It's Not "Gaslighting" to Say that American Jews Are Moving Away from Israel

The trend is disturbing, no doubt. But owning up to it is better than staying in your own comforting reality.

An anti-Israel rally on June 11, 2021 in midtown Manhattan. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

An anti-Israel rally on June 11, 2021 in midtown Manhattan. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

Aug. 19 2021
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

“Jews Gaslighting Jews” was the headline given a July 22 report by Dr. Alex Joffe of Bar-Ilan University’s BESA (Begin-Sadat) Center for Strategic Studies. The piece dealt with a “National Survey of Jewish Voters” released a week previously by GBAO Strategies, a Washington research institute.

“Gaslighting” is a word that, within a few years, has come from seemingly nowhere to be nearly as ubiquitous as “the” and “a.” At first, I didn’t know exactly what it meant. Everywhere, everyone was suddenly gaslighting everyone else—but just what was it they were doing to one another?

Well, one can’t afford to be permanently ignorant about such things and eventually I looked for help. I found it in an article by the psychoanalyst Robin Stern, the associate director of the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence and author of the 2007 book, The Gaslight Effect: How To Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use To Control Your Life. Gaslighting, I learned from her, “refers to the act of undermining [other people’s] reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings,” so that its victims “are turned against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people.”

The term derives from a 1938 British play called Gas Light, which was made into a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In it, a husband diabolically seeks to destabilize his wife by turning the gaslights up and down while telling her she is only imagining that their home keeps getting brighter and dimmer. Its current use, Stern writes in a 2019 article called “Gaslighting Explained,” “goes as far back as 1980 in academic journals about women’s socialization,” and the term is now “frequently employed in couples counseling and self-help books to describe a specific type of toxic relationship.”

Armed with this knowledge, I turned to Dr. Joffe’s analysis of the GBAO survey. You may have heard of the latter, because it made a splash in the Jewish press for its findings regarding American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. These were shown to be, to put it mildly, less than overwhelmingly positive. Thirty-eight percent of the 800 respondents polled (of whom 37 percent identified as Reform Jews, 17 percent as Conservative, 9 percent as Orthodox, and 31 percent as having no synagogue affiliation) reported feeling no attachment to Israel at all, while only 29 percent felt “strongly attached.” Twenty-five percent agreed with the proposition that Israel is “an apartheid state.” Twenty-two percent thought that Israel is “committing genocide against the Palestinians.” Sixteen percent were unsure whether Israel has a right to exist.

From a concerned Jewish point of view, these findings, if reliable, are alarming. They point to a radical erosion of support for Israel, and to a high degree of condemnation of it, that would until recently have been unimaginable in the American Jewish community. Nor has this taken place just among the youngest respondents, those in the eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-old cohort, who are the most influenced by anti-Israel trends on the university campuses and in social media; although an indifference or antagonism toward Israel was presumably highest among them (the survey gives no breakdown on this question), they constituted only 17 percent of those polled. The survey would appear to indicate a massive shift in American Jewish attitudes toward Israel that characterizes higher age groups, too, and grows progressively more pronounced as one goes down the scale. It looks bad and not about to get better.

But are the GBAO findings reliable? Do they constitute, Joffe asks, “a fair representation of the American Jewish community?” While conceding that “the poll does represent some aspect of reality, an alienation from Israel on the part of a sector of Conservative and Reform Jews, particularly the younger generation,” he then answers his question with a “Maybe, maybe not” and goes on to say: “Is it a form of political manipulation? Obviously.”

Which makes me say, “Woah, there!” If the GBAO survey may be a “fair representation” of the American Jewish community that accurately conveys “some aspect of reality,” why is it obviously “a form of political manipulation?”

Joffe has an answer to this, too. This is because, he says, GBAO Strategies is “a firm specializing in consulting for Democratic candidates for office” and “progressive” Jewish organizations like J Street, and “Jews gaslighting other Jews on behalf of Democrats is despicable.”

In other words, although the findings of the GBAO poll may be correct, it is gaslighting to publish them because they a) promote the anti-Israel policies of political “progressives,” and b) undermine the belief of pro-Israel American Jews that Israel has the American Jewish community behind it. Or to rephrase the matter: if some American Jews want to believe that Jewish support for Israel is as strong as ever, they are being gaslighted when told they are wrong.

With this, I assume Robin Stern would agree. “An important gaslighting technique,” she writes, is “undermining a partner’s emotions and feelings in a way to deny [his or her] reality. . . . The emotional chopping away during those moments has the effect of convincing the other person that [he] could be imagining or ‘making up’ scenarios that don’t exist.” Indeed, “the gaslighter may not even know he is doing anything strategic or manipulative. He lacks self-awareness and may just think he is expressing himself directly or is prone to unflinching honesty, saying it ‘like it is.’”

Understanding this or that issue “like it is,” Stern writes, is not what it’s all about. Rather, she counsels her readers, “Focus on feelings instead of on right and wrong. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to be right or to spend endless hours ruminating about who’s right. But determining who is right and wrong is less important than how you feel—if your conversation leaves you feeling bad or second-guessing yourself, that’s what you need to pay attention to.” Gaslighting is “about knocking one’s understanding of reality off balance.”

That it can be crucial to have one’s understanding of reality knocked off balance if it is incorrect is not part of the gaslighting discourse. We all, this discourse holds, have a right to our own reality and whoever challenges it, whether right or wrong and whatever his or her motives, is gaslighting us. Your husband says you’re spending too much money on yourself and being financially irresponsible? He’s gaslighting you. African-Americans are told that white racism isn’t as endemic as all that and that there are reasons beside it for their social and economic situation? It’s gaslighting. American Jews are handed a survey purporting to show that Israel is becoming increasingly unpopular among a large segment of them? Watch out for the gaslighters!

What all the accusations and counter-accusations of gaslighting do is preclude rational discussion of any subject at all. In a postmodern age in which one social-media post is as good as the next and the notion of the existence of objective truth is considered an old-fashioned fallacy, we are all entitled, we are told, to think and feel what we want to, and woe be to anyone who seeks to reason us out of it. “Remember that you can’t control anyone’s opinion even if you are right,” Robin Stern cautions. “You need to let go of trying, as maddening as this can be. The only person whose opinion you can control is [sic] your own.”

Which is to say: Let’s stop trying to convince each other intelligently of anything.

It may be that the GBAO survey was made at the behest of “progressive” Democrats who hate Israel. It may be that they are gloating over its results. But if, instead of asking themselves “Why is this happening and what if anything can be done about it?” concerned Jews like Alex Joffe are content to proclaim, “We’re being gaslighted,” the next poll is sure to be worse.

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