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The mechanisms that caused the Israel peace camp to support the last war in Lebanon

November 2006, by Abdessalam Najjar, Dorit Shippin

All the versions of this article: [English] [עברית]

On August 24, 2006, a lecture and group discussion took place at Doumia Sakinah, the Pluralistic Spiritual Center of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam. The lecturer was Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, a political psychologist from Tel Aviv University.

With the eruption of the last war, after the kidnapping of the soldiers and the Air Force attacks in Lebanon, it became clear that Israel was going to respond with massive military force against the civilian population of Lebanon. Soon after the bombing began, several members of the village gathered at the Spiritual Center of the Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam to discuss the situation. Together, we came to the conclusion that, as an organization that teaches peace and supports dialogue, we oppose the attempts of the Israeli government to solve the conflict with Hezbollah through the use of military force.

When we looked around us, we discovered that within the Israeli Jewish population, there was almost total consensus on the “justification of the war.” We heard people in the North speaking about how they were prepared to withstand more shellings if by the war put an end to the threat for good.

We asked ourselves, “How is it possible that someone can believe that the bombing and devastation of a civilian population can wipe out aggression and hate?

Those of us who participated in protest marches against the war found “comfort” in the fact that a few peace groups expressed protest but we also took note that almost half of the crowd were Arab citizens of Israel. After the end of the war, we wanted to understand why the Jewish public known as “the peace camp,” including the Peace Now movement, didn’t oppose the war.

About thirty people came to hear Prof. Bar-Tal’s lecture. Half of the audience was from the village and the rest were guests. There were Jews and Arabs, men and women, in the audience. After the lecture, a discussion took place in which the audience engaged with the issues raised by the lecture. They posed questions to the lecturer and expressed their opinions on the subject.

The lecturer presented his view of the central themes that animate the Jewish public in Israel.

A Summary of the Lecture

The ethos of the Conflict: six themes

The first theme is the justification of our actions. This is done through the incorporation of certain goals.

The central goal agreed upon by the Jewish public is that the home of the Jewish people is in Israel. A highly developed rationale that has been built around this goal is taught in schools and passed on through societal channels and institutions.

The second goal is one of ethnicity and continuity: there has always been Jewish life here.

The third goal is the sense of victimhood, of persecution and the belief that in every war, Israel was the one that was attacked. The territory of the Jewish state is an issue that has remained vague and undefined to this day. The point of departure for most of the Israeli public is that the land taken in 1967 is liberated land and belongs to the Jewish people. In every territorial compromise with the Palestinian people, we are “giving away” our land, not “returning” it. To the Russian population that arrived in the 1990s, this viewpoint is even more pronounced – this is our homeland and with every compromise, we are giving it away to the Palestinians.

The second theme is the delegitimization of the Arabs.

All of our leaders do this and it seeps down into the entire society. It’s not like in the United States, where if someone says something negative about African-Americans, he is liable to lose his job. Here, it’s legitimate to say negative things about the Arabs; it starts already at a very young age. Small children attach a negative connotation to the word “Arab” without understanding what it is, already at the age of two and a half. They say that is “bad” and that they don’t like it – even when they don’t know how to speak!

This negativity reaches its peak at the age of twelve and then begins to decline.

These foundational beliefs are pervasive even after there has been a conscious change in one’s political stance. This negative rhetoric is absorbed in ones youth and continues to influence one later on. It also finds expression in political stances: it has been found that 70% of the Jewish public is in favor of institutionalized discrimination against Arab-Israelis.

The third theme is a one-sided, positive self-image. Jewish Israelis grow up with beliefs such as “the IDF is the most ethical army in the world,” “we are different, we understand the value of life,” etc. Most of the public believes that the Jews are different from the rest of the world – and certainly from the Arabs. They see themselves as a people who possess a sense of morality that is exceptionally high in relation to the rest of humanity.

Also within the peace camp, there is a theme of difference – and a sense of the Jewish side is a group with superior ethics and principles.

The fourth theme is security – or rather, insecurity. The majority of the Jewish Israelis feel under threat, insecure, and fearful – without any connection to the military capabilities of the country. There are very deep roots to these feelings and without understanding them, one cannot fathom the behavior of the Jewish public in Israel. It is very difficult to convince any other populations of the veracity of this feeling.

One of the sources of this feeling is the sense of siege that was brought over from Europe without undergoing any significant adaptation to the new reality of the Israeli state. This sense of siege is conspicuous in textbooks, cinema, journalism, and books. Ari Shavit, Yoel Marcus, and many other writers who are thought of as mainstream continually return to the themes of Europe such as anti-Semitism and persecution. They are always ready to admit that it is a psychological condition but they are certain that it is real and existent. Insecurity is relayed through the generations and expressed in the conflict.

This fear is maintained by the stories of the Holocaust that immortalize the same sense of fear over and over again. Those who administer trips to Poland believe that this is the correct way to uphold the memory of the past, but in reality, there it cultivates very real sensations of fear. For example, they put the youth in the gas chambers, close the door, and ask them to imagine that they are being put to death. In addition, the trips are taken purposefully in the winter so that the youth feel physically cold.

