When Haim Ramon was tried
for sexual harassment he was shocked. Not at being tried for something
he did not do, but at the fact that what he had done is defined as a
crime, as harassment.
Haim Ramon was shocked, and rightly so. Until not that long ago, in
Ramon’s younger years, the kind of sexual harassment of which he is now
accused, was accepted, normative.
Israel, likewise, is shocked and stunned at the Goldstone Report
conclusions about its actions in Gaza.
It is not shocked at the descriptions that are known to all and sundry,
having been filmed by all the world’s cameras.
Israel is shocked that its deeds are named war crimes and acts of state
As in Ramon’s case, not the actual deeds but rather their names appall
Like Haim Ramon, Israel refuses to acknowledge the fact that norms in
the world have changed. Shocked that what is considered norm in Israel
is not accepted as the norm in the parts of the world to which it wishes
That what is accepted in Israel is not what everyone does.
Israel is not unique in its malignant conformity. Whole nations have
preceded it in their fall to that void, and will succeed it as well.
There were times when the noses of adulterous women were chopped off as
an accepted custom. Children were whipped. Pupils’ fingers were struck
with rulers. Widows were hurled into the fire, Jews into the ovens, and
people kept silent for that is what everyone did.
Thus in the First World War, and not only then, thousands of young men
charged into cannon fire with no chance of surviving and died like so
many flies, for that is what the others did to their right and left, and
thus, too, at one time or another, everyone straightened their hair or
curled it, and said “cool!” or wove English words into their native
Hebrew and harassed a child because its accent was different from
theirs, and because that is what all the other kids did.
And so, too, not that long ago, the Israeli army used white phosphorus
on Palestinian neighborhoods in Gaza and demolished houses with their
inhabitants still inside because that is the custom in Israel, because
conformism is a human trait long selected in a process of evolution in
individuals who survive as a group, along with the xenophobia – hatred
of the outsider – which means forever dividing us and them, and
territoriality, status and altruism – from whales and chimpanzees to
But how can a trait – conformity – at whose extreme lies hair fashion,
and at the other, genocide, how can such a trait be of any survival
That is because language and - with it - culture have enabled man to
flourish at the expense of another not because of better genes, but
because he possesses the knowledge or world view that are worth more
than some other knowledge. Thus, scientists argue, mechanisms have
emerged slowly, selected through evolution, creating a kind of
stimulated openness to social learning. A kind of social ‘obedience’
that enables direct learning from the experience and opinions of others.
Moreover, they add, there is much sense in the fact that this mechanism
would be especially stimulated to rely on what everyone does or says or
thinks, more than on one’s own perceptions and sensations, for the
perceptions of the many represent much accumulate knowledge, while one’s
own represent one’s senses alone. And thus mechanisms have selectively
evolved in humans, absorbing common cultural heritage as part of their
‘congenital’ social skills.
And this pre-disposition, so important and reasonable, is the basis for
conformism with all its manifestations. Good and bad.
A African woman in one of the Serengeti tribes who has joined another
tribe living on the periphery of the mountain woods, would use her
survival wisdom and imitate the other tribe looking for indigenous fruit
rather than keep digging for bulbs, as was the custom of her native
tribe. Her blessed conformism enabled her to perform this imitation
naturally and unthinkingly, by force of her human nature. Namely, be
alert to what everyone does, imitate their actions, for that is what
This is how a girl learns to speak in the feminine, and a boy in the
masculine, thus they learn their different gender manners, dress,
conduct, what is womanly, what is manly, what is allowed and what
forbidden, that pink is for girls, that boys don’t cry – not because
they were taught or instructed necessarily, but because they were easily
and readily integrated in the surrounding customs through their inherent
tendency to absorb and imitate the common norm.
Thus too an Israeli in Israel pushes in line because that is what
everyone does and absorbed as the natural order of things, whereas
living in Europe, soon enough the very same Israeli awaits his turn in
line just like everyone else - not because his moral values have been
transformed, but because this is what everyone does around him.
