Mourning the Victims of the Cult of Israel
My parents and grandparents were all Jewish. My grandparents came to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries escaping pograms in the Baltic states and Ukraine.
At various points, I have been asked to publicly express compassion for the loss of life in Israel on October 7th. One Jewish student said “I don’t understand why this is so hard for you.”
That student was not wrong. It hasn’t been hard for me to feel compassion for those Israelis who lost their lives or were taken hostage, but I have only reluctantly expressed that publicly for various reasons, including that I feel moved to give all the public space to Palestinians.
But I’ve also come to feel that, where Israel is concerned, there is something more painful than what happened on October 7th, something that includes October 7th, but is bigger than that. Something that I mourn much more deeply.
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The cult of Israel
One of the most profound learnings for me since October 7th is the extent to which Israel as a state and Israel as an idea together function as a formidable reality distortion field.
I now see Israel as a powerful, supremacist cult. I mean this literally, not metaphorically.
As a cult, Israel manipulates, seduces, re-writes and suppresses histories, and silences dissent. It tortures, kills, and imprisons without cause. It peddles influence, consolidates power with bogus religious justifications for its existence and continuance, prostelytizes with monetary and emotional rewards to gain new adherents, and threatens and denigrates those who dare to leave.
The dehumanization and demonization of the Arab “other” speaks to
Israel’s need to maintain a perimeter, not of safety, but of threat.
Threat is essential to maintaining Israel’s core identity
and brand as “the only safe space.”
Only under the constant generation of threat can Israel garner billions of dollars a year in foreign aid, mostly from the U.S., attract new adherents, and justify its aggressively militaristic, settler colonialist culture. Only the projection of constant threat allows apartheid to thrive with fear, ignorance, and pain as its fuel. This is classic cultism and consummate gaslighting.
I find the cult of Israel terrifying in its relentlessness and terrifying in its cruelty, not only toward the “other,” but also toward its own adherents.
Life in the reality distortion field
I have learned so much over the past six weeks from dissenting Israeli voices in Israel and Jewish voices elsewhere, from Jewish analysts in the U.S. and Europe, and from deep dives into histories, documentaries, thought papers, and sociological research.
I’ve also learned from listening to liberal and progressive Jewish people who have had more of a Jewish education than I did. I’ve learned from listening to students who had a Jewish religious upbringing and went to Hebrew school. I’ve learned from highly educated Jewish friends who identify as leftist or at least progressive. I’ve learned from postings from self-identified progressive Jewish people in Israel.
What I’ve learned is that, for the most part, being liberal or progressive, or even supporting Palestinian self-determination, does not protect Jewish people around the world from being impacted by Israeli’s cultic reality distortion field.
This impact is evident in unexamined narratives of “only safe space” and “right to exist”, and “we deserve a homeland” and “Israel has a right to defend itself” and “Israel is surrounded by anti-semitic enemies.”
It is also evident in powerful emotional ties to an idealized Israel and an idealized Zionism and the hope that these idealized versions might come to pass or at least survive somewhere in the imaginary outside of and unpolluted by the real Israel and the real Zionism.
It is evident in attempts to separate Jewish Israelis from the Netanyahu government with statements such as “the people are not the government.” While there are many Israeli’s who don’t support Netanyahu, most Jewish people are well-versed in narratives of how ordinary German people enabled the Holocaust. Why would it be different in Israel?
And this obfuscates the fact that Jewish Israelis are some of the most racist people in the world. Most are avidly in favor of the war on Gaza, and the huge majority of them support nationalist Zionism either in full or to some degree.
It is also evident in the resistance to decentering anti-semitism in the face of someone elses pain. It is evident in lingering, sometimes unconscious assumptions that antisemitism is worse than other forms of racism and the inability to feel real feelings for other people’s genocides or to fully acknowlege them.
It is evident in the appalling lack of knowlege of Israel’s history, the history of Zionism, and the history of the occupation of Palestine.
Taking the place of real histories are Hebrew school and Jewish cultural narratives that come straight from the reality distortion field. And as one Israeli analyst living in the West noted, Jewish people living in Israel are the least knowledgeable about their own history because it has been violently withheld and suppressed.
