Why I left the cult
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
–From Easter, 1916, by WB Yeats
Dear Israel and Israeli Jews,
Maybe it’s pointless writing to you, and I guess I am not expecting a response. I am writing because I feel a certain sense of duty. After all I come from you, so maybe, maybe some of you might listen to me, might get curious, take a risk and entertain what is currently unthinkable to you.
I left what seems like a very long time ago, twenty-five years. I don’t think you’ve changed much since, except for the worse maybe. Psychologies like yours have the nasty habit of getting worse if left untreated. I always remember you as harsh, defensive, hot around the collar and ready to explode at every opportunity, loud and unforgiving. You had pockets of calm and maybe even kindness, but they were reserved for those who lived in the nicer greener places, and they had more money than we did.
I grew up in Bat-Yam (see picture at left) and it was terrible there. It was an endless dense noisy mass of concrete; clumps of heavily populated blocks of thin-walled flats as far as the eye could see, separated only by bitumen roads. It’s not what you usually like to show the rest of the world, and it’s not what the rest of the world think of when they think of you. I grew up on Hashikma Street. What a cruel joke that was, naming that awful concrete dessert, Hashikma… ‘The Sycamore’. There were no trees there. During my childhood I had no idea what a shikma tree even looked like. Whoever these people were, did they think that by naming the street sycamore it would somehow make it better for those of us destined to spend our childhoods there? Did they think they could fool us into thinking it was nicer, more idyllic than it really was? All it did was tease and torment. The name of my street spoke to me of something I had no access to and that I thought I could never have.
This schizophrenic split between the name of the place and the reality of it is symbolic of your entire existence. Where I grew up wasn’t much different to many working class neighbourhoods elsewhere in the world, but I was always told that we were not the same as everyone else. We were special, we were better: more moral and ethical, more civilised. Don’t tell me you didn’t say that. I remember very well! I actually paid attention at school.
But with the mind of a child, I kind of sensed that we weren’t special at all. I suspect a lot of children who suffer abuse within their own families at the hands of their own people, develop doubts about their group. If you protected me better, maybe I would still be a part of you. But you couldn’t protect me or other children like me precisely because you are not who or what you say you are, a more enlightened and ethical people. You are a group of humans with gifts and with flaws, and with plenty of cowardice like every other group. You are no different from any human society that hides and even enables crimes against its own children, and that fails to protect the vulnerable in their midst.
A few years after I left you, I gradually began to realise that I was the same as any cult leaver. It was a shock, but looking back I wonder why I hadn’t seen it before. Then again, rarely can people inside a cult see where they are. If they could, the cult wouldn’t be what it is. They think that they are members of a special group that has a special destiny, and is always under threat. The survival of the cult is always the most important principle. Cult members are taught from birth that the world outside is dangerous, that they have to huddle together for safety. Every member of every cult is a recruit.
At this point you are probably going to say that cult or no cult, this was entirely justified. Have I forgotten the holocaust? No. Of course not. Persecution of Jewish people throughout history was very real indeed. Whatever Jewish identity is, Jews were a hated and despised group among many cultures in Europe, and Jews have always had an uneasy co-existence with non-Jews. Any marginalised or persecuted group has an uneasy relationship with the dominant culture. Once you have been discriminated against it’s hard to trust.
But two big things bother me about you. One, this history of persecution is so inseparable from your identity, you can’t see beyond it. Not even your most talented artists, academics, intellectuals and writers, can see beyond. You all seem to be caught up in it, except for a very small and extraordinary minority of people who can see Zionism for what it is. Anyone who has suffered trauma tends to feel separate and different. It’s human psychology once you have been abused to feel that you are no longer the same as everyone else. But anyone who was abused and traumatised has a duty to get better and not allow the fear and the victimhood to become their identity. Those of us who were abused and traumatised have this duty because if we don’t heal, we either hurt ourselves or others, or both. That’s where you are and that’s what you are doing. You have not only allowed trauma to become your very identity, you have glorified it and are worshiping it as a god.
The second and even more important thing that bothers me is the crime you have committed and are still committing in the name of ‘our’ survival. You wanted a solution to the persecution of your group, and herein lies the problem. You decided to create a Jewish ghetto that you think of as a safe haven, on a land that was fully populated. You came in and took it, committed ethnic cleansing and are continuing to do so as we speak. I know you would not feel that you have completed your mission until you have all the land without the people.
You are a product of settler-colonialism, a state created through the removal and the elimination of the people who lived in the territory before you. The relationship you developed with your victims, the Palestinians, bears all the hallmarks of a relationship between settler-colonisers and those they wish to eliminate from existence. Settler-colonisers don’t just remove people off their land. They remove their historical places, monuments, evidence of their history oral and physical, all traces of their existence… If there is no victim, there is no crime. If the territory is cleansed of the character given to it by those who lived there, it is open to take on a new one.
