In the long and fascinating list of indignities that can befall the human spirit (such as crippling anxiety and depression, addiction, sadism), the most bewildering is also the one that seems the most harmless: denial.
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Denial is the mind’s capacity to block out, forget, push aside and minimize information that is uncomfortable or painful to the self. Psychoanalysis was the first to pay systematic attention to denial and viewed it as a fundamental strategy to cope with the world when it threatens the self. Sigmund Freud called it a “defense mechanism”: A memory that, for example, undermines the love for a parent will often be erased from our consciousness. Psychoanalysis, then, views denial with a kind of intellectual benevolence: if it is involuntary and unconscious, and if it is a form of self-protection, it is not morally reprehensible.
But denial is not only the unconscious and harmless mechanism of self-defense against threats to the self. Denial is also the semi-conscious, semi-deliberate strategy to ignore what we do not want to see about ourselves and the world. It is a relationship we have with ourselves, in which we hide information through strategies that are at once deliberate and nonconscious. In this sense, denial is a moral action.
Take the example of the man who smokes and knows that “smoking kills” because he reads this every day on the pack of cigarettes he buys. This man has no particular desire to die. In fact, he lives a good life and values his life. He enjoys cigarettes because he enjoys life. He knows cigarettes kill, and yet does not know it. Every day, he renews with himself a pact of ignorance and persists in ignoring, forgetting, pushing aside what he knows. How does he do this? By telling himself different stories: he will stop smoking soon; cigarettes kill only some people and not others; he smokes less cigarettes and for less time than his friends; his life has always been a lucky one; he does a lot of sport and eats healthy food; his parents have great genes. If we could hear the silent voices of people who live with the denial of uncomfortable truths, we would hear a constant hum and buzz of self-told stories. Denial is, therefore, not a lack of knowledge, but a complex form of knowledge. This complex form of knowledge takes three forms.
One is the one psychoanalysis has discussed: an erasure of memories: “It never happened” is the proposition taken by this (non)-knowledge. It is a blank where there should have been a word.
The second form taken by denial-as-knowledge ignores the consequences of our actions, for ourselves and others. It takes the form of “X is true, but it will not happen to me.” For example, the man who ignores the fact that smoking may harm his own health and that of his children. This denial ignores the future.
And then there is a third form of denial that involves a very particular gaze and consciousness of the present, which sees something and yet fails to register its meaning and significance, fails to register its proper name, minimizes it and says to itself, “I did not see anything; I don’t know anything.” Seeing without registering or naming what they see is the strategy of eyes that see evil without seeing it. This is, for example, the woman who is the daily witness of her husband’s sexual abuse of their daughter, and yet turns away her eyes, shuts her ears, continues to provide her husband with routine services of cooking, cleaning and sex. This woman is not a witness to abuse in the same way as the witness to a crime is; she witnesses a crime, but participates in it because she pushes it outside her consciousness, teaches herself to become oblivious to it, to the suffering of the child, to the criminality of her husband, and to her own failure as a human being. In the same way, myriad Polish and Ukrainian peasants who lived near concentration camps trained their eyes and minds to see nothing, smell nothing, hear nothing.
Denial is thus not only about pushing aside some traumatic memory that has been inflicted on us by a harsh world; it is a choice to actively ignore the truth in front of our eyes. Denial is the art of “fudging” reality, of turning hard facts into vague, hazy images. As in voodoo mythology, where a zombie is at once alive and dead, denial is a zombie form of knowledge, dead and alive, something we know and don’t know.
Denial is not only the property of individuals. It can be, and in fact often is, a property of groups such as families and nations. Many families can build mutual loyalty only by denying their own emotional pathology and violence. Nations similarly and typically build for themselves glorious pasts and impeccable identities through denial of the violence they perpetrated. Using Nietzsche’s words, we may say that politics is the art of determining “the boundary at which the past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present.” What to remember and what to forget is crucial to modern polities. Not by chance is Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s “1984,” in charge of rewriting history and newspaper articles: the belief in a regime of power depends on believing in its past. Such belief can be maintained only if the collective past is believed. We may say that how open, just and moral nations and countries are can be evaluated based on the degree to which, and the ways in which, they deny or acknowledge their past wrongdoings.
