There are many threats to Israel- terrorism, nuclear weapons, earthquakes, poverty, diminishing water resources. You name it. But for me, the biggest threat facing Israel is one word: invalidation.
First, let’s start with what the word validation means. Validation does not mean agreement and it doesn’t mean love. Validation means showing empathy and understanding where someone else is coming from. How the conditions of their life have informed their views and even if you see the world differently, you can get a glimpse of why they are the way they are. Even if, in the end, they may be too difficult for you to be friends with. It’s a difficult skill and an extremely useful one for living an effective life.
Validation is useful for building healthy relationships. And its opposite, invalidation, is how you destroy them. All of us invalidate sometimes- we judge, we mock, we belittle. Maybe other than Buddha himself, I don’t think there’s a single human being who never judges. However, there are degrees of invalidation. Invalidation is when we say harmful, hurtful things to (or about) people. She’s ugly. I’m fat. My neighbor’s a dumb ars. That Orthodox woman is frumpy. That gay guy must be a pill-popping slut. That Haredi man is a fanatical homophobe. That Arab is only good for making falafel- he probably wants to throw us into the sea.
Israelis have a serious problem when it comes to judging both themselves and others. Judging has been a part of Jewish culture since the Torah- the Bible isn’t exactly Zen Buddhism. But I remain fairly convinced that the sometimes mind-numbingly intense judgments that I hear here are also a product of trauma. When someone is traumatized or experiences intense pain, unless and until that person heals, it is common for people to pass that trauma onto others. That is why it is so common to see families- generation after generation- experiencing abuse. It’s also why I distanced myself from toxic relatives and broke a chain of toxicity to build a better life.
If you think of the Jews who’ve come to this land, it hasn’t usually been for happy reasons. Ashkenazim escaping pogroms. More Ashkenazim escaping the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors escaping post-war pogroms (yes, you read that right- Europeans continued butchering Holocaust survivors after the war). A huge percentage of Ashkenazim here are descendants of Holocaust survivors- including almost every Hasidic Jew.
Mizrachim escaped their own pogroms from Morocco to Yemen- only to find their property confiscated by Arab governments. And then, upon arriving in Israel, they were put into impoverished refugee camps. Russian Jews fled the Soviet Union (where their religion was banned) and its chaotic aftermath. The U.S.S.R. was a government so antisemitic it literally has its own Wikipedia article about how antisemitic it was. Persian Jews fled the Ayatollah, French Jews fled (and still flee) antisemitic terror and discrimination, and even today there are American Jews like me escaping rising antisemitism and white supremacy in the United States. The list goes on and on and on and on. And it has a 2,000 year old antisemitic backstory.
And when these Jews arrived in Israel, while many were grateful for a safe haven, their cultures were often decimated in the name of Jewish cohesion in the nascent state. Ashkenazim were told to stop speaking Yiddish (police even raided Yiddish theaters- an unforgivable thought when you think that the spectators were likely Holocaust survivors). I even remember a survivor telling me that when she arrived to Israel from Poland after the Holocaust, Sabras would call her and her mom “sabonim”- “soap”. That was to make fun of the “weak” Diaspora Jews who the Nazis reportedly turned into bars of soap. Mizrachim were also pressured to give up their languages, their music, their culture- which to many Sabras seemed a bit too much like the (Arab) enemy. To this day, they continue to have significantly lower average incomes than Ashkenazim. And every single Israeli Prime Minister has been Ashkenazi, unless you count some recently discovered Sephardic genes in Bibi’s DNA.
With these examples, we’re literally just scratching the surface with Jews. And it’s worth saying that the Arab population here has suffered its own traumas- of wars, of discrimination, of terrorism (yes, Israeli Arabs are also attacked by terrorists), of families divided across borders, and more.
Add to this 70 years of on-and-off warfare, and you can understand why Israel has three times the rate of PTSD as the United States.
So when a fellow Israeli is harsh to me. When they say something mean and judgmental- about me, about another community, about themselves- I understand. I don’t by any means justify it- I think it’s harmful and if we’re going to thrive as a society, this must change. And sometimes I frankly have to protect myself by distancing myself from their toxicity. And I get it. Israelis have been through a lot. And not everyone is healing. It took me a while to get to this understanding- but this is the ultimate validation. I don’t personally agree with being racist or hateful- I just know that if someone got to that point, there’s something causing it and I hope they choose a different path.
Many Israelis complain to me about American “politeness”. They think Americans are fake- when they smile, when they say thank you, when they do a whole variety of quotidian acts that make up American culture. On the one hand, I get it- there are times when Americans can be exceedingly formal. It can be hard to gauge if someone really likes you- or what they think.
At the same time, I remember what one Israeli friend said to me: “I don’t like that in America they’re all the time worried about whether they’re hurting you.” To this I say- you’re not talking about politeness anymore. You’re talking about consideration. You’re talking about kindness. You’re talking about someone caring how you feel- and trying to respect your boundaries. In a way that you never got growing up in a society filled with people whose boundaries have been crossed over and over again against their will. Who have endured but in many cases, not healed. And who all too often pass their hurt along to others.
To this I say- enough. All Israelis, in fact all people, deserve the right to heal from their traumas. And to not have new pain heaped upon them. As a society, we can still keep our bluntness and our assertiveness without the spite and without the cruelty. Find one way to heal yourself this week- and find one way to encourage a friend. I’m not a psychiatrist or a PTSD expert, nor do I have the power to stop violence. But I think that if we each find a way to bring some healing into our society, it will do us all a lot of good.
To borrow a bit from our Christian neighbors, my cover photo is from an Arab church in Haifa. It says: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. Amen.