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The “Traumatized Israel” Trope

The subtext to the increasingly strident calls by Israel’s allies to halt the military operation in Gaza

Like a grotesque, multihued gargoyle, post-October 7 anti-Israelism comes in many ghastly colors. There are the ghouls who shriek that images of Hamas massacring their way through kibbutzim are all a Mossad fake. There are the vapid Western students who chant about rivers and seas that they can’t locate on a map. There are the media pundits who swallow Hamas propaganda, while casting doubt on every claim of a democracy fighting for its life.

And then there’s something less overt, but more insidious: the cold, moralistic judgment of liberals who condemn Israel for its alleged callousness — one that renders the Jewish state beyond the civilized pale.

Take, for example, a mid-February New York Times report about a left-wing reservist, Doron Shabty, fresh out of fighting in Gaza. “Mr. Shabty, 31, said he felt no sense of revenge, even if other soldiers did, nor did he justify every act of the Israeli military, expressing sorrow over the many thousands of Gazans killed in the fight against Hamas,” the Times reported.

The implication — backed by no evidence — that doves such as Shabty were the exception was made explicit a few lines later, “Four months into the war, with mounting deaths, hostages still held by Hamas, and no clear victory in sight, their own pain has numbed many Israelis to the suffering of Gazans, let alone the pain of the Palestinian citizens of Israel itself.”

Apart from the fact that it’s a sweeping generalization, there’s something disturbing about the “numb Israeli” line. Is the only possible excuse for Palestinian deaths the fact that Israelis were desensitized by the October 7 assault? Might not the Hamas tactic of using civilians as human shields factor into things just a little?

The “desensitized Israeli” trope is the subtext to the increasingly strident calls by Israel’s allies to halt the military operation in Gaza. “It’s contrary to what Israel stands for,” said Joe Biden a few weeks ago as he called for a halt in fighting — the clear assumption being that a traumatized Israel has lost its head and needs to be rescued from its meltdown.

In the wake of Palestinian deaths surrounding a recent aid convoy, the idea of the callous Israeli resurfaced again. According to Axios, the White House briefed that “US officials were surprised about the indifference on the Israeli side about what happened.”

None of the above approaches the contempt that drips from an op-ed by Andrew Exum, an Obama-era deputy assistant Secretary of Defense: “The IDF’s history of being deployed as an occupation force, particularly in southern Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, has coarsened it and led to strikingly callous and deadly applications of force,” he writes in The Atlantic. “Some of its soldiers engage in crimes and abuses that may be commonplace in wartime, but whose public exposure understandably erodes international support.”

These shocking allegations of institutional brutality — note that it was the IDF as a whole which stands accused of being “coarsened” — read like an Al-Jazeera report. Yet they come from someone who until 2017 shaped US Middle East policy. Given the fact that the Biden administration is populated by many Obama staffers, these words shed light on the deeply problematic instincts of some of those currently in the White House when it comes to Israel.

Presumably, Exum considers himself to be one of those Israel allies whom he says are “embarrassed” by the social media pictures that show Israeli soldiers “laughing and joking while destroying the belongings of Palestinian civilians.”

So, he resorts to the “numbed Israeli” theory to excuse Israel’s behavior. “These soldiers are no doubt operating under high levels of stress. No doubt they are also, like all Israelis, traumatized by the many acts of sadistic cruelty inflicted on the elderly, women, and children by Hamas. But understanding these pressures is not the same as excusing them. A professional army that says it holds itself to Western legal standards must not be governed by the atavistic desire for revenge.”

And there you have it. The isolated incidents of Israeli soldiers behaving badly in Gaza — a drop in the ocean of the quarter-million reservists who fought in an ethically exemplary way — were at best traumatized, but nonetheless driven by a premodern lust for payback.

IF these words weren’t so dangerous, they’d be ludicrous. No, Israelis aren’t numbed or motivated by an atavistic desire for revenge. We are simply faced with a terror army who’ve kidnapped large numbers of our men, women, and children and are bent on our extermination. It’s very simple really. Hamas has to be destroyed, and this is the only way to do it.

The entire “traumatized Israeli” genre is born of wishful thinking about the nature of war. The idea that if Israel cared enough about Palestinian casualties, it would be able to surgically remove Hamas without all those dead children is a luxury belief born of America’s two decades of fighting wars using overwhelming air power.

Unlike America fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel is actually mortally threatened by its foes right at home. And unlike those wars, Gaza is the most dangerous urban combat environment that the world has ever seen.

It would be nice to chalk up the “numb Israeli” canard to a genuine liberal horror for the loss of life combined with naivete about the meaning of real war. But what’s at work is possibly something darker.

Alongside the ancient stereotype of Jews as the passive, cowering victim, there’s another long-standing trope: that of the sinister, power-hungry Jew. Shakespeare’s Shylock was one example, far from the most recent. Israel’s execution of Eichmann stirred a vein of opposition from those in the West who saw it as evidence that Israelis didn’t quite play by normal civilized rules.

That, at heart, is what the irrational opposition to Israel’s self-defense is really about — the lingering suspicion that nation-statist, conservative, religious Israel is not quite part of the liberal world’s in-group. That like a nouveau riche, arriviste social climber, Israel somehow doesn’t understand how an enlightened country behaves.

The extent of Israel’s current isolation was underlined by an Economist cover last week. Featuring a windswept Israeli flag blowing against the background of a bombed-out skyline, it bore the simple legend: “Israel Alone.”

Speaking from the vantage-point of friendship to Israel, the magazine’s leader argued that, “at a moment of military might, Israel looks deeply vulnerable,” and that “America should help it find a better strategy.”

Israel should thank Western liberals for their concern, and then politely enquire what that strategy involves. Is the idea to leave a bloodthirsty terror group in place, while scolding about the evils of vengeance?

Or should Israel follow best Western practice when faced with an existential threat, and like America and Britain in World War Two, actually destroy the evil? Because it’s a fair bet that if the West ever faced a truly existential threat again, the gloves would come off, and all those luxury beliefs would fall away.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1005)

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