Psychology of dissent

You’ve got to hand it to Melanie Phillips. There is no doubt that she writes the most compelling accounts and impassioned moral exhortations in her recent article making a case for Israel (comparing favourably with those of Alan Dershowitz’ book of that title). Indeed, her case is so compelling that you have to wonder how it’s even possible for people like me and so many other Jews around the world to be raising their voices against the ‘Israel Lobby’ and against this stirring picture of an embattled, heroic Israel struggling for survival against all odds and against implacable enemies bent on its destruction in another Holocaust. Are we crazy?

In a following blog I’ll comment on a couple of specific points that Phillips makes, but here I want to reflect on the psychological question that is posed by such accounts.

If Phillips is right, indeed we are all deranged, deluded and, worse, – foolish, unwitting accomplices of ant-Semites. Of course Melanie Phillips is the one who coined the undeniably evocative term ‘Jews for Genocide’ to describe people like me and those 400 Australian Jews who signed our even-handed IAJV statement in 2007 on the model of the UK Independent Jewish Voices (IJV).  However, it’s the very overwhelming persuasiveness of Melanie Phillips’ rhetoric and her “historical” picture that must make even the most ardent supporters of her view stop to ask the obvious question: How can the growing dissident Jewish voices such as the new J-Street movement in the US be so misguided? How can they be incapable of seeing the powerful, indeed desperate case for Israel – that “plucky little country” (as Greg Sheridan has called it). If Phillips is right, how can we be so utterly deluded and evil?

This is a psychological question – a question about the sanity, rationality and decency of people who appear to be so bizarrely hostile to Israel. And, of course, there is a psychological story that must be offered to explain our bizarre position. The only way to explain how anyone might disagree with Melanie Phillips’ account is that they are suffering from some kind of psychopathology that prevents them from seeing the obvious truth that everyone knows along the lines of Phillips’ account.

Although it is perhaps wearing a bit thin, the only psychological hypothesis to explain the irrationality of so many dissenting Jews is that they are “self-hating” and perhaps also “lefty” academic wankers. It’s revealing that nobody ever tries to give a serious analysis of this syndrome. What does it mean? How does it arise? Why would it lead otherwise normal people to hold such deviant views contrary to the obvious evidence that everyone knows? Above all, how can so many intelligent, well-educated and significant people be so afflicted? Of course, the trick is not to permit seriously asking these questions but just to use the label as if it needs no explanation or justification. It’s an old trick seen many years ago in the attribution of “Stokholm Syndrome” – another mental illness of a political hostage coming to see the point of view of their captors. It couldn’t be contemplated that their view might have been a rational conversion due to better information and insight since this might mean that the “terrorists” had a case. Rather, we are encouraged not to even think of such a possibility by labelling the convert as suffering from a pseudo-diagnosis dreamed up by propaganda pop-psychologists. This means that you don’t need to take their point of view seriously.

In the present case, it’s the very persuasiveness of Melanie Phillips’ story that is the warning sign. If you find it compelling, as most Jews do, then you need to stop to ask how leading Jewish commentators, journalists, historians and growing numbers of ordinary people remain unconvinced. Something is deeply wrong and can’t be ignored. Recognizing this radical divergence in the “narratives” is the first step towards resolving the apparent dispute. As in the wonderful story of the rabbi of Chelm whose wife said “They can’t both be right” we need to confront the diametrically opposed views seriously, precisely because the Melanie Phillips picture is so convincing that nobody in their right mind could deny it. Or could they?

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