Grief & guilt by association

Jun 5, 2024
Two chairs with flags of Australia and Israel isolated on white. 3D illustration

I have been grieving deeply not just since last October, but ever since I woke up to the reality of what Israel is, and what it stands for. First came my human empathy for the Palestinian people and what they have been suffering. Empathy was what gave me the initial push to start to speak out, twenty-three years ago. However, at the time I did not understand that I was a Zionist. My heart ached for the Palestinians. Israel’s behaviour seemed brutal, and unfair, but I was still just a typical ‘liberal’ Zionist.

The more I criticised Israel publicly, gave speeches, and had my opinion pieces published in the Canberra Times, the more uneasy I felt. Underneath my criticism, there was still an unconscious loyalty, deep feelings of guilt, and a worry that maybe I was wrong to criticise Israel. I kept wondering if what I was taught in Israel might be the truth, and what the critics were saying was motivated by antisemitism. I could see clearly what Israel was doing, but still worried that my criticism was unfair. New information I was learning, facts and evidence, collided head on with what I was taught to believe about Israel and its history. The turmoil and unease I experienced were textbook cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger, the developer of the theory of cognitive dissonance, describes how intensely uncomfortable cognitive dissonance is. I felt it. The ‘cure’ for all that turmoil and discomfort was right there. The entire arsenal of justifications, rationalisations, and myths that I grew up with was at my disposal. All I had to do was re-embrace the belief system I came from, ignore, or dismiss the evidence and the new perspective on Israel’s history that I was learning, and the inner turmoil would vanish into thin air. But to avail myself of this solution, this ‘cure’, I would have to be good at lying to myself, and I am terrible at it…

Along the way I began to understand that this turmoil was important, and that it was teaching me something. In the spirit of Gestalt therapy, I did not try to make it go away. I ‘sat with it’, and listened to what it was telling me. What it told me was that my relationship with Israel was strange, that there was something wrong with it. It was not like a normal relationship between a person and the country they come from. There was something odd about a person who does not think of their country as country, but more as a living entity, a person, a family member. I wrote about this in my 2003 paper ‘Differentiating from Israel’, which was peer reviewed, and published in the Australia New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy (ANZJFT). The editors hummed and hawed about publishing it for almost a year. They told me they were worried that what I wrote would ‘upset the Jewish community in Australia’. They did publish it in the end, but relegated it to a part of the journal that they made up just for that occasion. It made the paper seem more like a quaint little artistic piece on the side, than a serious scholarly paper. I invite you to click [above] on the link and read it. You can judge for yourself how offensive it really is. What I say in almost every essay now is far more honest and direct than what I wrote back then. But still, it was deemed potentially offensive. The editors placed the sensibilities of the Australian Jewish community, and their own fear of an imagined backlash against the journal, ahead of the suffering of the Palestinian people.

The evidence continued to mount about Israel’s settler-colonialism, and the facts were staring at me in the face, so I knew logically that speaking out was right. But emotionally, there was still turmoil. That sense of loyalty that you are born into in Israel is unconscious. It is the air you breathe, and it is inseparable from your very identity. In fact, Zionism and Israelism are your identity. You are an Israeli Jew first, and a human being second. So I had to work through it, or as I call it in my therapy language, ‘integrate it’. Thankfully, my education in family therapy came to my aid. It gave me both the intellectual, and the emotional tools to support myself through this journey.

The journey is not just about speaking out. If a deep sense of loyalty to your group lurks under the surface, it can water down the effectiveness of your activist voice. Ultimately, it weakens the message, which is precisely what group loyalty is there to do. Loyalty to a group like Israel is meant to prevent any criticism of the group, no matter how badly it behaves. The perceived survival of the group is the priority, no matter what the group does. ‘Liberal Zionists’, regularly toe an imaginary fine line between presenting themselves as moral, caring, and just, while at the same time enabling Israel, the perpetrator. They routinely self-censor to make sure they do not ‘go too far’, in a way that, they fear, could harm Israel.

