Commentary Magazine


The Oslo Syndrome by Kenneth Levin

The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege
by Kenneth Levin
Smith & Kraus. 571 pp. $35.00

It has long been obvious to all but the incurably or willfully blind that the 1993 agreement signed in Oslo between the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was a horrendous blunder on Israel’s part. Rarely in history has a country so foolishly opened its gates to a Trojan horse as Israel did when it welcomed Yasir Arafat and his PLO brigades, handed over to them most of the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank, and gave them the arms to impose their rule on the local inhabitants. How could such a mistake have been made by experienced political and military leaders, statesmen and generals whose careers had spanned a half-century of managing Israel’s bitter conflict with the Arabs?

A year afterward, when the Oslo agreement was already headed toward its eventual collapse, I found myself musing about this question with a good friend of mine, the Harvard professor of Yiddish literature and fellow COMMENTARY contributor Ruth Wisse. Whereas she had been strongly against the Oslo agreement from the start, I had initially been less certain about it. It had deeply troubled and scared me; but although I did not take part in the delirium of applause that greeted the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn, neither did I immediately join the critics. Surely, I thought, Israel’s leaders must have some idea of what they were doing. I would wait and see—and hope for the best.

Now I said to Ruth:

Tell me something. You and I have had our share of political disagreements in the past. You’ve always said that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians would result in a disastrous cave-in, and I’ve always said that concessions had to be made. Now they have been made—and you were right and I was wrong. How did you, who live in America, understand what I, who live in Israel, failed to see?

“It’s because I know my Yiddish literature,” Ruth replied.

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At first I thought she was joking. Then I realized she had said something profound—profound enough, in any case, to merit 600 pages of exegesis in Kenneth Levin’s well-researched and strenuously argued new work of psychohistory, The Oslo Syndrome.

Levin, a Boston psychiatrist, has written a book about the psychological dimensions of Jewish political behavior from medieval Europe to the present. This is the period in which Yiddish was the spoken, and in part the written, language of most of European Jewry—and if understanding a people’s behavior means understanding its soul (which is often best expressed in its literature), The Oslo Syndrome is a soul-searching book.

Levin’s thesis is both simple and complex—the former because reducible to a few broad generalizations, the latter because buttressed by a large number of historical examples. Until the modern age, Levin argues, Europe’s Jews, though a minority dispersed among Christians and at the mercy of their rulers, lived in autonomous, self-governing communities that looked inward for their values and had a high degree of self-esteem. Proud of their religion and learning, Jews had a healthy collective ego. While Christian prejudice was always menacing and sometimes wreaked devastation, it never eroded their confidence in the superiority of their own way of life.

All this began to change, Levin writes, at the time of the Enlightenment, when the first glimmerings of social and political equality enticed Jews with the prospect of integration into European society. Since Jewish emancipation was fiercely debated by Christians, it now mattered to Jews for the first time not only how Christians behaved toward them, but what Christians thought of them. And here they encountered a problem, because the Christian supporters of emancipation did not on the whole think highly of Jews at all—no more highly, indeed, than did emancipation’s opponents.

For the most part, that is, Enlightenment intellectuals in France, England, and elsewhere shared the traditional Christian perception of the Jews as backward, avaricious, parasitic, and morally corrupt. They differed only in their assessment of what was to be done. Jews, declared philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire, were at bottom no less human than others, but their humanity had been warped by their own narrow-minded religion and by centuries of Christian persecution. Cease persecuting them; induce them to abandon their religion; educate them and teach them useful trades, and they would become good Europeans like their Christian neighbors.

What happened next, in Levin’s account, is what psychologists call internalization, the mental process by which we adopt the attitudes of authority figures we identify with, especially when we are also dependent on them. As a class of homegrown Jewish intellectuals or maskilim (“enlighteners,” after Haskalah, the Hebrew word for the Enlightenment) began to develop in the late-18th and 19th centuries, first in Germany and then in Eastern Europe, pro-emancipation European intellectuals became its role models; yet since these same European intellectuals were generally hostile to Judaism and its practitioners, both the maskilim and the large numbers of Jews who were influenced by them made this hostility their own. From here was born the ego-attacking pathology of Jewish self-blame and self-denigration—a pathology, Levin believes, that lies at the root of a great deal of later Jewish politics, up to and including the capitulation at Oslo.

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How does one get from the maskilim to Oslo? On the whole, Levin observes, the forces calling for the admission of the Jews to European society in return for their abandonment of Jewish particularism were on the political Left. Hence Jews, particularly Jewish intellectuals, tended to identify themselves with the Left, so that even when the neo-particularist movement of Jewish nationalism known as Zionism appeared on the scene in the late 19th century, it soon came to be dominated by its left wing. Although Theodor Herzl was himself a liberal in the classic European sense, even before his premature death in 1904 his views were being challenged by utopian socialists.

By the 1920’s, the Left, in the form of “Labor Zionism,” had taken control of the international Zionist organization Herzl founded and of the political life of the Jewish community in Palestine.

