Friday, November 03, 2023

The Trouble with Displaced Anger

In the wake of October 7, one development in public discourse that I do think genuinely shocked a large portion of the Jewish and Israeli community was just how intense the anger that quickly coalesced targeting Israel for its response to Hamas' massacre was. Jews and pro-Israel advocates are used to rallies and marches which assail the nation any time it engages in military action of any capacity in the Palestinian territories. But this felt different -- expelled ambassadors, "genocide" and "Nazi" allegations being thrown out with abandon, public doubling-down on the presentation of Israel as naught but a European settler imposition whose decisions could only be attributed to neo-colonialist bloodlust -- all occurring within days of Israel being the victim of one of the more sickening displays of mass-scale terrorist brutality that's been witnessed in recent years. 

From the vantage of folks in sympathy with Israel, this was stunning: Israel endures what is probably the single worst terrorist atrocity in its history -- possibly the single bloodiest incident of anti-Jewish violence since the Holocaust -- and the result was a global community that within the space of days was breaking new records in levels of fury at Israel. What could explain this?

I have a hypothesis that can explain part of it. But before I share it, I want to return to a blog post I wrote in 2019 titled "The Trouble with Jewish Anger". Obviously, anger has always been a part of Jewish (and non-Jewish) political life, but in 2019 it seemed to be consuming our community in a way that felt genuinely different in kind rather than degree. What was motivating this anger? 

In my post, I gave a long bulleted list of causes, most of which were various ways that non-Jews were mistreating Jews in fashions that obviously could and would legitimately prompt Jewish resentment. Included among these, of course, was ways in which left-wing discourses about Israel often were used to degrade, denigrate, and dismiss Jews both in Israel and in the diaspora. But at the end of my list, I added one final bullet point which I knew would be controversial but which I felt needed to be said:

And, I think, we're angry that the Israeli government has been racing off to the right, busily making some -- some -- arguments that once were outlandish now plausible, and putting us in increasingly difficult positions. We're angry that we've been basically powerless to stop this decay of liberal democracy in Israel, we're angry that a community and a place that we care deeply about seems not to care about us in return and is mutating into something unrecognizable to us, and we're displacing that anger a bit.

This, of course, was a very fraught thing to say. Nobody likes being challenged in their anger, and they like it still less when the argument is that their anger at others is actually displaced internal frustration.  People could and did rail against this passage as outrageous -- as if the litany of perfectly good reasons for Jews to be angry weren't enough to explain why Jews are angry, as if legitimate Jewish anger over real antisemitism in any way could be said to be cut with displaced frustration over illiberalism and misconduct emanating from the Jewish state.

It was a controversial and fraught thing to say. Nonetheless, I stood by it then and stand by it now. There absolutely were many valid things for Jews to be angry about in terms of how others were treating Jews. But some -- some -- of the anger was displacement of our own frustrations, of being forced to reckon with certain things we'd been able to previously dismiss as implausible transforming into plausibilities. It's legitimately infuriating to be taunted as a Jew that the state you've held close to your heart since childhood is a fascist enterprise, and that legitimate fury is not quenched but exacerbated when the Israeli government undertakes actions that are legitimately labeled as fascist. It's "worst person you know makes legitimate point" on steroids. And one way of resolving that dissonance is to double-down on the anger; restoring a fractured unity where the torment we feel is solely caused by the tormenters we already knew; exploiting the fact that the tormenters we already knew are in fact giving us plenty to be legitimately angry about.

With all that in mind, we can return to the anger that's greeted Israel's campaign in Gaza following October 7. Once again, there is much one can legitimately be angry about. First and foremost, the surging death toll amongst the Palestinian civilian population is heart-wrenching. And even though the Israeli military may not be "targeting" civilians per se, it does not seem to be exhibiting much more than an attitude of cavalier indifference to the lives the Palestinian civilian population. Palestinian life is barely if at all part of the military calculus; if Israel isn't going out of its way to kill as many Palestinians as possible (the death toll, horrible as it is, would look completely different if that were the case), it certainly doesn't appear to be going much out of its way to avoid killing wherever it poses even a mild obstacle to a plausible military objective. 

