Coping with Threatened Identity: Re-Constructing Jewishness and Israel
For secular and Orthodox respondents in this study, both antisemitism and antiZionism were regarded as threatening, albeit to varying degrees, while the selfidentifi anti-Zionist participants generally valued anti-Zionism and construed antisemitism either as a non-issue or as a stereotypical perception of Jews as inherently supportive of Israel. The data suggested that identity processes, threat and coping played an important role in individuals' meaning-making vis-à-vis Jewishness, Zionism and the State of Israel.
Individual and interpersonal strategies for coping with threat
Participants were unanimously aware of negative social representations of Zionism in British society, which secular and Orthodox individuals tended to attribute to negative media reporting on Israel and pro-Palestinian stakeholders and which anti-
Zionist participants attributed to Israel's policies and actions. Individuals may have less social psychological incentive to identify with social entities and groups which are socially stigmatised (Tajfel, 1982), because of the negative outcomes that this can have for the self-esteem principle of identity (Gecas, 1982). Yet, the State of Israel did constitute an important aspect of identity for many secular and Orthodox participants. Thus, some individuals avoided manifesting publicly a connection with Israel, although they did privately perceive an attachment to it:
I know what makes British people tick about Israel and what they've sort of been led to think and so I just don't mention Israel. I don't even go there. I just steer clear from this whole situation because there is a clash there. That way, I feel I can be British when it's important and Jewish when it's important. (Keiran, secular)
Keiran identified a “clash” between his British and Zionist identities because of the negative social representations of Zionism in British society. He attributed these social representations to “what they've sort of been led to think”, which constituted a reference to negative media and political representations of Israel in Britain. As a result of the existence of such negative social representations, Keiran resorted to attenuating his Zionist identity in both public and private contexts in order to perceive himself and to present himself as a British national group member. There was a compartmentalisation of these identities in order to avert the “clash” between them – Keiran reporting “be[ing] British when it's important and Jewish when it's important”, shifting between his group memberships in accordance with context and social importance (Jaspal, 2011b). The strategy of compartmentalisation ensured that phenomenologically important elements of his identity (i.e. Britishness and attachment to Israel) could be retained but activated in accordance with social context.
For secular and Orthodox participants, perceived antisemitism and anti-Zionism could induce threats to the self-esteem principle because individuals felt unable to derive a positive self-conception on the basis of two components of identity which were, in one way or another, phenomenologically important. Like Keiran, some individuals attempted to defl the threat to self-esteem, which ensued from perceived disapproval from others, by concealing their support for Zionism in interpersonal communication:
Isaac (secular): Sometimes I do sort of fi myself giving in and just going along with the typical discussion of Israel [ … ] I remember, once at a Christmas do, conversation somehow turned to Israel and someone basically turned around and said that Israel uses, no misuses, the Holocaust just to get what it wants and, and I, I mean, to push stuff through and I just sat there and agreed, to my eternal shame [ … ] Looking back, it was an antisemitic and anti-Zionist remark.
Interviewer: And how does this make you feel looking back?
Isaac: It wasn't upsetting at the time. If anything I blended in. I was one of the
crowd and it actually felt good not to be the odd one out supporting “the oppressor”.
Some individuals appeared to engage in transient denial of their Jewish identity, which constitutes an intrapsychic coping strategy, and in “passing”, an interpersonal coping strategy (Breakwell, 1986). Isaac refl upon his experience of a Christmas party during which his colleagues criticised Israel's “misuse” of the Holocaust in order to elicit sympathy from the international community and to perform particular acts. Although he habitually disagreed with this view and referred to it as “an antisemitic and anti-Zionist remark”, Isaac reported assimilating his stance to that of his colleagues in order to avoid “excessive” distinctiveness from his colleagues and to risk their disapproval (Brewer, 1991). In short, Isaac agreed with his colleagues and participated in their condemnation of Israel. There was a sense that this process functioned at an intrapsychic level, as a form of transient assimilation to others' social representations, as it induced no psychological confl at the time, as well as at an interpersonal level, enacted through communication with others.
