Counterpoint: Between resilience and denial

One would think intellect and passion could wreak havoc with the Israeli psyche.

daivd forman  (photo credit: Rabbis for Human Rights)
daivd forman
(photo credit: Rabbis for Human Rights)
Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, in his 1975 book The Unconscious God, developed a theory that God has access to us through our conscience. He wrote: "Conscience is ineffective if it is only me speaking to myself. Conscience is experienced as a dialogue, not as a monologue." Anyone who has undergone pangs of conscience knows the tension of conflict when the ego contests and resists what we ought to do versus what we actually do. There is an "I" within me that wants the opposite of another "I" also within me; and the two cannot be identical. Comedian Woody Allen understood this when he said: "I have only one regret in life - I'm not someone else!" FRANKL AND Allen may as well have been describing us Israelis. We are always doing battle with ourselves. Bipolarism seems to define our national character. In his diaries, David Ben-Gurion expressed the contradictory nature of the Israeli mind: "Two basic aspirations underlie our work in this country - to be a nation like other nations, and to be different than other nations." If one explores our allegorical beginnings, there are two conflicting versions of the creation narrative: "God created Adam in His image, in the image of God He created him - male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27). And "God formed man from the dust of the earth. God took one of his ribs and fashioned the rib He took from Adam into a woman (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). With such a bifurcated beginning, is it any wonder we Jews are so confused? Throughout our history, a virtual war has been waged between prophet and priest, Pharisee and Sadducee, hassid and mitnaged. There have been attempts to achieve a consensus that would bridge the gap between contending forces. However, to reconcile such paired opposites as Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Samson and Delilah or today's Revisionist and Labor Zionists, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, is no easy task. Even the formidable twosome of Hillel and Shammai, who were virtually "joined at the hip," instead of operating compatibly in interpreting Jewish traditions, founded competing schools of thought. Jacob and Esau are forever wrestling in the Jewish womb. We live a life of contrasts, of extremes, of highs and lows - reeling down a never-ending emotional roller coaster. How could it be otherwise when within a span of three years, from the close of World War II to the creation of the State of Israel, we went from destruction to reconstruction, from the stench of death to the breath of life? This radically swinging pendulum is the only way to explain the many incongruities in the country today. In the same breath, military intelligence warns of an impending war with the Syrians while maintaining they are serious about peace. Security officials testify before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hizbullah has and has not fully refurbished itself. However, these inconsistencies pale in comparison to the behavior of the average Israeli regarding everyday challenges. Our past president may be a rapist, our former finance minister may be an embezzler and our present prime minister might be a crook - yet we carry on as if nothing is wrong. But such a low-key response is understandable for we have greater concerns - rockets landing on Sderot, a billion-dollar arms transaction between Syria and Iran, Hassan Nasrallah claiming to have missiles that can target every corner of the country and a maniac building a nuclear arsenal to wipe us off the face of the earth. HOW DO we react to these life-threatening signs? Surfing on the Mediterranean, mud-bathing in the Dead Sea, snorkeling in the Red Sea, inner-tubing down the Jordan, kayaking on the Dan, camping around the Kinneret, paragliding above the Arbel, hiking in Ein Gedi, strolling down Rehov Sheinkin and attending every imaginable art, music, dance, theater and film festival. In the face of real and present dangers, the Israeli philosophy is: "Don't worry - be happy." Is this attitude an example of resilience or denial, an indication of buoyancy or lunacy? What type of mutation are we? We suffer from a historical duality - a split personality, encased in a common identity. Within the blink of an eye, fear and confidence, pride and shame, hope and despair, joy and sadness, good and bad, right and wrong, sanity and insanity abide one another in a discordant harmony. It is amazing there is no struggle for dominance of one emotion over the other. One would think that mind and matter, intellect and passion, working at cross purposes, would wreak havoc with the Israeli psyche. But, no. We accept that we are destined to live a life of perpetual paradoxes, of "rolling out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, those days of soda and pretzels and beer" in the midst of ominous storm clouds. If anything can capture the ambivalent nature of the Israeli mentality, it is the symbiosis of cool logic and creative madness. And yet, the convergence of fact and fantasy, reality and illusion may just be the right prescription for our seemingly incurable dilemmas. We have demonstrated the ability to survive our simultaneously glorious and tortuous history, to believe that the God of mercy and the God of vengeance are one and the same. Which leads me to believe that the complex machinations of the Jewish mind may be the most endearing - and certainly most enduring - of our traits.