Likewise, the European who has always stood in line will soon enough
begin to overtake others soon after settling in Israel – not because he
has become less moral, for lining up had never been a moral decision to
begin with, but rather absorbed as an environmental norm, part of his
natural ability to adapt to the norms surrounding him and conform to
And thus Israeli soldiers and policemen know – without having to learn –
that they may and should shoot young Palestinians who throw stones, and
never ever shoot young ultra-orthodox Jews who throw stones on the
Sabbath or when the stone-throwers are young Jewish settlers, although
they all commit the same violation, as it were.
Just as Israelis know that they may and must blow up a Palestinian
neighborhood where the authorities claim a "terrorist" is being
sheltered although others totally unsuspected of anything will
necessarily die in the process, and they must not and may not do this
when the terrorist finds shelter in a Jewish neighborhood.
In the 1950s, American psychologist Solomon Asch performed a series of
experiments examining humans’ tendency to conform. The examinee entered
a room where nine chairs were placed in a half-circle, and asked to be
seated on a chair close to one of the ends. Eight others entered one by
one and occupied the remaining chairs. The examinee did not know that
the others were experiment-participants. Asch showed the group two cards
one after the other. The first showed a single straight line. The second
showed three lines differing in length. Each person present was asked to
tell which of the three lines was equal in length to the line shown in
the first card. The task was not difficult, and the answer was obvious
because the lengths differed greatly.
But the examinee was already the eighth person answering after the other
seven had already voiced their opinion. Much to the examinee’s
astonishment, not only did they point out a different line, they all
chose the very same one. His own sense perception contradicted the
opinion shared by seven others.
In most cases the examinee chose to join the crowd and point to the
Humans have perpetrated the worst atrocities as well as the silliest
actions when these were the norm, and did not perpetrate them when they
were unacceptable. As in Nazi Germany, when all citizens actually gave
up their own judgment and followed a psychopath, and in wake of
‘everyone’ and the norm carried out inconceivable horrors, thus too
humans obeyed McCarthyism and Maoism, and thus everyone at some time all
wore bell-bottom jeans just because it was the fashion and stopped doing
so at once as they went out of fashion, and pierced and decorated their
bodies at all the right places – right for their time, for humans easily
and readily and naturally perform what everyone does, and feel uneasy
unless they do so, for better or worse.
It is not surprising that so many Israelis responded with indignation to
the Goldstone Report that accuses Israel of sending its soldiers to
commit war crimes against the Palestinian people.
For, after all, to starve and oppress and cage-in and discriminate
against the Palestinian people is a common custom, a condoned norm that
everyone follows, each in his turn.
Moreover, enlisting in the army and taking part in these deeds is
considered loyal and serving the common good. A contribution and
ultimate manliness and evidence of excellence and citizenship and
sacrifice. For that is what everyone does.
No doubt Israeli soldiers obeying the norms of their tribe and times are
no crueler than Christian men of the Middle Ages who by law and norm
rightfully whipped women, or chopped off their noses, or locked their
bodies in chastity belts. Israeli soldiers are no more racist than a
white Anglo-Saxon woman of the nineteenth century who had people with
darker skin than her own, dress and serve her without any remuneration,
and had the full right to punish them for any insubordination as if that
were the natural order of Creation. Israeli soldiers are no more
obedient than those who stands patiently in line just because this is
what everyone does, or push their way through because that is the norm.
And no doubt, if – let us assume – Goldstone had stepped up two hundred
years ago and argued that those parents who whip their children are
abusive, then they too – just like Israel now – would feel wronged by
this strange, detached criticism leveled at them, when they, the good
and normative, do the normal, natural and right thing that everyone
It is not the actual deed that bears a permanent inherent value. From
table manners and accents – to persecution and murder. Nothing is
inherently good or bad and observed forever. It all depends on the
conceptual space in which the deed is done. On its values. Its norms.
