Speaking of Humiliation

by Jim Lobe

After posting Mohammed Omer’s account of his treatment at the hands of Israel’s Shin Beth ten days ago, I was reminded of a passage I had just read in the New Yorker’s excellent profile by Connie Bruck of Freedom’s Watch’s co-founder and biggest financier, multi-billionaire and staunch Likudist, Sheldon Adelson:

“Adelson, whose countenance often suggests that he is spoiling for a fight, takes pride in being an outsider, who has suffered rejection and ridicule but has avenged every slight, many times over. Vindication is sweet, if never quite sufficient…”

“Adelson’s father, a Lithuanian immigrant, was a cabdriver in Boston, and his mother ran a knitting shop from home, in a tenement in Dorchester. Sheldon, his three siblings, and their parents all slept in one room. He and other Jewish boys in the neighborhood were beaten up by Irish youths.”

The last point immediately brought to mind the similar childhood experience of another staunch Likudist, Norman Podhoretz. As he recounted in his famous 1963 Commentary essay, “My Negro Problem — and Ours,” Podhoretz suffered a series of humiliating encounters with “Negro” youths both in schoolyards and other venues close to his predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn throughout his childhood. According to a review of Podhoretz’s latest book, ‘World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism,’ by Ian Buruma, those encounters, which included beatings, contributed decisively to Podhoretz’s later politics, which Buruma describes as ”the longing for power, for toughness….”

Podhoretz’s original essay, admirable in its honesty, explores the origins of his “fear and hatred” of “Negroes” and finds them in his earliest memories when he could not understand why it was they who “were supposed to be persecuted when it was the Negroes who were doing the only persecuting I knew about — and doing it, moreover, to me. …The Negroes,” he went on, “were tougher than we were, more ruthless, and on the whole better athletes.” It was thus in a confrontation with a Negro gang that Podhoretz underwent his “first nauseating experience of cowardice” that, with it, came the “appalled realization that there are people in the world who do not seem to be afraid of anything, who act as if they have nothing to lose.” To him, Negro life “seemed the very embodiment of the values of the street — free, independent, reckless, brave, masculine, erotic …But, most of all, (Negroes) were tough; beautifully, enviably tough, not giving a damn for anyone or anything” in a world where “sissies” was “the most dreaded epithet of an American boyhood.” (Italics in the original.)

I have been thinking about the relationship between humiliation and the neo-conservative worldview — particularly the rage at much of the world that seems to underlie its more hard-line personifications, such as those of Podhoretz or Adelson or Caroline Glick or, for that matter, Michael Ledeen and Richard Perle — since I first read “My Negro Problem” a long, long time ago. Of course, the latter three were presumably never physically beaten as were Podhoretz or Adelson, but their rage, their obsession with “toughness,” their contempt for softness (diplomacy) and devotion to “hard power” all suggest that they may have suffered their own humiliations.

For example, in Perle’s roman a clef, aptly titled ‘Hard Line,’ you find this description of the childhood of the protagonist, Michael Waterman:

“He had not always been so zealous or so tough. The only jewel in the crown of a Los Angeles kosher butcher named Sam and his wife, Esther, Michael Waterman was born in 1943 and grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bath stucco bungalow on Hayworth Street in the Fairfax section of Los Angeles, equidistant from his father’s shop and the storefront temple where Same went to pray. A slight, precocious child, Michael suffered heavily at the hands of his schoolmates. When most boys his age spent their free time playing baseball, football, or tennis, Michael’s parents insisted, with the best of intentions, on giving him cello lessons four days a week. So during the fifth through eight grades — crucial years for youngsters — Michael Waterman didn’t carry a fielder’s mitt or shoulder pads to school, but a heavy black leather instrument case. Instead of weekends at the beach, he spent his time indoors practicing scales. He was small and perpetually pale and thin and wore orthodontic braces. He was …different. And so his classmates picked on him in the instinctive, impersonal cruel way of preadolescents, and Waterman withdrew like a turtle inside an emotional shell.”