This sense of fear is nursed from a young age and it is very difficult to change.

The fifth theme is the feeling of victimhood. This theme is a product of the experience of Jewish life in the Diaspora, the experience of the Holocaust, and the experience of so many years of the Arab-Jewish, Israel-Palestinian conflict.

An important mechanism that maintains this sense of victimhood is the self-censor. People who participate in incidents where Israel has attacked – rather than been attacked – do not speak about this. Even though there is a near total consensus among historians concerning the nature of these incidents, the beliefs of the majority of the public are different. A situation has been created in which the “official” memory – for example, the files of the IDF – can be relatively accurate while the memory of the populace is otherwise. Amongst the public, there is almost total agreement in regards to the military episodes up until 1982.

The last theme is patriotism and unity. These sentiments are passed down to youth from an early age by way of various channels in society. It manifests itself in relation to various concepts, such as love of the land, the glorification of national heroes, and the image of the pioneers who held a weapon in one hand and a plow in the other. This ethos is still dominant but it has undergone some change. Up until the 1970s, these were the only themes in literature, leadership, education, and national ceremonies; no other voices were heard. In the 1970s, this consensus started to change – for example, there was The Queen of the Bathtub, the play by Hanoch Levin.

The peace movement today

In the peace camp, today, there are two types: the instrumentalist and the moralist.

The instrumentalists are those who would like to solve the conflict due to instrumental reasons, even fear, such as the “demographic problem” that is seen as a major threat to the life of the state. This is the fear that there will be a majority of Arabs from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This point of view is practical, ethnocentric, and centered around themes of identity – it is characterized by hatred and loathing towards Arabs.

Among this group, the most significant desire is to feel secure in the land. This group, which account for the majority of the peace camp, aspires to include the areas of the settlements in a final status agreement, including Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. This group also supports the building of the “separation barrier.”

The moralists make up a smaller group in the peace camp. These are those who think that Palestinians have a right to the land. They express empathy for the other side and point out that Lebanese and Palestinians have also been killed in war and occupation.

Israel claims universal values when it insists on the struggle against anti-Semitism but at the same time, she is blind to the meaning of these values when applied to herself.

The Jewish public that supports peace mainly for instrumentalist reasons but also for moral reasons has started to change the Zionist narrative. The first change came with the arrival of the Egytian president, Anwar Sadat. This broke the consensus that “there is no one to talk to [on the other side].” In the 1980s and 1990s, a peace camp was formed that included about 50% of the population. Based on instrumental and moral reasons, a large portion of the population was ready to trade land for peace.

In 2000, Barak succeeded in destroying the peace camp and bringing it down to 15-20% of the population. He succeeded in doing this in three ways: one, the way he “sold” Camp David as a “generous offer”; two, when it was refused, by claiming that there was obviously “no partner for peace”; and three, by insisting that the Second Intafada was planned. The fact that the Intafada was spontanous is endorsed today by all of the security arms of the government: the Shabakh, the Mossad, and the Amen (Intelligence), but Barak, Mofaz, and others continued to claim it was premeditated.

The first bus was blown up after Sharon was elected, in contrast to the widespread idea that it happened at the beginning of the Intafada, after Camp David.

When Sharon decided to leave Gaza in the summer of 2005, he did not want to initiate negotiations, as he is quoted as saying, “How will I be perceived by the Israeli public if after all these years I said there’s no partner [for peace] and suddenly there’s a partner?”

The research shows that there is no substantial difference between the peace camp and the rest of the Israeli public. This finding is reflected in the fact that there is no substantial difference in the daily newspapers either. In Ha’aretz, Yidi’ot Aharonot, and Ma’arav, the stories themselves – what “really” happened is reported – in the same way. The only difference is the interpretation. In this context, the Second Lebanese War broke out. There was a sense of chaos and the people wanted direction. They wanted a strong leader who will bring order back to the chaos that had been created.

Now there is a new Satan – Iran – and this is very worrying. This is a context in which very negative things can flourish, in particular if we take into account the powerlessness and disconnectedness of alternative voices. A great responsibility rests on the shoulders of those who believe differently to propose a different route. People today are very confused, also in the moralist peace camp.

In the Israeli and foreign academy worlds, there is deep shock and intense criticism of what is taking place here but the knowledge doesn’t reach the wider public. In a similar way, documentary films that offer alternative information don’t reach the public.


In the discussion that developed in light of Prof. Bar-Tal’s lecture, participants raised criticism of the Jewish - Israeli side without relating to the Arab side. In this vein, criticism was voiced against the instrumental motivations of the peace camp as negative motivations.

One Arab voice claimed that the Jewish public in Israel accepts information only from the Israeli media, which is entirely enlisted to the ethnic cause, while the Arabs in Israel seek out Arabic, Israeli, and international media.

Among the participants in the discussion, there was agreement on opposition to the war.

Translation and editing by Joanna Steinhardt


Prof. Bar-Tal (centre)

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