Isaac engaged in the interpersonal strategy of passing by “gaining exit from the threatening position [here, Zionism] through deceit” and entered “a new interpersonal network” on false premises (Breakwell, 1986, p. 116). This facilitated a sense of inclusion and acceptance, thereby enhancing the belonging principle of identity, protecting it from threat: “I blended in. I was one of the crowd”. Moreover, by passing himself off as an anti-Zionist, Isaac was able to protect his sense of selfesteem because disclosure of his attachment to Israel, could have exposed him as an ingroup “Black Sheep” (Marques, Yzerbyt and Leyens, 1988). Indeed, Isaac noted that “it actually felt good” because he avoided positioning himself alongside “the oppressor”, a negatively evaluated social category. Although in retrospect Isaac felt ashamed of having passed himself off as an anti-Zionist and “betrayed” his Jewish ingroup to a certain degree, at the time passing protected his identity from threat and bolstered his psychological wellbeing.
Individuals felt under increasing pressure to manifest an anti-Zionist stance despite their attachment to Israel. This was regarded as necessary in order to maintain a sense of belonging in the British national group due to their awareness of negative social representations of Israel in British society (Wistrich, 2011):
It's become quite diffi in the last few years especially I think. I just feel like I'm gagged a bit and it shouldn't be this way in the country, in a country of freedom and moderation [ … ] It's changed how I see Britain in a way because we are really gagged about Israel, Jews I mean. We can't say out loud what we think [ … ] I feel a bit forced [to oppose Israel] if I want to fi in. (Natalie, secular)
There was a perception among some secular and Orthodox Jews that it had become diffi for Jews to openly identify with the State of Israel due to fear of disapproval from non-Jewish co-nationals. Indeed, individuals believed that overt self-identifi with Israel might jeopardise their acceptance and inclusion in
the national group, thereby threatening the belonging principle of identity. Indeed, most individuals attached importance to Britishness and wished to be accepted and included within the national group. Yet, Natalie described the stigma in Britain surrounding overt self-identifi with Israel in terms of feeling “gagged” and “silenced”. Crucially, she believed that such social censorship of attachment to Israel was aimed at British Jews, in particular. Like Natalie, several participants felt that their sense of belonging in the national group was potentially jeopardised by overt self-identifi with Israel and public recognition of their attachment to the country. This presented a dilemma because both elements of identity (Britishness and attachment to Israel) were important for the self-concept. There was a reported tendency to conceal their Zionist stance and, as exemplifi by Isaac's account, to oppose Zionism in public domains despite the inconsistency of this public stance with their private stance. Although this was transiently successful as a coping strategy, individuals' awareness of the discordance between their public and private stances could induce a sense of confl and, thus, threatened psychological coherence (Jaspal and Cinnirella, 2010a).
More generally, awareness of negative social representations of Israel in British society and the perceived need to conceal one's attachment to Israel induced a reconstrual of Britishness among some individuals. For instance, Natalie observed a negative change in the British national context in that she perceived Britain as having transformed from “a country of freedom and moderation” into a context in “we can't say out loud what we think” (see Wistrich, 2004). The perception of such negative change targeting her ethno-religious ingroup, in particular, could be threatening for the continuity principle of identity, because it induced a negative change in thinking about an important element of identity, namely Britishness. Moreover, it appeared that some individuals felt alienated by the emergence of negative social representations of Israel in British society, potentially jeopardising their attachment to Britishness.
Similarly, given their awareness of the delegitimisation of the State of Israel and of the confl of Judaism and Zionism in social and political discourse in Britain, there was an observable tendency among Orthodox Jews to compartmentalise, at a psychological level, their Jewish and Zionist identities:
The constant diatribes against Israel, sometimes it can make me feel quite bad even about being Jewish, a Jew. Can you imagine that? For many, Judaism and the Holy Land are so entwined that you basically, you can't separate them out. Because of all the pressure you know, they are two distinct, separate things [ … ] The way I see it, if there's no Israel, I'm still Jewish. We Jews have had our faith without a state for 2000 years. However, If I'm not Jewish, I'm nothing. (Aaron, Orthodox)
Jerusalem, Yirushalayim, is an important part of my Jewish faith and my Jewish identity. I try not to think about it too much but [ … ] it's almost as if it's not the same as the divided Jerusalem, politically charged Jerusalem that's on people's
minds. I have my own Jerusalem in my mind which is different from the one that
everyone castigates the Jews for. (Dovid, Orthodox)
There was agreement among several participants that the Land of Israel constituted an important component of their Jewish identities because of its historical, religious and spiritual signifi Thus, anti-Zionism (referred to as “constant diatribes against Israel”) could negatively impact self-esteem in relation to their Jewish identity. Indeed, Aaron observed that it could make him “feel quite bad about being Jewish” partly because of his awareness of the social representation among non-Jews that Jews unanimously and uncritically supported Israel and its actions. Although individuals like Aaron perceived the connection between Jewish identity and the Holy Land as entwined and natural, which rendered them inseparable in the minds of many Jews, there was a tendency among some Orthodox Jews to distance themselves from Israel in order to “shield” their Jewish identity from stigma. Aaron noted that “because of all the pressure” from hostile outgroups, his Jewish identity and the Holy Land had been separated out in his mind so that they now constituted “two distinct, separate things”.
