Israelis that its adherents can no longer recognize the existence of cause and effect. Despite Israel’s racist and prosecutorial behavior toward Palestinians, resistance to such policies are never seen as warranted responses, and Israeli reaction against that resistance is always a matter of self-defense. This is the sort of context that creates its own world.

That was the power of the contextual situation of the teenage “police civilian guards” cheering at the destruction of a Bedouin village thirteen years ago. Today, as bombs drop on hospitals and residential blocs in Gaza, the pattern repeats itself.

Example Two:

On 21 October 2023, the writer and journalist Patrick Lawrence posted an article entitled “Deeper Into Depravity.” In it he shows the reader video clips of a “Youtube” variety wherein “Israelis record themselves sadistically ridiculing Palestinians in the most cravenly cruel manner. They imitate Palestinian children dying or starving. They apply racially offensive makeup. They laugh and dance while switching lights on and off and while ostentatiously drinking water from taps—this last to mock Gazans as Israel deprives them of power, potable water, food and much else. And I am describing the children in these videos, ranging in age from, maybe, six or seven to somewhere in their teens or early twenties. The mothers stand behind them, smiling with approval and delight.” All of this is in apparent celebration of the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Lawrence comments that “I am taken up now by the spectacle of human beings [the individuals on the video clips] who have allowed themselves to be destroyed in the name of an ideology that proves every bit as racist as it was when, in 1975, the U.N. General Assembly declared Zionism to be so. Resolution 3379 was revoked in 1991; it should not have been.”

Lawrence’s point here is that having been raised within the enclosed worldview of Zionism, these youngsters have become products (or perhaps victims) of that racist ideology. The making of such videos must seem natural and logical within these children’s own context.

Example Three:

On 19 November 2023, Electronic Intifada managed to record a video broadcast on Israel’s national broadcaster Kan, of Israeli children singing a weirdly entitled “Friendship Song 2023,” against the visual background of the mass bombing of Gaza City. The first stanza went as follows,

Autumn night falls over the beach of Gaza.
Planes are bombing, destruction, destruction.
Look the IDF is crossing the line
to annihilate the swastika-bearers.
In another year there will be nothing there
And we will safely return to our homes.
Within a year we will annihilate everyone
And then we will return to plow our fields.

It was removed from Kan perhaps because the station’s managers were “concerned that it could make [both them and] the channel complicit in genocide.” There is a precedent for such a charge when officials of a station in Rwanda were convicted of incitement to genocide. “The song and video were originally created by Ofer Rosenbaum, a so-called “crisis-communication expert” who heads a public relations firm called Rosenbaum Communication.” If nothing else it shows that, within the Israeli context, there is no necessary contradiction between the sweet faces and voices of children and vitriol.

Are there Israelis, young and old, who do not see the world this way? Yes, there are. And, for each there is one or more determining causes why they have escaped the dictates of their national culture. However, these folks are exceptions and usually not in a position to influence the national culture. The majority see them as outliers.

Joe Biden’s Dedication to an Illusion

The average Jewish Israeli is not the only prisoner of the Zionist worldview. Joe Biden, a self-proclaimed Zionist, is also a captive. Raised in a pro-Israel American environment, he spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate acting in allegiance with the Zionist lobby. Biden has held fast to a vision of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” and one that “shares our values.” Occasional criticism of Israeli policies, such as settlement building, and his support for a two state solution, while sometimes vocal, never went beyond rhetoric.

The result is a real blindspot. One that can’t tell the difference between the relatively brief terror of October 7 (which Biden described as “utter evil”) and the ongoing wholesale destruction of Gaza and its millions of occupants (for which Mr. Biden is yet to offer a condemnation). This blindspot follows, of course, from a persistent inability to consider an accurate and factual interpretation of Zionist history as one embracing racism and colonialism. It is an amazing act of self-deception for a politician who, we can assume, always had access to accurate information, but who could never seriously consider it because it disturbed part of the context that shaped his identity.


There are many things that go into shaping one’s personality and its expression in the day to day world. This multiplicity of influences opens up possibilities for escaping the dominant influences of one’s surroundings. However, this does not happen in any significant way for most people. This fact is, for better or worse, what helps maintain stable community settings.

One can see this playing out in a recognizable and quite deplorable way with the youngsters in the three examples given above. If they possess an awareness of ethics, it is strictly tribal. Their family life, their education, their fellowship circles have reinforced a racist worldview to the point where one cannot expect a whole lot of cognitive dissonance when they act out in the ways described. Unfortunately, they are but the tip of the iceberg. The vast number of Israeli Jews may not be mocking Palestinians on Youtube, but polls show they share the same sentiments.

Joe Biden is their American counterpart. And, alas, he is also the President of the United States. Despite the well documented media tumult, most Americans live within a context that does not center on Israel or the fate of the Palestinians. Their context is much more local to their everyday lives. Thus, in light of the present U.S. aid given for the massacres in Gaza, Joe Biden is the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. And, with eye that can only see an illusionary Israel, he leads his fellow citizens, who are paying little attention to where they are going, down a road toward complicity in genocide.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.