Beyond that, the unprecedented presence of the far-right in the Israeli government (partially but not wholly sidelined via the new "military cabinet"), some of whom can barely contain their thirst to see Palestinians expelled and/or murdered in both Gaza and the West Bank, makes certain possibilities that might previously have unthinkable into terrifyingly live possibilities. Indeed, the very brutality of the October 7 attacks makes the prospect of genuine retaliation in kind terrifyingly real -- everyone can at some level recognize how an atrocity of that magnitude generates a risk of an unstoppable cascade of recrimination. Mixing in the full scope of the October 7 attack together with an Israeli government which already was predisposed to dehumanizing Palestinians, and one has a cocktail that feels ripe for a wave of atrocities that make even the current displays feel tame in comparison.

None of that should be discounted. They are real and valid bases for anger (and fear, and a host of other emotions). But much as I said about Jewish anger in 2019, I will also assert that part -- part -- of the story is a bit of displacement. The attacks on October 7 made some arguments that, at least to pro-Palestinian activists, had seemed outlandish now plausible. Positions or narratives that previously could be easily dismissed as propaganda or apologias were shown in the most gruesome fashion imaginable to have more than a grain of truth behind them. And for persons whose personal identities were deeply bound up in denying the plausibility of such positions and narratives, the cold shock of October 7 represents a bona fide crisis.

Even while October 7 was still happening, I observed a tranche of commentators whose main reaction was "annoyance" that events were forcing them to empathize with Israelis. These weren't, to be clear, people who were celebrating or even justifying Hamas' massacres. They recognized the atrocities for what they were. But nonetheless, they clearly found it ... unpleasant ... to do so. These were people who treated Hamas like roguish committee of resistance fighters whose rhetoric sometimes maybe was a bit too florid for normie ears but were ultimately fighting for Palestinian liberation, who viewed PIJ rockets as glorified sparklers, who had long rolled their eyes at the notion that Israel and its powerful army could ever have true security interests vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip, who were confident that any contention of significant antisemitism amongst Palestine solidarity activists was the desperate defamation of Hasbarist shills trying to silence any and all forms of pro-Palestinian political advocacy.

Now, those who had comfortable held the above beliefs were being smacked in the face with the reality that some -- some -- of the things Israelis and Zionists had been saying that they had previously dismissed with a wave were, in fact, legitimate. The claims about Hamas' depravity were not just warmongering propaganda -- Hamas really was that brutal in terms of its approach to Israeli (and Palestinian!) life. The claims that Israel had legitimate security needs vis-a-vis Gaza were not just an excuse for endless repression -- there really were bad men on the other side of the fence who were actively plotting to murder Israeli men, women, and children. The claims about how "pro-Palestinian" protesters promoted and engaged in antisemitism were not just efforts to smear the left -- there really were non-trivial elements of that community who were making no bones about their glee at the prospect of dead and fleeing Jews, and who professed their fondest wish that they will soon see more. The worst people they knew were, it turns out, making legitimate points. And they were furious about it. They were furious that, in this moment, the most prominent flagbearers of "resistance," of "anti-Zionism", of "fighting for a free Palestine", or what have you, were in fact behaving exactly as their most hated enemies asserted they would.

How does one handle that fury, fury that is in the broadest sense inwardly directed? Again, one easy way of dealing with it is to sublimate it into all the other outward things one can (to reiterate once more) legitimately be angry at. The early statements holding Israel responsible for Hamas' massacres were a crude form of this -- they displace the anger that Hamas behaved the way that it did and transport it over to the more congenial subject of Israel. The seemingly endless upward spiral of rhetorical oneupsmanship in how to characterize Israel's Gaza campaign -- "genocide", "textbook genocide", "Nazism"; each term striving to outdo its predecessor in its expression of incandescent rage -- is another. Expanding the bubble of fury ever-outward is a way of making one particular (and particularly uncomfortable) iteration of anger pale in significance. 

It turns out that, rather than acting to generate greater understanding or sympathy, paradoxically, rage and frustration at Hamas for its awful actions becomes a catalyst that intensifies the anger at Israel (anger that, again, is in large part rooted in Israel's own terrible conduct). Indeed, just as (at some level) Israel's increasingly indefensible forays into repressive fascism make it more essential to the mental wellbeing of the Zionists that they hate the anti-Zionists, so too do Hamas' striking punctuation of murderous terror make it more essential to the mental wellbeing of the anti-Zionists that they hate the Zionists. The (displaced) anger is the means of metabolizing an otherwise staggering threat to one's own identity and self-image. And how lucky for each that the prevalence of real Israeli injustices towards Palestinians; and real pro-Palestinian antisemitism towards Jews; provides such an available landing spot for that anger to be displaced to.