In reality, Perle’s parents were both better off and less pious than depicted in this passage, according to his biographer, Alan Weisman, but I don’t doubt that much of the rest of Perle’s description of “Waterman’s” childhood is a more or less accurate reflection of his own sense of being an outsider, a kind of “sissy” forced to endure cruel and humiliating taunts, even as he later got his revenge by excelling at debate and subsequently at political intrigue in Scoop Jackson’s office and beyond. One has only to look at the remarkably curious and vaguely pathetic sequence in “The Case for War,” his production in last year’s “America at the Crossroads Series” on PBS, when he revisits his high school in Hollywood and draws particular attention to and gazes longingly at the names of its movie-star graduates painted garishly above the lockers in the hallway, as if their glamour and celebrity proved something special about himself. Those few seconds conveyed a much more insecure personality than his Beltway identity as the very embodiment of toughness and a “Hard Line.”

Jacob Heilbrunn’s suggestion of a social, as well as a personal, connection between humiliation and what he correctly calls the neo-conservative “mindset” (as opposed to “ideology”) was, along with his description of the movement’s Trotskyite origins, the most compelling part of his book, ‘They Knew they were Right: The Rise of the Neocons’. “The social exclusion experienced by Jews at the hands of the WASP elite” that persisted in the US well into the 1960s stirred a “deep resentment” among many of the movement’s most influential leaders, notably Irving Kristol and Podhoretz, according to Heilbrunn. Indeed, he notes, Podhoretz has described the neo-conservative movement as the war against the “WASP patriciate.”

Neoconservatives “know that they will never be accepted by the establishment,” Heilbrunn goes on in a later passage about Perle. “Indeed, they outwardly revel in the knowledge that they are outsiders. But beneath the veneer of confidence is a seething rage at the government bureaucracy and social elites.”

That rage is on extravagant display throughout the extremely angry book that Perle wrote with David Frum in 2004, “An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror” (as well as on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal), in which the authors pour unremitting scorn on the CIA and the State Department (and Europe) for their failure to understand, let alone seriously address, the apocalyptic threat that faces them in the form of what Podhoretz calls “Islamofascism.” And, ironically, in describing the origin of that threat, they cite the centuries of humiliation experienced by the Muslim world at the hands of the West and, more recently, Israel. The 9/11 attack, in their view, was about “restoring injured pride through the destruction of the symbols of an opposing civilization.”

“The Islamic world has lagged further and further behind the Christian West; since 1948, it has repeatedly been humiliated even by the once disdained Jews,” they write. “These defeats and disasters have been more than a wound to Muslims: They directly challenge the truth of Islam itself.” And that in turn has fueled a “murderous rage” throughout the Middle East. “Religious extremists and secular militants; Sunnis and Shiites; communists and fascists – in the Middle East, these categories blend into one another. All gush from the same enormous reservoir of combustible rage.”

Rage deriving from humiliation is a compelling concept, whether the humiliation originates in physical abuse, personal taunts, social exclusion, or membership in a group, nation, or civilization that has been colonized, occupied, or otherwise subdued or dominated by foreign powers. But the last kind of humiliation is certainly not unique to the Islamic or Arab worlds. Indeed, hard-line neo-conservatives — when pressed to elaborate on “why they hate us” — often draw parallels between the causes of “Islamofascism” and the rise of Nazism in a Germany humiliated and enraged by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. In recent years, they’ve also warned against the threat of a revanchist Russia eager to restore the Soviet empire and its superpower status; the emergence of an aggressive and ultra-nationalist China, determined to avenge the humiliations it has suffered since the 1840 Opium War and reclaim its status as the world’s “Middle Kingdom;” and even the plotting of the perfidious French who, by manipulating the EU to oppose the U.S., can redress, according to neo-con historiography, the undying shame they presumably must feel about both their Nazi collaboration and their subsequent rescue by Anglo-Americans! The message from these examples is clear: those whom one should most fear are those who feel, whether rightly or wrongly, that they have been humiliated and are unwilling to forgive, if not forget.

