American Jewish Fantasies of Israel: Coping with Cognitive Dissonance

By Hadar, Leon | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1991 | Go to article overview

American Jewish Fantasies of Israel: Coping with Cognitive Dissonance


Hadar, Leon, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


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.

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 immigration 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. …

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