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American Jewish Fantasies of Israel: Coping With Cognitive Dissonance

By Leon Hadar
Washington Report, August/September 1991, Page 27

A few years ago a young film director I knew produced a documentary dealing with the status of women in the Israeli military. Although financed in part by the government, the film portrayed a balanced picture of Israeli female soldiers. Contrary to their image as fighting amazons, it focused on their personal frustrations at being relegated to low-level clerical jobs, and on such problems as sexual harassment in the Israeli military.

After the film was released, my friend was invited to screen it for an American Jewish women's organization in New York. The members were mainly young educated and professional women who would subscribe to feminist views within the American political context. Hence my friend expected an enthusiastic response from the gathering. She knew that a portrayal of similar problems of women in the American military would probably trigger calls for political action and demands for reform.

Immediately after the screening, however, the young filmmaker sensed that something was wrong. After short and polite applause, there was a long silence. Following a few nervous coughs, one member of the audience finally stood up and addressed my friend:

"Look," she said, "you are obviously a very talented producer and I am sure that you presented an accurate picture. But you have to understand that for us Israel is a fantasy, and we would like to keep it that way. So please don't come here and try to destroy this fantasy for us! "

That response reflects the way many American Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel, especially those who consider themselves "liberal," have confronted bad news emanating from that country in recent years. To preserve the "fantasy, " many reject, discredit or refuse to deal with depictions of an Israel whose policies contradict their own cherished political values.

Social scientists describe as "cognitive dissonance" the condition that results from discrepancies between the image and the reality of an admired political figure. When that beloved figure is accused of immoral personal behavior or political corruption, the immediate tendency of his admirers is not to withdraw their support, but to fall back on what communication scholars refer to as "image-maintaining mechanisms." The admirer questions the reliability of the news medium or the journalists who reported that story. He casts doubt on the credibility of the report's source, or may even avoid reading or listening to any information suggesting that the idol is less than perfect.

Contradictory facts were not permitted to interfere with an idealized view of the Jewish state.

There are limits to such exercises in reality avoidance as when, for example, the crimes of the leader become so obvious that they lead to his resignation. Such developments, of course, can be very traumatic to the true believer. Some supporters of the Communist Party in the West, for example, suffered mental breakdowns or committed suicide after the extent of Stalin's horrors became obvious in the early 1950s.

Israel has had the potential to produce serious cognitive dissonance for its supporters in this country. Members of the American Jewish community have been in the forefront of the struggle for civil and human rights, separation of church and state and for free immigration to the United States. They would have been the first to protest any attempt to impose Christianity as a state religion in America, to pass a "law of return" limiting inunigration to white Christians, or to force citizens to carry identity cards indicating their religion or ethnic origin. But those same American Jews do not question their support for a state which applies these and other discriminatory policies in its treatment of its Christian and Muslim Arab citizens.

Similarly, many of the same American Jews who led the fight against US intervention in Vietnam, and supported an unconditional withdrawal of US forces, ignore or defend the long and bloody Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the mistreatment of the Palestinian population there.

How have most supporters of Israel in the United States avoided dealing with their own political inconsistencies? The answer lies in their personal image-maintenance methods designed to avoid the cognitive dissonance between their perceptions of Israel and its reality. That, and an American media that for many years sympathized with the Israeli point of view, has helped them to preserve the Israeli fantasy.

Until the 1967 Middle East war, memories of the European Holocaust and an Israeli political elite steeped in the effective use of public relations produced the Exodus-like images of the Jewish state in this country. Discrimination against the Arab population, the theocratic nature of the Israeli political system, and adventurist and militaristic Israeli policies received little attention from the US press, despite the fact that they were the subject of lively public debate in Israel itself.

As a result, American Jews did not have to reconcile their liberal personal agendas with the realization that Israel was not a progressive paradise in the Middle East. Contradictory facts were not permitted to interfere with an idealized view of the Jewish state.

Post-1967 Problems

Developments since the 1967 war, however, and especially the policies pursued by the nationalistic and messianic leadership that came to power in 1977, posed major psychological problems for many liberal supporters of Israel. Television news images and print media reports confronted them with the realities of Israeli suppression of Palestinian aspirations for self-determination, the increasing power of the Israeli religious orthodox political parties, and the growing alliance between Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

More than any other event, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon aggravated the tensions between the progressive instincts of Israel's American Jewish supporters, and their backing for an Israeli government pursuing reactionary and expansionist policies. Even the most ardent supporters of the Jewish state were shocked by the bloody scenes from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, a direct outcome of Likud policies transmitted directly to American television screens.

That traumatic experience was overcome, however, through a sophisticated campaign launched by the major American Jewish organizations and by pro-Israel pundits in the mainstream press which questioned the credibility of reports from Lebanon. American news organizations, especially the three television news networks, were accused of anti-Israel news coverage. Editor Norman Podhoretz of the American Jewish Committee's Commentary, in an article titled "J'accuse" (evoking an echo of Emile Zola's indictment of anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus affair), even accused the major news media outlets of anti-Semitic reporting. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC), with its extensive coverage of the war, was referred to by many Jewish activists as the "Arab Broadcasting Company."

Ironically, however, Israeli press coverage of the Likud government's policies during the 1982 war was in some respects even more critical than that of the American media. Respected journalists like Haaretz defense correspondent Ze'ev Schiff called for the ouster of the then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Their efforts led eventually to the largest anti-war demonstration in Israel's history, and to the formation of an Israeli government judicial inquiry committee that assigned "indirect" responsibility for the Sabra-Shatila massacre to Sharon and recommended that he resign.