What is remarkable — and what really struck me when reading “An End to Evil” — is that Jewish neo-conservatives never seem to acknowledge that they, too, may be susceptible to a similar sense of collective historical humiliation — and the rage that it can create — arising from the centuries of abuse experienced by Jews that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust. Indeed, the book’s tone was so angry that it occurred to me that the authors might be projecting some their own “combustible rage” onto Arabs and Muslims, in particular. (Ironically, Podhoretz proves helpful here: in his 1963 essay, he notes that, “The psychologists …tells us that the white man hates the Negro because he tends to project those wild impulses that he fears in himself onto an alien group which he then punishes with contempt.”) That’s not to say that Perle and Frum and other hard-line neo-cons are incorrect about the existence of feelings of humiliation and anger among Muslims in the Greater Middle East; I just wonder to what extent their own rage, of which they seem much less conscious, exaggerates those feelings and their pervasiveness in the region.

Of course, the Holocaust and its impact on the worldview of contemporary American Jews, the great majority of whom are much more open to accommodation with the Muslim world and Palestinians than hard-line neo-cons, is an overwhelming subject. (For those who are interested, I addressed some aspects of the subject in an article I wrote three years ago, called “From Holocaust to Hyperpower, although I also stongly recommend “The Holocaust in American Life” by Peter Nozick). But, for purposes of this post, the image of Jews going to their deaths “like lambs to the slaughter” — an image that first became dominant during the formative years for the generation that includes Perle, Ledeen, Charles Krauthammer, among others in the early 1960s when the Eichmann trial and “Judgment at Nuremberg”, among other events, brought the Holocaust much more forcefully into the public domain than it had been before — was deeply, deeply disturbing, even at a time when victimhood had gained a certain moral stature thanks to the civil rights movement, and identity politics was on the rise. While Israel’s stunning military victory in 1967 offered a remarkable and highly welcome antidote to the image of Jews as helpless victims, the war — along with other events of the time, including the rise of the Black Power and anti-war movements — also reinforced among a not insignificant number of Jews a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, as well as the notion that Jews had to be tough to survive. Indeed, it was shortly after the war that Podhoretz steered ‘Commentary,’ the flagship publication of the American Jewish Committee, sharply to the right on foreign-policy issues, in particular, and that Rabbi Meir Kahane, who popularized the slogan “Never Again” with its multiple connotations of humiliation, shame, militancy, and rage coming out of the Holocaust, founded the Jewish Defense League. (This was before “Never Again” was appropriated by anti-genocide movements that wanted to make the idea universal, rather than specific to Jews, as Kahane had intended.) Kahane, a man filled with rage, emigrated to Israel in 1971 where he formed the Kach Party, which was put on Israel’s and the State Department’s terrorism lists after one of its U.S.-born militants, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers and injured more than a 100 more at the Mosque of Abraham/Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. (Kahane himself was assassinated in New York in 1990.)

While more recent historical research has suggested that the “lambs-to-the-slaughter” paradigm was over-simplified, and Holocaust-related museums and school curricula have tried over time to present a more-nuanced image, the Jew-as-victim has remained dominant through most of the last 40 years or so, and the fact that the Holocaust itself has become so thoroughly integrated into American culture and education, primarily through the efforts of the “Israel Lobby,” has probably not helped in that respect. And while the image no doubt helps ensure continued U.S. support and sympathy for Israel, it has also perpetuated a sense of humiliation for at least some Jews. Consider, for example, this passage in Rich Cohen’s 1998 book, “Tough Jews”, a paean to Jewish-American gangsters, like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, who Cohen sees as the perfect counterpoint to the Jew-as-victim paradigm. Cohen, who was born in 1968, writes of both his embarrassment and anger with the Holocaust unit taught in school.

“You see, for people like me, who were born long after Germany was defeated, the worst part of the Holocaust was never the dead bodies; it was the way Jewish victims were portrayed. In history class at my junior high school in Illinois, we were forced to sit through films, spooled by some A/V geek, that showed images of the Holocaust: all those Jews waiting to be shot, looking ahead with already dead eyes, trees in the background, hands covering genitals. In none of those pictures was there even a faint suggestion of personality, an individual. There was only a silent, wide-eyed mass, the shame of being marched naked, being seen by women, by men …For forty minutes I would sit there, surrounded by non-Jewish classmates, my eyes burning my neck starting to itch. At recess I would walk up to Clay Mellon, biggest kid in our school, the bully who ran everything, and say, ‘You stupid asshole.'”

