“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd” – Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays
I remember as a young boy sitting and watching my father’s blank stare as he watched a documentary about World War II and concentration camps. He seemed to travel to distant places, as if he was all alone and not seated there right next to me. Only once did he share with me what he had seen as a soldier when part of a group that had liberated camps.
On that occasion he described carrying the skeletal remains of a still living man from the darkened catacombs far below the ground to the light of day, as they both cried … the survivor because he expected to die and my dad, I am convinced, because at that moment he wanted to.
Even then, years later, my father cried as he struggled to tell his story, barely audible … as soft as a broken whisper. Although I was distressed by his pain, there was simply no way for me, at that time, to understand what had happened, let alone why.
Years later, as a young college student, I threw myself into the study of that period of world history with an emphasis on the Germany of the 1930s through the Nuremberg Trials that followed the end of the war.
I can still recall passages of the judicial decisions from the war crimes tribunal almost word for word, powerful, passionate calls for humanity and accountability. Try as I did, I could never quite deduce what there was about a place and time that enabled a population to close their eyes and hearts and simply surrender to the sheer evil that consumed millions of Jews, Catholics, gypsies, communists, the disabled, gay women and men, and artists.
The hallmarks of systemic hatred and violence
The cause of such unmitigated hate, indifference or, at least, feigned ignorance, by so many for so long, escaped me for decades only to crystallise and become absolutely clear to me, all these years later, through Israel – the house of hate.
Although psychiatrists and seasoned criminal defence attorneys could surely craft a creative defence to explain away, indeed, justify the recent rash of young Jews apparently calling in bomb threats or drawing swastikas on college dorm doors, on the sides of synagogues in the United States, and elsewhere, it’s really a challenge without a dare.
Israel, after all, is a society – some would say a culture – born and nurtured from group hate from long before the very first day of the Nakba. It’s only grown worse, with the passage of time, as one generation of apologists has given way to a second and a third and on and on, leaving the entire state very accomplished at communal denial or numbed to the occasional, but rare, burst of truth – painful as it might otherwise be.
In psychoanalytical circles it’s called herd or mob mentality.
There aren’t many places in the world today where picnickers would cheer to the blast of each phosphorous bomb as it rained its chemical death down upon hundreds of thousands of defenceless civilians.
Israel is one.
Indeed, the parallels between Jews as victims of German hatred in the 30s and 40s and as instigators of that same odium today against Palestinians is as dramatic as it is eerie.
Nor, do I know of many fighting forces guided by religious fiat that justify rape as an almost incidental benefit of warfare. Boko Haram, ISIS and Israel come to mind. And how many armies invite children to autograph bombs with words of “greeting” before they are loaded on to planes to level schools, hospitals and shelters? Lebanon got that special Israeli message.
Starvation as a weapon of war, not possible, you say. Israel perfected the practice of “measured” collective punishment, slow torture through controlling calorific intake, access to water, medicines and electricity to millions in Gaza whose only crime is to exist.
How often have we heard the ritual scream “Death to Arabs” from settlers as they parade through Jerusalem looking for their next Palestinian victim to trample to death under the watchful protection of the Israeli army? Want to become a national hero overnight? Simple. In Israel the road to a successful political career is surely paved with the cold-blooded execution of an injured, unconscious Palestinian prisoner.
These are but a few of the more recent examples, indeed, hallmarks of the kind of systemic hatred and violence that has worked its way into the very marrow of the Israeli state; one which never runs short of hollow excuses for each new outrage always, of course, for the understandable, if not “right”, reason.
Propaganda and the sieg e mentality
“Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear” – Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays
Propaganda knows no unique time, place or ideas. It’s systematic. Purposeful, an almost artful manipulation of emotions and attitudes for ideological ends echoed over and over again through one-sided messages which inform the life of a given society’s members.
Germany’s Hitler excelled at it. He learned early on in his grab for power that, to be effective, propaganda must not only be simple but appeal solely to the masses, not to the “scientifically trained intelligentsia”. Above all else, he understood well that, to be successful, propaganda must target base emotions – and not the intellect – and be repeated constantly much like a never-ending drumbeat.
Tyrants have long since learned that the most effective propaganda is that which breeds and reinforces a siege mentality among a people, a world that is neatly compartmentalised into a theology of “us” and “them”, those that are with us, those that are against, those that are allies, those that are enemies.
Ultimately, its goal is fear.
Once the point of black or white devotion to a state or theology is reached, anything and everything becomes possible, no matter how extreme or offensive, so long as it’s connected, even marginally, to illusions of threats, real or imagined.
Israel has stage-managed, to perfection, that mechanical message of rumour and fear for years. It’s exploited it as well as any state in recent history. It’s elevated it to nothing less than blind, obedient faith among Jews, in particular, both in and out of Israel.
Not a day passes without the propaganda machinery of the state preaching that Israeli Jews face imminent extinction, not just from Palestinians but from wholly hostile Arab neighbours that surround them.
That Israel enjoys well-established bilateral treaties and security agreements with its immediate and powerful Arab neighbours Jordan and Egypt is, of course, conveniently suppressed – as to do otherwise would be to weaken Israel’s shrill and disingenuous appeal.
This “at risk” message is further manipulated by a narrative that would have Israelis believe they are largely alone, cast adrift in a world very much hostile to them and, thus, an ever-present evil and malevolent threat.
While this papered-over vulnerability fits snugly within the “us against them” narrative, here, too, reality once again gets swallowed by propaganda.
Parallels between victims and instigators
Israel, after all, receives billions in yearly military aid and assistance from countries throughout the world and has benefited from decades of carte blanche Security Council protection at the United Nations.
When a siege theme, with its companion drive for social conformity, becomes central to a society’s core beliefs, hate and violence are as predictable as they are essential to the maintenance of political power.
Indeed, the parallels between Jews as victims of German hatred in the 1930s and 1940s and as instigators of that same odium today against Palestinians is as dramatic as it is eerie.
A difference in volume, but not at all sound, there is scant separation between Jewish businesses and synagogues burned to the ground during the Kristallnacht of 1933 in Germany and repeated incidents in which Palestinian mosques, churches, homes and olive groves have for years been torched by rampaging settlers in the West Bank.
Propaganda drives signposts of hatred, whether anti-Jewish banners hung throughout Germany under the Nazis or those that Zionists display with pride today at demonstrations in Israel or spray paint on the sides of Palestinian buildings. And, of course, the forced segregation of Palestinian and Jewish schoolchildren in Israel today is no different from the days when Jews were forcibly separated from German students before World War II.
History bears repeated witness to man’s inhumanity to man. Nowhere is it more painfully and palpably clear than in those times and places where racial or religious supremacy whips the crowd into mass frenzy while its targets pay a constant and often deadly price for state propaganda.
Today, in Israel, some Jews struggle to find meaning and purpose in a state that slaughters defenceless women and children by the thousands in the name of peace, that imprisons ten times as many in the name of liberty, and silences opposition – Jew and Palestinian alike in the name of speech.
Ultimately, that contradiction is best summed, perhaps, by a very simple but powerful rhetorical question etched on a wall in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC: “What is there about the process that leads some to help and show compassion while others comply with persecutions willingly?”
In the darkest of days, the worst of times, in the midst of the hatred that was Germany long ago, a white rose grew. One can only pray that today, from the “River to the Sea”, another one will yet flower.