One more illustration which really is what crystallized this entire thought-line. A community leader in San Diego, Lallia Allali, was removed from a teaching position at the University of San Diego after sharing the below image, a Star of David acting as a buzzsaw decapitating Palestinian babies.

The visual motif of beheaded babies is, I think, no accident. Beheaded babies quickly became one of the symbolic tropes of the October 7 atrocities. Initially, it was one of the earliest claims used by pro-Israel commentators to establish the pure sadism and brutality of Hamas' actions -- that it wasn't "just another flare-up". Shortly thereafter, as initial reports proved unable to be immediately confirmed, it was for a while held up by anti-Israel commentators as a symbol of Israeli propaganda -- a deliberate lie used to unjustly discredit Palestinian resistance via lurid and supposedly implausible tales of utter depravity, and a cautionary tale about trusting those dastardly Israelis and giving succor to the fictitious slanders they're spinning to justify their own bloodlust. And then, of course, it turned out that the claims were true -- Hamas was in fact that unimaginably cruel and sadistic in its actions, in ways that even the most hard-bitten supporter of "the resistance" found difficult to stomach. The fury of being accused of siding with those who beheaded babies is not quenched but exacerbated when it turns out that "the resistance" really was going out and beheading babies.

In this context, Allali's cartoon -- the use of that motif, but turned around -- reads as an effort to sublimate the public disgust over what Hamas did and displace it onto Israeli actors. It's a way of taking the anger at what Hamas did and using it to further fuel anger at what Israel did. I don't know Allali, and some no doubt will claim I'm giving her too much credit (note that this account does assume she did feel, at some level, revulsion at what Hamas did). But taken on the whole, I think something like what I'm talking about is partially at work here.

I don't expect this post to generate any public acknowledgments of "yeah, that's me". In 2023 as in 2019, nobody likes being told to tamp down on their anger; still less when they really do have very valid and legitimate things to be angry about. And yet maybe, in private, some people might have a ping of recognition in what I'm saying here. I think that happened in 2019, and maybe it can happen in 2023 as well. And if you do feel that uncomfortable pang of recognition, please know there's no treason to it: It doesn't mean there isn't much to legitimately be angry at; it doesn't mean here conceding that the pro-Israel commentariat was right all along (in 2019, my thesis was likewise not "actually, what you're mad about is that the Corbynistas are right"). It just means that, just as many Jews (and non-Jews) have had to and still need to reckon honestly and directly with how Israel's own conduct disturbs some close-clung beliefs about Israel, Palestine, Zionism, and anti-Zionism many non-Jews (and Jews) may need to grapple honestly and directly with how the conduct of Hamas and its backers disturb some other close-clung beliefs about Israel, Palestine, Zionism, and anti-Zionism. It's not an easy ask; it's far easier to displace it away. But I do think we're stronger for if we stop avoiding it.


  1. Only white Christian males get to be angry.

    You cannot be an angry black man,(look at how hard Obama tried to avoid appearing so) or an angry woman, or an angry Jew, because that's just crazy.

  2. Thoughtful and interesting post. It’s making me think of Paul Berman’s book, Terror and Liberalism. (I’m thinking about that book just about every day for these last four weeks, for that matter.) I think Berman might say that some of the protesters are following the line of thinking of their Vichy Left predecessors. They imagine that Hamas must have had rational reasons for committing those atrocities, so that must mean Israel is really bad, to have inspired such anger against themselves.

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  4. One issue I have with this article is the assertion that all Zionists support Netanyahu and his right-wing buddies. I am a Zionist, in the left tradition of Louis Brandeis. Just like my love for US was not diminished by elections of George W Bush or Donald Trump, my love for Israel was not diminished by elections of Bibi and his hangers-on. Democracies can veer off course and make mistakes. I was very embarrassed when my country was led by malicious idiots like Bush or Trump, but I did what I could as a private citizen to rid of them. Same thing with Bibi. All his policies, including needless confrontation with Iran, absolutely idiotic policies in the West Bank and so on, are just bad for the well being of Israel. The recent mass demonstrations showed that a lot of Israelis recognize this. When I would ask some Israelis why people would keep voting for him, the most common response, though, was that he is good for economy. Unfortunately, this is how a lot of people are voting in US also. When economy is good, we attribute it to the person in charge. But like I said, I feel no dissonance at all in being Zionist, supporting and loving state of Israel on one hand, and knowing that Bibi and his ilk are bad people who do bad things, and should be nowhere near the levers of power.