Cohen doesn’t tell us what happened next, but the message is pretty clear: humiliation leads to aggression, however ill-considered or indirect it may be. Moreover, the humiliation doesn’t even have to be up close and personal, as with physical attacks or verbal taunts; in this case, it was conveyed by a film strip created 40 years before and half a world away. Is it no wonder that Arabs and Muslims get angry when they see video of violence perpetrated against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers or settlers broadcast on their television screens in real time or read Mohammed Omer’s account of how he was treated by Shin Beth?

So, might humiliation — whether in the form of physical beatings by the “Other”, as experienced by Adelson and Podhoretz and their generation; or taunting and social exclusion, as experienced by Perle and his generation; or learning about (through watching old film strips and photos and other means) the mass murder of a collective group of which you are a member, even if two generations removed, or some combination of two of the three, or all three — produce a rage that would translate into extremely and even irrationally aggressive policy recommendations against a perceived threat? At the least, it would make such a result more likely. Yet, while hard-line neo-cons recognize that dynamic in other groups, particularly those they see as enemies, they never seem to see how it might apply to their own experience and outlook.

At the same time, rage and aggression is clearly not an inevitable outcome of humiliation, however it is incurred. Most Jewish Americans have been exposed to one, two, or even all three of these kinds of humiliations but, unlike the hard-line neo-cons like Adelson, Podhoretz, Perle, and Frum, they still oppose attacking Iran and favor withdrawal from Iraq; they still support territorial compromise a two-state solution with the Palestinians for whose plight they even express some sympathy; and they are not obsessed with “Islamofascism,” nor, in Buruma’s words, do they “[long] for power and being tough.” So, while humiliation may well be a necessary condition for the kind of extremism that hard-line neo-cons espouse, it may not be sufficient by itself.

It may be that the timing of the humiliation(s) experienced by the individual in relation to his or her own emotional and social development, as well as the degree to which the individual is traumatized by the experience(s), are key factors that trigger the anger and aggression that, in my view, underlie the neo-conservative worldview. In that respect, I found a reaction to Buruma’s essay by a reader of Josh Marshall’s blog, talkingpointsmemo.com, last September, particularly compelling. Although closer in age to Perle, the reader, “PK” was subject to beatings — in his case, by Italian and Irish kids — of the kind experienced by Podhoretz and Adelson in their youth. Here’s what he writes about Buruma’s analysis of Podhoretz, although I suspect he would apply it to Adelson, if not the others, as well:

“The simple explanation is that Podhoretz is suffering the rage of the impotent. When I was a young Jewish kid in the fifties, I lived in an area that was 90% Irish and Italian Catholic. I still like to joke that growing up I thought my middle name was “kike”.

It was not unusual for my small crowd to be constantly bullied and intimidated by these other kids. Most of us were bookish and only a few of us were big enough or tough enough to fight back when it inevitably came to blows. Over the years, most of figured out a way to make peace and by the time we were in high school, some sort of truce had evolved.

Yet with all of that, when I feel I am being pushed around, my mental state conjures up what can only be called violent fantasies of revenge……..inflict the beating on my persecutor that I couldn’t inflict as a kid but that was the source of humiliation to me.

I am sure that Podhoretz must have had the same type of internal reaction. The difference is that he must have a personality defect and has been unable to evolve past the primitive emotional level of his childhood. Add a towering intellect and powerful personality and you get the kind of miscreant that throughout history has lead [sic] people into monumental carnage as a means to overcome their own insecurity and feelings of helplessness.