I know what it’s like to be blind to the fact that you are settler-colonisers, people who are committing a terrible crime. You cannot see yourself as the ‘bad guy’ here. You are so steeped in your self-created myth, that you always were and always will be the most tragic victim in the story of humanity. I once was one of you and I know that it is practically impossible to see through your reasoning: ‘We merely returned to our ancestral home. We just want to live in peace with our own people. What’s wrong with that? Why don’t others let us live in peace?’
There is a powerful force field, some kind of a lead-lined shield inside you, that protects your belief from the truth, from reality. You don’t deny that you ‘came back’ and settled the land, you just can’t see what it means. So let me spell it out for you one more time. When a group of people comes into a territory (no matter their reason), removes the indigenous people and takes their land and resources, it’s called settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialism is immoral and it is a crime against humanity. Victims don’t always go silently into the night, so crimes have to continue to be committed until the victims’ resistance and defiance are crushed and they disappear from view and memory. There is nothing original or special about what you are, or what you are doing. You are like all other settler-colonisers before you. Not even your capacity for self-deception and your deception of others are particularly special. It’s been done before. There is nothing special about you at all.
Let’s say you did ‘return home’ as your myths say, that Palestine really was your ancestral home. But Palestine was fully populated when you started to covet it. In order to take it for yourself you have been following quite closely the Biblical dictate to Joshua to just walk in and take everything. You killed, you expelled, you raped, you stole, you burned and destroyed and you replaced the population with your own people. I was always taught that the Zionist movement was largely non-religious (How you can be Jewish without Jewish religion is perplexing in itself). For a supposedly non-religious movement it’s extraordinary how closely Zionism — your creator and your blueprint — has followed the Bible. Of course you never dare to critique the stories of the Bible. Not even the secular amongst you do that. None of my otherwise good teachers at my secular schools ever suggested that we question the morality of what Joshua did. If we were able to question it, the logical next step would have been to question Zionism, its crimes, and the rightness of the existence of our very own state. No, we couldn’t be allowed to go that far. It was too dangerous. That would risk the precarious structure that held us in place.
So like all cults that have ever existed, and those that will no doubt continue to be created, you live in self-imposed blindness. You create and recreate a picture of reality that is filled with holes, but you are OK with that. The possibility of filling those holes brings you face-to-face with your mortal terrors, your morbid fear of annihilation. And you can’t bear it. I know what annihilation means to you. It doesn’t just mean killing. Annihilation means that the Jewish people, that Jewishness itself would no longer exist. To you ‘assimilation’ is also annihilation. They taught us that at school. We were taught that assimilation was despicable, cowardly, treacherous to our people. Whenever Jewish people marry non-Jews in their own countries, and when all traces of Jewishness, whatever it is, become diluted, you worry. You think it’s the end. Because there are no individuals, only the group, when the group goes individuals go too. So you feel any perceived threat to the group as a personal threat to each one of you. That’s why you cry antisemitism so readily and reflexively, whenever you perceive the slightest threat to your cult state.
Abigail Abarbanel today
I left the cult because I wanted to find out who I was. I refused to accept that the only purpose of my life was to defend the cult and allow it to continue. It’s human, it’s mammal, to allow one’s identity to be subsumed by the group, but it doesn’t make for a good life. We survived as mammals partly because we lived in groups. Without the group around them, individuals probably died out in the harsh world our ancestors lived in. Your psychology is nothing more than simple cave/herd psychology and it’s not unique to you. But we as a species have the capacity for so much more. In the world we live in now, our survival depends on transcending our natural base instincts. We can develop and use the moral and ethical part of our brain, the part that gives us self-awareness and concern for others, the part that can take responsibility for our own sins and crimes and can make amends. Our salvation is not in our own little groups any more, but together as one species.
Come on, leave the cult and the ghetto mentality behind, join the human race, do the right thing. You want to be really special, to fulfil a special destiny? By all means! Lead the way to enlightenment by owning up, repenting and making amends, by transforming your identity into something healthy and positive. Show what can be achieved when we are more than frightened mammals…
I don’t expect you to hear me or to see what you cannot see. You are experts at indoctrination and are too deeply steeped in your fear-based picture of reality. You are a great disappointment to me. That’s why I support the BDS against you. If you don’t stop yourself, someone has to.
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About the author
Avigail Abarbanel was born and raised in Israel. She moved to Australia in 1991 and now lives in the north of Scotland. She works as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice and is an activist for Palestinian rights. She is the editor of ‘Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists’ (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).
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