Proud Jewish nationalists though they claimed to be, these Labor Zionist politicians and intellectuals were, in Levin’s description, infected with the very pathology of self-denigration that Zionism had ostensibly repudiated. For them, Jewish independence in a Jewish state could not be an end in itself, as it was for the Zionist Right. Unless Zionism served some higher purpose that remade the Jews into a worthier people, purged of the dross of their exilic existence, it could not be justified. Levin quotes Martin Buber:

Our argument . . . does not concern the Jewish state. . . . It does not concern the addition of one more trifling power structure. . . . Zion restored will become the house of the Lord for all peoples and the center of the new world.

Such unbounded utopianism, however, had its downside. If Zion did not become “the house of the Lord,” Zionism would be to blame; if a Jewish state had neighbors that refused to make peace with it, it could not be a house “for all peoples.” A less than perfect Zionism was a failure.

As Levin sees it, then, Labor Zionism’s legacy from the period of the Haskalah was the assumption that a Jewish state having enemies must deserve them. Just as the maskilim conceded that Christian Europe had valid reasons for disliking the Jews, so part of the Zionist Left conceded the legitimacy of Arab hatred of Israel; and as the maskilim insisted that the Jews had to change if they were to be accepted by European society, so some Labor Zionists insisted that Israel must mend its ways before it could become part of the Middle East.

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As a psychiatrist, Levin discerns a clear parallel between such reactions and those of abused children and battered wives, who commonly blame themselves for causing the cruelty meted out to them. In both cases, the delusion that the guilt is one’s own serves a dual purpose, enabling the victims to go on believing in the good intentions of those whose love they crave while at the same time feeling that they are in control of their own situation, which they can ameliorate by better behavior.

True, Levin writes, this syndrome did not, historically, play a major role in Israeli intellectual or political life until the 1970’s. On the contrary: throughout the years of the British Mandate in Palestine, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel, and the struggles and accomplishments of the Jewish state’s early years, the opinion-makers of Europe and America were sufficiently friendly or neutral toward Zionism to enable the mainstream Zionist Left to believe in the justice of its cause. Self-blame was largely limited to the fringes.

Starting with the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, however, all this began to change. The intellectual and political climate in the West, particularly on the Left, shifted increasingly against Israel precisely as Arab military, terror, and propaganda attacks against it escalated; the failure of Israeli concessions to make a dent in this trend only increased the sense of siege that the Zionist Left, which had for the first time lost a national election to the Right in 1977, was now experiencing. Once the Right was in power, it, and not the Arabs, could be blamed for the siege. It and its policies were depicted by the Left as traditional Judaism had been depicted by the maskilim: the ugly face of the Jewish people that had to be replaced if acceptance was to be gained in the family of nations.

In the end, indeed, the Zionist Left turned on Zionism itself. It was Zionism in all its forms, more and more Israeli intellectuals began to declare, that was the cause of its own plight. By the time the Left regained power in the 1992 election, Levin writes,

the drumbeat of that literary-artistic rhetoric, of the New History, of the anti-Zionist/post-Zionist academic writings, and of the peace movement [had grown] ever louder in its promotions of new directions . . . that would lead to the national self-abnegation and concessions that its purveyors chose to believe could not help but assure peace.

It was the return of the repressed: the old syndrome of Jewish self-denigration had resurfaced with a vengeance in the Jewish state. All that was needed for it to produce fatal new policies was the right political leaders. Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin fit the bill. The stage for Oslo was set.

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Is this a fully satisfactory reading of modern Jewish history? Of Israeli history? Of what happened in 1993?

Obviously not. All psychohistories, whether of individuals or of nations, suffer from circularity and over-determinism. In addition, no psychohistory of a people can be more than, at best, a poetic construction of the past. A collective mind or soul is a metaphor, not something with a discrete existence of its own. Individuals alone have minds.

The two individuals most responsible for going to Oslo were not, to judge by their previous careers, men given to Jewish self-blame. Rabin was a tough ex-general who, in his previous job as minister of defense in Yitzhak Shamir’s 1988-1992 national-unity government, had famously called for “breaking the arms and legs” of Palestinians in the first intifada. Peres, identified in the past with the hawks of the Labor party, was a former patron of the West Bank settlers. Neither man had been known for his sympathy with the Palestinian cause.

Many explanations have been given for their turnabout. There was the late-80’s intifada itself, which had demonstrated the depth and determination of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s military occupation. There was the 1991 Madrid conference, which made clear that there were no moderate Palestinian leaders, uncontrolled by the PLO, to negotiate with. The PLO itself, moreover, while continuing its campaign of terror, had gradually softened its public positions and was now indicating a readiness to recognize Israel in return for a Palestinian state.

Furthermore, the 1991 American-led Gulf war, by destroying the Iraqi army, had removed the military threat of an “eastern front” that a Palestinian state might align itself with. The growing strength of Hamas in the occupied territories was a cause for worry that, if Israel did not strike a deal with the PLO, the Islamic fundamentalists would soon take control there; indeed, intelligence reports were pointing to the imminent spread of Islamic terror everywhere, which could only be countered by strengthening the moderate forces in the Arab world. And in addition, there was mounting international pressure on Israel to end its conflict with the Palestinians by withdrawing from most or all of the territories. Each of these considerations carried weight; none was related to Jewish self-blame.