Human beings are resilient and agentive in their construction and maintenance of identity (Breakwell, 1986, 2010), and Aaron quite clearly demonstrated a creative approach to maintaining and protecting his identity by compartmentalising his Jewish identity and his attachment to the Land of Israel. In order for the assimilationaccommodation process of identity to function in this way, he revised the content of identity and the salience of its elements and reasoned that he could remain Jewish, clearly a very important element of his identity, in the absence of Israel. He invoked the historical social representation that Jews had indeed been in exile for two millennia prior to the establishment of Israel as evidence of this possibility. Conversely, he noted, that loss of his Jewish faith would deprive his life of meaning (“If I'm not Jewish, I'm nothing”) (Silberman, 2005). Thus, Aaron's account demonstrated a clear compartmentalisation of his Jewish and Zionist identities in that a connection between them was no longer necessary for realisation of his Jewish identity, an important component in the hierarchy of elements in his identity.
Dovid, also an Orthodox Jew, manifested a similar strategy for protecting his identity. He reported attempting to suppress imagery of Jerusalem when thinking about his Jewish faith because of the apparent conflict that this induced in view of negative social representations of Israel among hostile outgroups. However, it was evident that Jerusalem, which he referred to by the biblical Hebrew toponym Yirushayalim, did possess an important position in his identity as a Jew. Dovid engaged in the creative strategy of re-conceptualising Jerusalem in order to compartmentalise his Jewish and Zionist identities. More specifically, he retained in his mind a purely spiritual and biblical construction of Jerusalem, which was free of any association with the negative social representations of Israel disseminated by hostile outgroups, and suppressed the “politically charged Jerusalem” which posed threats to his self-esteem as a Jew. This protected his self-esteem and his
sense of belonging because it provided a buffer against the perceived disapproval from non-Jews.
There was strong indication in the data that British Jews might perceive a sense of incongruence between Britishness and Zionism, which could induce threats to psychological coherence, in addition to the other principles of identity. The selfidentifi anti-Zionist participants in this study also reported feelings of incongruence between Israel and their self-image (and particularly, their political beliefs which contributed to their self-image). This rendered salient the psychological coherence principle of identity:
Israel confl with my beliefs, deeply held political beliefs. I believe in people having basic human rights and these are human rights, not just Jews' rights. Israel has a policy of favouring Jews only and not other religions [ … ] I have a belief in human rights but Israel seems to disregard these basic rights. I don't understand the logic of a state for Jews, based on race. For me, it's unreal in a democratic society [ … ] I can't really accept a capitalist US province in the name of Judaism, so I'm a Jew against Israel. (Sandy, anti-Zionist)
Sandy noted that the ethos of Israel was inconsistent with her “deeply held political beliefs”, namely her socialist political orientation, and with the hegemonic representation that all individuals are entitled to human rights regardless of ethnic origin. Conversely, Israel was perceived as “favouring Jews only” and as contravening “basic [human] rights”. Sandy perceived Israel as a “racist” state which was incompatible with democratic norms, rendering it “unreal in a democratic society”. Conversely, there was perceived disjuncture between her political orientation and the perceived ethos of Israel, which rendered salient the psychological coherence principle of identity. Moreover, Sandy believed that Zionism (conceived primarily as a capitalist ideology) was incompatible with her Jewish identity. Indeed, as a Jewish socialist, she felt unable to accept the notion of a “capitalist US province in the name of Judaism”. There was a perception among some individuals that Jewishness was “misused” in the name of Zionism.
