The Yom Kippur Syndrome Revisited

 BY GILAD ATZMON

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By Gilad Atzmon

One of the most interesting aspects of the Yom Kippur War (1973) was that it marked a sudden switch from Israeli manic ‘hubris’ to melancholia, apathy and depression.

Following their outstanding military victory in 1967, the Israelis developed an arrogant disrespectful attitude towards Arabs and their military capabilities. Israeli intelligence predicted that it would take years for Arab armies to recover. The Israeli military didn’t believe that the Arab soldier had the ability to fight, let alone score a victory.

But on 6 October 1973, the Israelis faced a devastating surprise. This time the Arab soldier was very different. Israeli military strategy, built on air superiority and fast ground manoeuvres supported by tanks, proved ineffective within hours. Egypt and Syria, helped by new Soviet antitank and ground-to air-missiles, managed to dismantle Israel’s might. In the first days of the war Israel suffered heavy casualties. It’s leadership and high military command were in a state of despair. Yet, this type of crisis wasn’t exactly a rare event in Jewish history.

The Israeli military fiasco at the first stage of the war was a repetition of a tragic syndrome that is as old as the Jews themselves. These repetitive scenarios involve Jewish collective hubris driven by a strong sense of exceptionalism (choseness), and lead to horrific consequences. I call this ‘the Yom Kippur Syndrome.’  

In 1920s Berlin, the Jewish elite boasted of its power. Some rich Jews were convinced that Germany and its capital were their playground. At the time, a few German Jews dominated banking and influenced Germany’s politics and media. In addition, the Frankfurt School (as well as other Jewish school of thought) were openly dedicated to the cultural uprooting of Germans, all in the name of, ‘progress,’ ‘psychoanalysis,’ eroticism,’ ’phenomenology and ‘cultural Marxism.’ Then, almost ‘from nowhere,’ a tidal wave of resentment appeared, and the rest is known.

But was there really a sudden shift in German consciousness? Should 1930s German ‘anti-Semitism’ have come as a surprise? Not at all. All the necessary signs had been present for some time. In fact, early Zionists such as Herzl and Nordau correctly predicted the inevitable rise of European anti-Jewish sentiments at the end of the 19th century. It was the Yom Kippur Syndrome, that same hubris that prevented Berlin’s Jewish elite from evaluating the growing opposition around them.

What we see in Israel at the moment is obviously a tragic manifestation of the same syndrome. Once again, the Israelis have been caught unprepared. Once again mania of omnipotence is replaced by melancholia.  Once again the Israelis failed to estimate Hamas’ military capabilities. They failed to recognise the growing frustration of Israeli Arabs and acknowledge the possibility that their frustrations could escalate into street fights or even civil war.

The Israelis have succumbed to the delusional thought that the Palestinian cause had evaporated. They were convinced that cracking the BDS and starving Gazans had dismantled the Palestinian aspiration. Yet it is Hamas that has managed to win the most crucial victory uniting the Palestinians in Palestine, in the camps and in the Diaspora, alongside Muslims from around the world. This unity is significant especially in the light of Israel being politically divided heading towards a fifth election.

Once again, Israeli arrogance is replaced by deep sadness. Israel could ask itself some necessary questions: What is it that we do wrong? Why is our history repeating itself? Is there something we could do to change our destiny? Rather than this necessary introspection, Israel is actually doing the opposite. Instead of dissecting the present crisis in the light of similar events in the past, Israel repeats the same mistakes. It refers to the current crisis as just another ‘round of violence. It delves into the strategic and tactical possibilities that will ‘enforce a ceasefire on Hamas’. Israel basically speculates over the level of carnage that will bring the ‘Arabs on their knees’ once again.

Israel defines itself as the Jewish State and its tragic mistakes are naturally determined by that fact.  If Yom Kippur is a Jewish day of introspection, the Yom Kippur Syndrome is the direct outcome of a total incapacity to self-reflect. Yet one may wonder whether the Jew can be emancipated from the Jewish destiny and the Yom Kippur Syndrome in particular?  Like early Zionist Bernard Lazare,  I believe that all it takes is drifting away from exceptionalism. But once stripped of exceptionalism, not much is left of contemporary Jewish identiterianism.

I guess that we are touching upon the most devastating existential aspect of the Yom Kippur Syndrome; there is no Jewish collective ideological escape for the Jew. We are basically dealing with a cultural and spiritual limbo.

I tend to believe that the only escape route from the Yom Kippur Syndrome is individual: self-imposed exile. Leave the ghetto late in the night, crawl under the fence, dig a tunnel under the ‘separation wall’. Once out on the land of the free, proceed quietly and modestly in search of the humane and the universal.

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