True, as Levin documents, there had also been a major shift, especially on the Left, in Israeli attitudes toward the conflict. This undoubtedly influenced Rabin and Peres in two ways. On the one hand, it caused them to doubt the staying power of the Israeli public; the danger seemed real to them that, weary of sacrifice and losing its morale, Israelis might “crack” if the conflict continued, sapping the country’s strength and ability to defend itself. On the other hand, there was now a ripeness on the Left, and even in the political Center, for concessions that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. This certainly encouraged the two men to believe that a volte-face toward the PLO, negotiations with which had been ruled out by the Labor party until then, could marshal the needed public support.

What one can say, then, is that the “Oslo syndrome,” though not a sufficient condition for what happened in 1993, may have been a necessary one. Without it, Israel’s leaders, persuaded by wishful thinking to shut their eyes to the PLO’s having remained an organization bent on Israel’s destruction, might have considered an agreement with it, only to reject such a thing as politically inexpedient.

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Beyond this, however, Levin’s interpretation of Zionist and modern Jewish history, which is also a political polemic written from the perspective of the Zionist Right, raises major questions that remain unanswered.

Labor Zionism, Levin maintains, sinned against the Jewish people by endorsing and even heightening the Haskalah’s critique of traditional Judaism and Jewish life. The Zionist Left saw this life as religiously petrified, culturally backward, economically unproductive, and unhealthily divorced from nature and the natural self. It viewed Zionism not merely as a movement for Jewish independence but as a radical antidote for an ailing nation, a heroic attempt to nurse the Jewish people back to spiritual and physical health. In adopting this perspective, Levin’s argument goes, it assimilated the philosophes‘ original portrait of the Jews.

And yet was Labor Zionism really so wrong about what it saw? If we were to reconstruct 19th- and early-20th-century Eastern European Jewish life from the sometimes harshly critical, sometimes comically satirical Hebrew and Yiddish literature of the period, we might end up seeing something very similar.

This is of course the literature that Ruth Wisse was talking about, or at least that part of it in which the Jewish penchant for self-blame is exaggerated. But here we come to the dialectical crux of the matter, which Levin, who prefers his psychohistory to be straightforward, never quite comes to grips with. Labor Zionism, in its assertion of Jewish nationhood and the Jewish right to the land of Israel, coupled with its desire to build a new society there that would cast off the perceived shamefulness of Jewish exile, was at once a powerful affirmation and a powerful negation. Without the negation, however, the energies of an Eastern European Jewish youth in open revolt against the world of its parents could never have been harnessed in the Zionist cause. Like the positive and negative poles of an electric circuit, both opposites were needed to create a current.

This is a difficult truth for those who, like Levin, prefer to keep the positive and the negative in Zionist history neatly apart—a separation that is even less tenable when applied to Jewish history as a whole. Certainly, Jewish self-blame, or “self-hatred” as it is often called, is a well-known phenomenon in modern Jewish life. Yet to assume, as Levin does, that it is a distinctly modern phenomenon is simply to ignore all of Jewish history that precedes it. One must start, indeed, with the Bible—a volume from whose pages, particularly its prophetic books, self-blame leaps at the eye on page after page. Again and again the prophets accuse Israel of bringing down its enemies upon itself and of being at fault for the tribulations God afflicts on it.

Furthermore, the biblical message that all of Israel’s misfortunes are well-deserved punishments is echoed in subsequent Jewish texts throughout the ages, in which every catastrophe to befall the Jewish people—the failed revolt against Rome, the anti-Jewish massacres of the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the terrible pogroms in 17th-century Ukraine, even the Holocaust—has been put down by at least some Jews to Jewish sinfulness.

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Medieval Jewish self-esteem was not quite so unshakable as Levin purports it to be, and Jewish self-blame does not begin with the age of the European Enlightenment, even if his desire to think so is understandable. There is after all only so much bad news that one can take, and the news that in the modern age, even in a Jewish state, Jews have had a perverse tendency to accept their adversity as well-deserved is bad enough. To have to add that this tendency extends back to the earliest existence of the Jewish people and constitutes an apparently ineradicable three-thousand-year-old habit may be more than any proud Jew can bear. Was the first step toward Oslo really taken in the shadow of Sinai?

Perhaps; but faced with questions of such immensity, psychohistory needs to be modest. Collective self-blame, as Americans of every stripe know, is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, even if there are also cultures, such as that of Islam, in which it can barely be said to exist. Nor is it always unhealthy or unmerited where it does exist. And although it might be possible to trace the ways in which the traditional self-blame of religious Jews turned into the self-blame of the anti-religious Jewish and Zionist Left, while largely disappearing from both the secular and religious Zionist Right, these are anything but simple. Psychohistory can help to explain many things, but it is never the explanation for anything. Not all roads led to Oslo. Many paths, though, did converge on it.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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