Thus, in Sandy's account, there appeared to be confl between various identities – her Jewish identity and Zionism, on the one hand, and her political identity and Zionism (metaphorically objectifi in terms of “capitalism”), on the other. In order to minimise and avert threats to psychological coherence, Sandy accentuated her Jewish and political identities, which she regarded as compatible, while rejecting Zionism as an unacceptable ideology. In a similar vein, Israel was perceived not as an objectifi of Jewishness, as in the accounts of secular and Orthodox participants, but rather as a “capitalist US province”. In short, Sandy sought to re-establish and re-affi her Jewish identity by representing herself as “a Jew against Israel” thereby highlighting the possibility of self-identifi with both Jewishness and anti-Zionism.
Like other participants in the study, Paul too perceived Zionism as jeopardising
the position of Jews in British society and, more specifi , as inhibiting their
acceptance and inclusion by the non-Jewish British majority. This could induce a degree of defensiveness in relation to British national identity, as individuals strove to manifest and demonstrate their Britishness:
Paul (anti-Zionist): I suppose growing up Jewish, going to a Jewish school, having parents from quite a religious Zionist background, I did grow up wondering about who I am and my place in society and that [ … ] I almost felt a bit kind of, I don't know if defensive is the right word? Yes, slightly defensive.
Interviewer: Defensive about what?
Paul: You know, am I being stereotyped for being Jewish or [ … ] is person X saying Y because I'm Jewish. I guess I didn't feel 100% accepted as British.
Like Paul, several individuals in the study highlighted the tensions between their British national and Jewish ethno-religious identities because of the perceived divergences between these identities and their respective social representations (Jaspal and Cinnirella, 2010a). Paul identifi his Jewish upbringing, his Jewish education and the religious Zionist stance of his parents as contributing to uncertainty in his British national identity. He believed that non-Jews questioned his Britishness, partly because of the assumed link between Jewishness and Zionism. This was highlighted in his tendency to interpret others' actions and intentions as threatening, that is, as resulting in his exclusion on the basis of his Jewishness. Paul felt unsure about how he fi into British national society because the aforementioned factors seemed to be incongruous with British national identity (cf. Kudenko and Phillips, 2010). Some individuals did acknowledge a state of defensiveness which resulted from the perceived incongruity between British national and Jewish ethno-religious identities, in that they sought to assert their Britishness and to demonstrate to others the authenticity of their British national identity. For Paul and other participants, Zionism was regarded as being inconsistent with Britishness, which was rendered salient in stereotypes of Jews as unanimously and uncritically accepting Zionism. These perceptions of incongruity jeopardised individuals' sense of Britishness.
It appeared that the insecurities and uncertainties in relation to Britishness (induced by the perceived incoherence between their British national and Jewish ethno-religious identities) might underlie individuals' anti-Zionism (cf. Lewin, 1948). It is plausible that Paul sought to distance himself from “problematic” aspects of his Jewish upbringing and identity, namely the familial commitment to Zionism, by disidentifying with Israel and by adopting an overtly anti-Zionist stance. Some individuals came to “feel” more British by expressing anti-Zionism:
One of the cornerstones of being British is freedom and of course equality regardless of race and that just is not something that Zionism advocates [ … ] Opposing Zionism is actually a very British position to take in my view. (Marcel, anti-Zionist)
Marcel's social representation of Britishness consisted of the notions of freedom and equality, which justified his strong attachment to his British national identity. Essentially, he argued that he self-identified with this national category partly because it mapped onto his self-perception as somebody who valued freedom and equality “regardless of race”. Conversely, his social representation of Zionism consisted of imagery of inequality and lack of freedom, which naturally rendered his British national identity and the endorsement of Zionism as incongruous and potentially threatening for psychological coherence. Consequently, for Marcel, self-identification with Britishness required a rejection of Zionism, because the endorsement of equality and freedom meant that it was necessary to reject an ideology opposed to these notions. This echoed the perception among both British Pakistani and Iranian Muslim participants in this study that anti-Zionism constituted a central tenet of their Muslim identities and must therefore be manifested in order to construct an authentic Muslim identity (see also Jaspal, 2013a). In the case of some anti-Zionist British Jews, anti-Zionism was regarded as an important tenet of Britishness.