Some nations practice denial as a systematic policy, but we usually do not think of them as open societies. Yet I do not believe there is another way to characterize Israeli policy vis-à-vis the occupied territories. The mind-boggling, jaw-dropping claim that the State of Israel can quietly annex these territories, control the lives of 2.6 million Palestinians and still remain Jewish and democratic is denial on an uncanny scale – denial turned into grand political strategy (Palestinians and Israeli Arabs together would make up 4.3 million of the total population of Israel, a fact that would compel Jewish Israel to exercise an inhumane and unsustainable control over other human beings). The originality of the politics of the messianic right, which has been in power for more than a decade, can be defined as a politics of denial, and politics as denial on a scale rarely seen in the democratic world. However, contrary to common perceptions, I suggest that the denial that characterizes the politics of the territories could become a policy because the politics and policy inside the Green Line had already long been a politics of denial, perhaps since the inception of Zionism.
1: Denial as a blank – it never happened
How could a state so stubbornly deny the screamingly just claim of independence by Palestinians? It was easy to ignore because Israel consistently denied there were even people on the land, let alone people who were expelled from their lands. The slogan of Zionism – “A land without a people for a people without a land” – was either a conscious, cynical lie or a denial that the victims of abject European anti-Semitism could also be the perpetrators of violence, expulsion, expropriation. This denial was considerably facilitated by the initial refusal of Arab states to share Palestine and to abide by the 1947 UN vote, and made it far, far easier for early Zionists to deny their actions and to shift the burden of responsibility onto Arab nations.
Denial No. 1 – denial as suppression – takes the form of erasure, a blank. But the supreme irony of that blank is that it must be incessantly produced and reproduced by the state.
Take the so-called “Nakba Law” that passed in 2011. This law determined that any organization that receives government funding may be subject to sanctions if it funds an event that refers to Independence Day as a day of mourning (Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, is the Palestinians’ term for the formation of Israel in 1948). According to the Israel Democracy Institute, this law was aimed specifically at preventing financing of Nakba Day “events” by Arab organizations that received funding from the state. Last March, Maariv journalist Kalman Libeskind strongly condemned the argument that the Nakba should be taught in the Israeli education system, because giving it a place in the Israeli classroom would amount to claiming that Jewish existence on Israeli land is theft. Even worse, to teach the Nakba narrative alongside the Zionist narrative would be to claim there is no distinction between good and evil, truth and falsehood.
Another example: Journalist Erel Segal wrote in the right-wing, religious-Zionist newspaper Makor Rishon last April: “In the name of multiculturalism and the attempt to undermine the Jewish state from within, people want to teach here in the narrative of the aggressor. This is arrogance redoubled with outrageous nerve.”
A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute before Independence Day last year found that 58 percent of the Jewish public supports the Nakba Law, with only a third against it. In other words, what is unique about the Israeli case is that it not only denies the violence of the initial colonization of the land, but views the natives – those who inhabited the land – as the aggressors. This inversion of victim and perpetrator is a clear, classic example of denial, which at once erases one’s wrongdoing and projects it onto the other side.
In erasing its violent beginning, most notably its expropriation of Arab lands and the creation of Palestinian refugees, Israel was probably no worse than most other peoples. But the difference between Israel and other nations is that, while most Western nations gradually opened up about their pasts and agreed to display contested memories, or even to adopt wholesale the version of the minority (Jews in Germany; Native Americans in the United States, Indigenous Australians, etc.), Israel has gone in the opposite direction and increasingly made the erasure of the Arabs’ own version of their history into an official policy of the Jewish state, in order to increase the legitimacy of Zionism. The control and erasure of the past was caused by the increasing involvement of settlers in Israeli politics, where the legitimacy of Israel and the legitimacy of the territories became one single cause.
The result of this tactic, however, is not without irony: The persistent denial of the Nakba makes Zionism less, rather than more, legitimate in the eyes of its Arab minority and in the eyes of most of the enlightened world. Acknowledging officially that some Arabs were forced out of their lands, and enabling a minority group to express its own historical experience, would strengthen rather than weaken the moral and political authority of Zionism (this writer believes that the great catastrophe that befell the Arab natives of the land does not undermine the legitimacy of early Jewish nationalism).
To further illustrate my point: Germany and Turkey both committed atrocious genocides, and yet what enabled Germany to become a moral world leader is that it acknowledged its crimes. Turkey will never attain this moral status not because it committed worse crimes, but because it will not acknowledge its past.
