Seeing the world through Auschwitz lens amounts to Jewish PTSD

When I learned of the murder of dozens of members of my family in the Holocaust and then met my Israeli relatives whose Auschwitz numbers could hardly be missed on their arms, I decided to dedicate my life to challenging war, the denial of human rights, the hatred of minorities, and social and economic injustice.

Michael Lerner

I also wanted to challenge the breakdown of human solidarity and the fear that competitive societies generate in their citizens, which destroys the natural instinct of individuals to care for “the other” and lead people to grab on to fascistic pseudo-solutions to their growing misery.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that my own Jewish people, which for 2,000 years had fostered a religion of compassion, non-violence, social justice, pursuing peace and generosity toward others, had responded to Auschwitz and the Holocaust by adopting a fear-based worldview. In this post-Holocaust period, power over others — rather than love, kindness and generosity (i.e., the teachings of our Torah) — would be our new way of identifying as Jews.

In so doing we began to give Hitler a victory he did not deserve and abandoned the God who, as was proclaimed in a Torah portion earlier this month, was revealed as a force in the universe for chesed, loving kindness, compassion and mercy. Instead, we worshiped at the altar of power and military might.

And the Jewish State of Israel became famous as the most powerful army in the Middle East.

I’m glad Israel is strong, and I’ve opposed those who seek to promote the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel (though I support BDS against the settlements of the West Bank). I’m against those who sought to reduce U.S. military aid to Israel. I was proud to have brought my son to Israel, sent him to high school in Israel, and been there to wash his clothes and feed him every weekend during the time he served in one of the Israel Defense Forces’ scariest combat units, the paratroopers, praying that he would survive those perilous jumps.

But as a researcher at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University, I discovered that Israelis were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They were seeing current events primarily through the framework of Auschwitz, the Holocaust and the sufferings of our life in exile.

I already had discovered in my work as a psychotherapist — before I became a rabbi or editor of Tikkun magazine — that a significant section of American Jews suffered from similar PTSD.

PTSD is the psychological category that does not attribute the distortions in perception to one’s inner life. It acknowledges that there really was a trauma, but that the source of the trauma is no longer there.

American Jews are one of the most politically and economically powerful groups in society, and Israel is one of the strongest military powers on Earth both in conventional and nuclear military power. Yet speak to many American Jews or Israelis and they feel totally insecure. They see Amalek, Haman or Hitler lurking in every enemy.

So the Palestinian people, without an army, has been seen consistently as Nazis. First Yasser Arafat, then Hezbollah and Hamas, and now Iran are seen as the embodiment of the Nazi threat.

As a result, Israel and many American Jews have been unable to respond to reasonable plans for a peace accord that have come from the Israeli peace movement and even from the Saudi peace proposal in 2002 — re-offered in 2007 — for peace and reconciliation between Israel and the entire Arab world.

Not everyone has been completely unable to see that an attack on Iran by Israel — and the likely embroilment of the United States in a war with Iran — would be a disaster for Israel and the United States. Such an attack also likely would intensify anti-Semitism around the world based not on previous irrational beliefs that the Jews killed Jesus, but on the legitimate outrage of people around the world against any country that engages in a “preemptive first strike” against another.

In fact, in the first week of March, a poll showed that a majority of Israelis disagree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and oppose a unilateral Israeli first strike.

The United States did not take a preemptive strike against North Korea or any of the other Communist states with ideological fanatics at their helm — including the Soviet Union and China when they developed nuclear war capacities — instead relying on its own nuclear capacity to wipe out any country that would attempt to strike at us. Many Israelis recognize that the strategy of mutually assured destruction, which has kept the world safe even with some countries having nuclear weapons, will keep Israel safe even if Iran has nuclear weapons.

It is only PTSD that makes it difficult for many American Jews and some Israeli hawks to recognize that as ideologically crazy as the Iranian government is today, there is zero reason to believe that it would be willing to have Iran bombed into oblivion by U.S. and Israeli nuclear retaliation from a first strike by Iran. PTSD so obscures our vision that many Jews have sided with U.S. militarists who always like a good excuse to amp up the military-industrial complex.

It’s time to heal from the distorted perceptions of seeing the world through the framework of Auschwitz. There are other paths to take, some of which I outlined in the recent full-page advertisement in The New York Times that we at Tikkun took calling for No First Strike and No War with Iran.

We are now seeking to put that ad in Israeli newspapers; it can be seen at tikkun. org/iran.

Read our full explanation of our strategy to provide protection for Israel at tikkun.org.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun magazine and author most recently of “Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East.”