American Gatekeepers

While those who read the Hebrew-language press in Israel are exposed to lively and occasionally nasty coverage of Israel's leadership and its domestic and foreign policies, pro-Israel activists and their allies in the US media function as gatekeepers. They make sure that the mainstream American press and the American-Jewish newspapers present only mild versions of the critical reports that appear in the Israeli press.

Three years ago at the height of the intifada, I appeared before an American Jewish group to discuss American media coverage of Israeli actions in the West Bank. I circulated among the audience unlabeled translations from articles on the Palestinian uprising from Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv, all written by mainstream Israeli journalists and columnists. I asked my American audience to guess where those reports had been published. About half of the audience guessed that they were from a PLO organ, and the other half attributed them to some "anti-Semitic" magazine.

Clearly American Jewish readers have been programmed by their organizational gatekeepers to a knee-jerk reaction identifying any report as anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish that raises questions about the appropriateness of Israeli moves. The prestigious Jaffe Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, headed by former high-ranking Israeli generals, recommends that Israel consider supporting the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. But when the Rev. Jesse Jackson proposes the same idea, he is branded an enemy of the Jewish people.

The leaders of the Israeli Labor Party call for halting the building of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. When President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker make the same suggestions, however, the two are scolded for their "lack of sensitivity " toward "Jewish concerns."

Recently, on April 20, 199 1, CNN broadcast a half-hour special report entitled "The Israeli Connection" and hosted by correspondent Mark Feldstein. The report presented various perspectives on the Israeli-Arab conflict and raised questions about the strength of US-Israeli ties in the aftermath of the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. "The Gulf conflict is over now, but another, older conflict remains," Feldstein stated. "How much longer it will do so may well depend on Israel's willingness to do what it has so far refused-change the status quo.

This was too much to stomach for the usual chorus. AIPAC's newsletter, Near East Report, said that CNN "is a home for Israel bashers. " This ignores the fact that CNN's correspondent, Wolf Blitzer, is a former editor of that same newsletter, and one of CNN's "special investigators," Steven Emerson, is better known as a long-time anti-Arab propagandist.

 Commentary magazine carried a special report entitled "CNN vs. Israel. " It accused CNN of conducting a campaign against the Jewish state. This was despite the fact that a few months earlier, under pressure from the Israeli government, CNN reassigned its producer in Jerusalem, Robert Weiner.

Such efforts are designed to make CNN like other US news outlets, march to the tune of what one might refer to as the Israeli PC (politically correct) line. It insures that an American supporter of Israel who might, after watching "The Israeli Connection," have developed (God forbid!) some doubts about the Likud government's commitment to peace or the strength of American-Israeli ties, can relax. The report was, after all, nothing more than an anti-Israel plot.

One major thorn in the efforts of America's pro-Israeli gatekeepers in recent years has been the Israeli English-language daily, the Jerusalem Post. Until two years ago the newspaper was owned by an economic concern affiliated with the Israeli Labor Party. Reflecting the position of that party, the newspaper was critical of Likud policies, particularly in the occupied territories.

It was painful for many American Jews to read in the weekly edition of the newspaper, which was written by competent Israeli journalists and was considered as a credible source of information by many American "influentials, " reports which tarnished their rosy picture of Israel. The Post was bombarded by letters from its American readers, some of whom decided to kill the messenger by cancelling their subscriptions.

Last year, the Post was sold to Canadian businessman David Radler. His representative in Israel, a Likud supporter, fired most of the paper's reporters and hired as the main editorial writer a right-wing columnist, David Bar-Ilan. The latter is a frequent contributor to Commentary, where he lashes out against the " anti-Israel " coverage of the US media. Not surprisingly, after it adopted the more militant Likud editorial position, the Post saw an amazing increase in its US readership. Its subscribers now are able to receive their picture of Israel devoid of unpleasant facts.

As part of the effort to impose the Israeli PC line, a network of organizations controlled by Likud supporters, such as CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), COMA (The Committee on Media Accountability) and FLAME (Facts and Logic About the Middle East has been formed in recent years, specifically to combat "anti-Israeli bias" in the American press. These and other groups inundate US news organizations with letters to the editor demanding "balanced' , coverage. They threaten boycotts of "hostile" media organizations and writers. AIPAC's newsletter recommended, for example, that its readers write newspapers that carry Pat Buchanan columns as a way of pressuring them to drop his articles.

Limits to Reality Avoidance

As noted, however, there are limits to reality avoidance. Some of Israel's policies during the intifada. have been too much for many of its supporters to swallow. More important, the Jonathan Pollard case has raised to the top of the agenda the "dual loyalty" problem. Further, adoption by the Likud government of the Orthodox definition of "who is a Jew, " which is out of line with the Reform and Conservative approach accepted by the vast majority of American Jews, suggested to the latter that Israel's policies can have a direct and negative impact on them.

At present, Israeli policies are controlled by the more militant wing of Zionsm, symbolized by those in the current government who support the "transfer" of the Palestinians and the imposition of Jewish theocracy on Israel. As this continues, notwithstanding the efforts of the pro-Likud spin doctors in this country, more American Jews will begin to experience the traumatic pain of cognitive dissonance as they contemplate their relationship with Israel. They may then finally be forced to leave the friendly environment of fantasy land, and face the harsh and unfamiliar dimensions of present Israeli political realities.


Leon T Hadar, Ph.D., is a former correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. His book From the Cold War to the Gulf War: Romancing the Middle East Paradigm will be published next year.

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