Commenting on the shocking recent behavior of Eastern European countries in the face of the humanitarian crisis of refugees at the door of Europe, the Princeton historian and sociologist Jan T. Gross remarked, “Eastern Europe, by contrast [to Germany], has yet to come to terms with its murderous past. Only when it does will its people be able to recognize their obligation to save those fleeing in the face of evil.” Opening up one’s collective memory to contested narratives increases rather than decreases the moral status of a state. Commenting on a poem by concentration camp survivor Dan Pagis, literary critic James Wood put it well: Worse than suffering itself “is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased.”
2: Denial as a hijacking of the future
The second form of denial is not one that erases the past, but that hijacks the future for the sake of preserving both the comfort and the ideology of certain groups in Israeli society.
Strategies to ignore the consequences of one’s actions in the future are like those of the smoker who persists in not defining his heavy smoking as a gamble on his and his children’s health. The messianic politics of the territories is a spectacular gamble on the future of all Israel, with stakes as high as the collapse of the Zionist project in the space of a few short decades.
In an article published in TheMarker last June, which dealt with an economic boycott of Israel, it was argued that the boycott has actually existed for a long time and operates on many levels, far from the spotlight. It keeps expanding all the time and will, if it maintains this level of expansion, bring serious damage to the Israeli economy.
An internal report by the Finance Ministry’s chief economist two years ago stated that in the extreme case of a European Union ban on Israel, which would include 100 percent damage to Israeli exports to Europe and the cessation of European investment in the country, the annual loss for Israeli exports would be $88.1 billion, GDP would suffer a $40 billion shortfall, 36,500 jobs would be lost and investment would fall $10.9 billion.
These dire economic consequences would be only the beginning: Soon, Israel would turn into a rogue state that would develop as an isolated military fortress, living off sales of arms and security equipment to the rest of the world; internally, it would be characterized by rampant poverty, inequalities, religious fanaticism and lack of education.
Last September, Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote an article laying out what is in store for Israel. The core secular part of Israeli society is shrinking, with minority groups – Haredim, religious Zionist and Arabs – expanding around it, weakening the secular classes. Based on figures in the Statistical Abstract of Israel, the trends are clear: a generation ago, 60 percent of Israeli children learned in secular state schools. Two years ago, only 41.5 percent of the first grade attended those same schools. The data estimate that, by 2019, only 37.2 percent of first-graders will go to secular state schools. Deliberate state policies triggered this demographic revolution since Ben-Gurion. Israel is already sharply split between hostile tribal groups and will continue splitting further; because it is becoming a religious country, we can expect that its legal, moral and cultural core will, in fact, be mostly inspired and shaped by halakha (Jewish religious law), and will see a large proportion of its population suffer from under-education and chronic unemployment. Such demographic policy characterized different governments and was based on denial that this social model is unsustainable.
Economists have a particularly accurate way of describing the mechanism at work in such hijackings of the future: optimism bias – defined as a cognitive flaw in the judgment of one’s actions, which tends to under-evaluate the risks of one’s decisions and the likelihood of losses or damages entailed by such decisions. In other words, an optimistic bias is the error that makes the gambler who has a few wins at the beginning of the evening develop the belief that he will continue to win until the wee hours.
Settlers and the religious-Zionist camp have many good reasons to entertain the gambler’s optimism bias with regard to Israel’s future. They are convinced that God’s hand itself wrote the history of Israel for the last 70 years and that this history was written just for them (the birth of Israel against all odds; the Six-Day War as a divine miracle; Yitzhak Rabin’s murder as an unfortunate but positive historical accident; the collapse of the Israeli left as proof of its moral weakness, etc.).
Optimism bias is likely to be particularly delusional among settlers, since in Jewish theology Jews are the only people God engages with seriously for his grand plans. Israeli nationalism was interpreted in this theological frame: As the manifestation of an intimate, privileged and exclusive relationship between the Jews and God. The denial of the future by settlers has theological reasons, but the same theological strain was present in secular Zionism and easily penetrated the Green Line.
In 2015 OECD research that compared well-being in 36 countries, Israel ranked at the bottom of almost all the objective measures of well-being: personal security, work-life balance, civic engagement and governance, environmental quality, housing, etc. And yet, miraculously, Israel ranked in fifth position with regard to subjective well-being – certainly testimony to Israelis’ happy temperament, as well as their inability to understand the low quality of their institutions, a symptom of the optimism bias that makes this country endearing to some, unbearable to others.
The optimism bias of a nation sure that God (or history) will always be on its side resembles that of the heavy smoker who takes everyday good health as the irrefutable and tangible proof that God has personally written eternity insurance to him. But, as we all know, the fact that a smoker is healthy now doesn’t mean cancer won’t start tomorrow.