I know this may sound like pop psychology from a layman but in a lot of respects I can relate to the experiences Podhoretz had as a kid and the feelings it engendered. The difference is that I have learned that hatred and revenge are poisonous to the soul. Podhoretz makes the mistake of believing that if he can only find a way to conquer his “enemies”, it will somehow mitigate his own sense of inadequacy. Where he has gone, there is no coming back, nothing would ever be enough, there will always have to be a new enemy, always another affront to his manhood, always another way to prove he is not that weak little impotent Jewish kid afraid of being beaten up.”

As Franz Fanon wrote in “The Wretched of the Earth,” “Violence is a cleansing force [that] …frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inactivity: It makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” Remarkably, that quote appears in Perle’s “An End to Evil” as part of the passage devoted to explaining the origins of Muslim and Arab extremism. Compare it with Charles Krauthammer exulting in the smashing victory achieved by the U.S. in Afghanistan —

“What talks in the region? Power. …The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again — Gulf War, Afghan war, next war — is that power is its own reward. Victory changes everything, psychology above all. The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power”

— and you can hear what Fanon was writing about.

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Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. “Those to whom evil is done
    Do evil in return.”

    SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
    W.H. Auden

  2. I hope this is not too far off-topic, but having previously read Mr. Podhoretz’ essay, I’ve always been struck by the following –

    1) Mr. Podhoretz admits that, at the time of his writing, his residual hatred for “the Negro” does not have “any cause or justification (except, perhaps, that I am constantly being denied my right to an honest expression of the things I earned the right as a child to feel).”

    2) Mr. Podhoretz believed that “the tragic fact is that love is not the answer to hate”;

    3) Mr. Podhoretz believed that what he saw as the “Negro problem” could only be eliminated through assimilation; and

    4) Perhaps most tellingly, Mr. Podhoretz completely failed to recognize the glaring contradiction between his advocacy of miscegenation as the vehicle for assimilation and his earlier conclusion that led him to advocate assimilation in the first place – namely, that “love is not the answer to hate”.

    Nice piece, Mr. Lobe.

  3. Excellent piece, Jim. But it raises this question:

    Who kicked sand in Bush’s face? Aside from the imperious mother, we have a spoilt rich kid whose father paved the way for his every step. No neighborhood toughs beating him up, or any family hardship. So what explains his primitive willingness (perhaps even delight in) preemptive war, mistreatment of prisoners, etc? Remember his sneer over Carla Faye Tucker?

    Per journalist Tucker Carlson:

    “In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, a number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker. “Did you meet with any of them?” I ask. Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them”, he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?'” “What was her answer?” I wonder. “‘Please,'” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “‘don’t kill me.'” I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.”

  4. yes, those beaten as children are more likely to beat their own children.

    those arrogant American Likudniks, so rapidly dissembling America’s human rights structure, may indvertantly pave the way for the next Genocide. In 1933/4 the Reichstag repealed laws that would have saved the lives of German Jews later. If antisemitism crops up here, as it has reared its head elsewhere, it would be tragic but also most ironic if the repeal of similar laws was partly facilitated by Jews themselves. I have two friends, both rabbis, who are quite worried about this.

    And it is not out of the question, in Wilhelmine Germany, Jewish Germans paid something like 25% of the personal income tax, far above their percent of population, because they were so integrated, hard working and successful: no wonder so many of them felt (falsely) secure there.

  5. I so agree with what…

    George Corsetti Says:

    July 9th, 2008 at 9:27 am
    As a criminal defense lawyer who at times represents sexual abusers, I find that the interview soon evolves to their own victimization at the hands of other sexual abusers. They do onto others as has been done onto them. It is their reality. That’s how the world is. Humiliation takes many forms — ask Japanese-Americans during WW II, Arab-Americans….

    But the answer is obvious. The way to stop this daisy chain of humiliation is to put a stop to it now, to make it legally and socially unacceptable. Like drunk driving, negative reinforcement works. Its time to crank up the war crimes tribunal”

    ……because regardless of the reason behind the zionist cult, or the Bush father complex or the Cheney paranoia or the irrational religious cults and the fears of the little people that brought us to where we are now…the point is they have to be stopped.

    Now. While we still have something that resembles a country.

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