When it was my time to wrestle with this, I knew I had to go ‘all the way’. You cannot be a ‘nice’, ‘caring’, or ‘enlightened’ settler-colonialist. Settler-colonialism is by its very nature brutal and genocidal. There is no settler-colonialism without a ‘policy of elimination’, as the late Patrick Wolfe called it. Imagine a kidnapper who tightly binds the hands of the victim they intend to rape and kill. The binds are so tight that they cut into the skin, and stop the circulation. It is painful. Now imagine another kidnapper with the same agenda, who is just a bit ‘nicer’, and ‘considerate’. This kidnapper ties their victim’s hands less tightly, and maybe even offers them a glass of water. But a psychopath is a psychopath. At the end of the day their goal is the same.

‘Liberal Zionists’ may express sympathy for the Palestinians. They might express concern about the burning of homes, and olive trees in the Colonised/Occupied West Bank, or about Israel holding hundreds of Palestinian children in adult prisons in Israel where they are routinely sexually abused and tortured. But they avoid addressing the abusive, and ultimately genocidal nature of Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine that is behind everything that Israel does. ‘Liberal Zionists’ may express some misgivings about some of the things Israel has been doing to the Palestinians. But their motivation is to assuage their own pangs of conscience, caused by their cognitive dissonance. There is a more cynical view that suggests that some ‘Liberal Zionist’ Jews want to be seen to be speaking out, because they are afraid of antisemitism. They worry that if they do not criticise Israel at all, they would be subjected to hatred. Either way, what they do is not motivated by real concern or empathy for their fellow human beings. Whatever they do, or do not do, is still all about them.

I would rather have rabid lunatics screaming ‘death to the Arabs’, than have to deal with the ‘liberal’ mob. You know exactly where you stand with those who shout their intentions from the rooftops. The ‘liberal Zionists’ and their helpers are more dangerous. They spread misinformation, which confuses everyone, maintains the status quo, and abandons the Palestinian people.

To be clear, I am saying that people have always sacrificed and betrayed victims, simply because they could not face their own uncomfortable feelings. The intensely uncomfortable feelings that cognitive dissonance makes us feel are our saving grace. They open a door for us, and invite us to our own redemption. Some people walk through the door, and others repeatedly slam it shut.

Over time, I began to understand that the deeper journey for me was to lose the loyalty to the group. It meant I had to find a way to tease out my own individual self, my values, my principles, out of the murky mess that the Zionist-Israeli cult upbringing made out of my identity. That lack of boundaries between individual identity and group identity is not something that Israel, (or any other cult) invented. It begins with the family. Many of my clients are dealing with that painful process of differentiating from a family they are expected to be loyal to, ‘right or wrong’, just because of an accident of birth, and some shared DNA. The more oppressive the family (or group) is, the more primitive its psychology, the more it places loyalty to the group over everything else. People are asked to abandon who they are and anyone who might need their help, for the group.

When I began to understand that Israel was a settler-colonial, cult-like country; when I began to see more and more clearly how I was lied to and manipulated in my childhood and through my life in Israel, I began to grieve for myself. I now grieve for the Palestinians people, my fellow human beings. They are the victims of an unfolding genocide that has its origins in the late 1880s, when the Zionist movement began. The Palestinian people did nothing wrong. Their ‘big crime’, for which they are being eliminated is that they happened to live on the land that the Zionists coveted for an exclusively Jewish ghetto state.

I still feel guilt about the fact that I am from Israel. I know people should not be judged by where they are born, or what language they speak, but by what they do, and what they stand for. My partner always says that it does not matter what you used to believe. What matters is what you do when you find out the truth. I agree completely. But a part of me still wishes I was never born in Israel, and was never a member of the perpetrator group.

(I am happy to feel this, because I am OK with all of my feelings. I am not the victim in this story. The Palestinian people are).


Republished from Avigail Abarbanel’s Fully Human Essays! Substack, May 27, 2024

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