3: Denial as seeing, yet not seeing
A large proportion of the Israeli population is increasingly numb and indifferent to the humanitarian disaster that plagues Palestinians. These Israelis are in the same position as the woman who sees her husband sexually abusing his daughter and yet fails to register it. We witness an astounding numbers of house demolitions, killings of children, expropriations of land, administrative detentions, torture, violations of international rights, daily crimes of theft, vandalism, attacks by settlers against Palestinians, with the deliberate denial of the army which often stands near, and stands idly by. What fogs our vision is the fact that the lawlessness of the occupied territories is protected by the army itself – the most moral army in the world.
The reason why the government of settlers has undermined the moral authority and work of human rights organizations like Yesh Din, B’Tselem or the Public Committee Against Torture is due to the fact that these organizations compel us to look at what our gaze is trying to avoid. They force us to call what Israel is doing by its proper name. They oppose the denial,
They are the eyes that see. For example, a report by Yesh Din has addressed Israeli soldiers’ practice of standing idly by in the face of crimes committed by Israeli civilians against Palestinians and their property in the territories – a practice that is almost as old as the occupation itself. The term “standing idly by” refers to incidents in which Israel Defense Forces soldiers witness attacks on Palestinians or their property and do nothing to prevent or stop them, or to immediately detain and arrest the offenders. Such passive protection of the violence, and violation of law and human rights, is the same as the passive gaze of the mother who looks at her husband abusing their daughter, a denial of the crime, and ultimately a denial of her own humanity.
From the early days of the occupation, the IDF’s “command ethos” has evaded its responsibility, defined by the Supreme Court as one of the major, fundamental obligations of a military commander in an occupied territory. The military’s refusal to uphold its obligations allows the practice of standing idly by to proliferate, and expresses yet another aspect of the policy of denial toward illegal activity by Israeli civilians.
The soldiers’ practice of standing idly by has been documented for decades by both government agencies and human rights organizations. Yet the army and Israeli society continue to see without seeing, to have their consciousness numbed by fuzzy slogans about “military defense” and “military security.”
Here, too, the state’s denial of lawlessness in the territories can take place only because of processes within Green Line Israel. As has often been said, Israel is not a state with an army, but an army with a state. The state budget for 2015 stipulates that the Defense Ministry receive 57 billion shekels ($14.7 billion). This is in addition to another 7 billion shekels allocated to the ministry for 2014. Defense expenditure is the single biggest item in the state budget, accounting for some 16 percent of it.
The Defense Ministry budget is different from other government departments, in that it enjoys special budget rights, is completely controlled by the Defense Ministry, is usually classified, and spending changes do not require the prior approval of Knesset members.
In other words, the Defense Ministry and security establishment function like a bureaucracy independent from the rest of the country, a bureaucracy that expands with no regard for other collective needs, such as health, education or culture. “Military security” has replaced all foreign and domestic policy. Life inside the Green Line has become the life of a military trench: we request only to survive, and the demands of survival have hijacked any and all political considerations, thus depriving Israelis of the capacity to see and to grasp the evils that are committed in their name.
Denial is not simply a flaw of our consciousness, as psychoanalysis sometimes naively suggests. Denial is a pact of ignorance we make with ourselves, a choice to know and not to know, and is thus a particularly disturbing moral deficiency. A gambler who stakes the house of his children because he is thoroughly convinced he will beat the casino is less likely to be cured of his compulsion than the nervous gambler who remains aware of the risks. A woman who bullies her colleague, but thinks herself cute and witty, is more laughable than an ordinary bully.
Blindness to oneself is the stuff of comedies, but in politics denial is not funny. Adam Smith, one of the founders of modern economics, put it perfectly: “The overweening conceit which the greater part of men have of their own abilities is an ancient evil remarked by the philosophers and moralists of all ages.”
The tragedy of this comical flaw is that it only becomes aware of itself when it contemplates the havoc and damage it has wreaked.
Denial on a grand scale, as exists in Israel, not only fogs consciousness and numbs moral intuition, it also makes possible Netanyahu’s claim that Hitler never intended to destroy the Jews, while remaining at his post without being forced to resign. We can hear this and resume our daily routine because Israel is now built around a gigantic lie. In Václav Havel’s stunning words: we have become accustomed to “living in the lie.”
Prof. Eva Illouz is a sociologist and author of nine books.