Not the deed itself determines whether is it doable. Only its name. Its
appellation. And whether everyone does it.
Naturally there are more reasons beside conformism for the collective
deeds committed in Israel against the Palestinian people. Like the
fictive history that serves dispossession and takeover of historical
Palestine at the expense of its Palestinian inhabitants... And
victimhood taught and acquired as a congenital trait in collective
‘Jewish DNA’... and the racism intensified through education.
And there is mandatory conscription, of course – an invention of genius
in the service of patterning a society to blind and automatic loyalty to
the act of state as is. For mandatory military service brands all
conscripted with the stamp of belonging to the act of state, by the mere
fact that he/she has taken part in its deeds, he/she and his/her
And thus, too, even without dictatorship anyone who has done mandatory
military service can be made to see the act of state only within the
limits of seeing their private responsibility. No longer 'the State's'
responsibility but theirs and their children's.
And thus, without any compulsion or danger, (along with the journalists
who also did their mandatory military service) collaborate with the
ruling power’s action, monstrous as it may be.
This programming through mandatory military service creates tribal
loyalty of the primal, non-modern sort, according to which ‘we’ are
right, ‘they’ are wrong, axiomatically. Loyalty that knows no universal
moral standards, only such that are rooted in who we are and who the
other is, and militarism that infiltrates all civil ways of society.
Like in Israel.
And it is not in order to sacrifice themselves, as the common clichés
have it, not because Palestinians are bad, or to blame, or because
Jewish settlement is right, or because they really and truly want to
defend, with their own bodies, and not on account of the Holocaust that
the youngsters run off, willing and lusty, to maintain the fashion of
serving in the army. It is because of the urge to conform that is
inherent in their nature which creates in them the tendency to absorb
and behave the way everyone does, for this is what everyone does.
And if it were not the norm, if this were not what everyone does, even
under the same political and historical conditions, they simply would
not go to the army, but for a scant few.
But all these added factors would not suffice, unless conformism were
etched deep in normal human nature. It is permeated in its walls,
hanging on its crannies that Israel’s horrific, herd-like deed continues
to be done by all, exactly because everyone does it.
And just as they flock to India and South America after their army time
is done, and say it’s terribly interesting and challenging, just as they
say they go to the army to defend the homeland, and say about the
present jeans fashion that it’s terribly nice – in fact they do what
they do because everyone does it, and because of their evolution has
programmed them to conform, for better or for worse.
How amazing that nearly 1400 people were slaughtered in Gaza because in
Israel this is what you do.
Not more nor less than to wear Nike or swoon at the sound of Elvis.
That the same mechanisms so deeply ingrained in human nature – enabling
man, the social creature, to learn from his environment - determined
that normal youngsters would gladly go forth to pulverize a piece of
land and its inhabitants, because that is what they were ordered to do.
Because this is what everyone does.
And if it ever does stop, this will not be because persecuting and
harassing is evil and cruel and racist. And because occupation is wrong
even if it is resisted, or because of the Goldstone Report.
It will happen only because suddenly the fashion will change, for the
same surprising reasons that bell-bottom jeans that were so ‘in’ simply
stopped being so ‘in’, and it is very difficult to explain why.
Or perhaps because some culture heroes will preach something that will
immediately turn into a new norm and sweep along the entire younger
generation to say that the army is ‘out’, that refusing enlistment and
going to jail is the new manly thing to do and so totally cool.
Everyone will then follow the new refusenik fashion and merrily march
off to jail, just as they all love to sweat in their stretcher treks and
risk treks and to say ‘cool’ and ‘bro’ about everything.
There is something sad and ludicrous and horrific all at once in the
fact that only because it will no longer be ‘in’, they will stop
harassing and persecuting and butchering Palestinians.
Because it will be ‘out’.
Naturally, only if there are any humans left at all to undergo a change
of fashion after all that blood will have been spilt.
Aya Kaniuk. Translated by Tal Haran. Published