Israel’s cultic reality distortion field is evident in the uncritical reception of the Israeli government and military’s reports on the war which have proved again and again to be deceptive in the most gross ways.
It is evident in the shaming and oustering of those who “deprogram” and speak truth to power.
And it is most evident in the overriding narrative of Israel as being under constant threat due to antisemitism alone without analysing Arab relations with Israel in the context of settler colonialism, forced expulsion, and the incremental genocide of Palestinians over the past 100 years.
Coming out to love
In a sense this letter is a “coming out.” I’m saying some things I’ve held back since childhood, and also many things I’ve only recently learned.
But it’s mostly to say to my Jewish students and friends, I see you and feel you and feel for you as you question, and grapple, and re-examine what you’ve held dear or perhaps held and didn’t know you were holding. I feel for the death of ideals and childhoods and things that you have loved, and connections that may be in danger of breaking.
I feel for the difficult reckonings and conversations and conversations that may not even be possible.
I feel for the generations of Jewish people who have been denied knowing the real history of Israel well, who have been emotionally manipulated, who have been lied to, and whose pain and trauma have become pawns in an international game of the powerful and even the antisemitic.
I feel for the anguish of Jewish people whose direct and indirect experiences of genocide are being used to justify more genocide.
The deepest mourning I feel is for those Israeli Jews whose lives have been given over to some of the most virulent racism on the face of the earth.
They have become deadly caricatures of the demonic faces they project onto others. Their lives have truly been taken from them by a vortex where trauma and fear and what can only be called a kind of insanity have turned everything upside down and where reality cannot be discerned.
Looking into the abyss
It may not happen today. It may take many more years. But I believe that with this latest phase of the Nakba, Israel has signed its own death warrant. There will be no safety and no recovery. Israel is self-destructing from the inside due to its own hubris, extreme racism, and militaristic culture.
Israel has lost touch with reality and with anything that could be called worship.
Unfortunately, it has taken live streaming the genocide of the Palestinian people and the utter decimation of their land and homes for Israel’s absolute untenability and the bankruptcy of Western capitalism and neo-liberalism to be revealed to the world at large. But this has been revealed. And it won’t be veiled again.
I’ve moved around a lot. I keep thinking about what usually happens when people move to a new place.
People who move to a new place are generally eager to assimilate. They learn the language and customs. They make friends. They try new foods and explore the lands and arts. They preserve the cultures and lifeways of wherever they came from, but they create a new, mixed life.
Before Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Palestine was occupied by the Ottoman empire. Arabs, Muslims, and smaller populations of Jews and Christians lived together, sharing cultures, sharing daily life, and sharing a common language: Arabic.
Palestine was a cosmopolitan region, and for the most part, new immigrants, including Jewish immigrants, were welcomed.1
The Balfour Declaration announced the British government’s support for the Zionist goal of establishing a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine. Along with the growing influence of nationalist Zionism, the Balfour Declaration is what initially encouraged the earliest land grabs by new Jewish settler colonialists and the first displacements of Palestinians by Jews from their ancestral homes.
With this latest round of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Israel has completed the task of digging itself into a deep, no-exit pit. It’s hard to see now where a viable solution might lie. The possibility of a two-state solution has receded into a hazy, imaginary future.
But I do know that the constant pressure coming from ordinary people and activists around the world is having a profound effect. We are, inch-by-inch, changing the course of the 100-year war on Palestinians.
In my ideal world, there would be a return to a more cosmopolitan form of life with Palestine returned to Palestinians. In other words: landback.
And Israeli Jews and Jewish people around the world would step out of the reality distortion field in great numbers. They would rise up and courageously dismantle the narratives of “safe spaces” and “right of return.” In other words: Judaismback.
It’s hard to see the next steps, but we the people are proving to be the most powerful players. Let us all be, in our hearts and actions, Palestinians.
with infinite love, Shambhavi
See The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017, Rashid Khalidi, Metropolitan Books, January 28, 2020.