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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Psychology of Populations under Chronic Siege

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, International Law, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 46

  • The phenomenon of Diaspora Jews embracing as truth the indictments of Jew-haters has been so commonplace that a literature on the subject emerged under the rubric “Jewish self-hatred.” A similar predilection evolved in Israel, particularly among the nation’s cultural elites, in the context of the Arab siege.
  • Segments of populations under chronic siege commonly embrace the indictments of the besiegers, however bigoted and outrageous. They hope that by doing so and reforming accordingly they can assuage the hostility of their tormenters and win relief. This has been an element of the Jewish response to anti-Semitism throughout the history of the Diaspora.
  • The paradigm on the level of individual psychology is the psychodynamics of abused children, who almost invariably blame themselves for their predicament, ascribe it to their being “bad,” and nurture fantasies that by becoming “good” they can mollify their abusers and end their torment.
  • The rhetoric of the Israeli Peace Movement, its distortions of Arab aims and actions, and its indictments of Israel likewise reflected the psychological impact of chronic besiegement. The Oslo process that the Peace Movement spawned entailed policies grounded in wishful thinking and self-delusion analogous to that of abused children. Israel’s national institutions – political, educational, academic, cultural, and media-related – need to help arm the nation against the allures of Oslo-era delusions if the Oslo debacle is not to be repeated.

In recent centuries, the phenomenon of Diaspora Jews embracing as truth the indictments of Jew-haters has been so commonplace that, starting about a hundred years ago, a literature on the subject emerged in Central Europe. Some of it was written by psychologists and psychoanalysts, and its theme acquired the rubric “Jewish self-hatred.” A similar predilection evolved in Israel, particularly among the nation’s cultural elites, in the context of the Arab siege. Israeli novelist and essayist Aharon Megged observed in 1994, “We have witnessed…an emotional and moral identification by the majority of Israel’s intelligentsia, and its print and electronic media, with people committed to our annihilation.”1

Oslo: Embracing the Perspectives of the Nation’s Enemies

Israel’s engagement in the Oslo “peace process” likewise reflected an embrace of the perspectives of the nation’s enemies. It entailed pursuing a course that had been advocated for some years by Israel’s Peace Movement and that echoed indictments by Israel’s besiegers regarding alleged Israeli responsibility for Arab aggression.

The Peace Movement had argued that Israel’s refusal to acknowledge previous wrongdoing and make sufficient amends and concessions was what perpetuated the Arab- Israeli conflict. Hence, the rationale of Oslo was that Israel would now win peace by providing such concessions to the PLO. Israel pursued this path even as the Palestinian leadership continued to tell its constituency that its goal remained Israel’s destruction and continued to collude in a terror campaign against Israel.

For example, on the night of the famous “peace” ceremony on the White House lawn in September 1993, Yasser Arafat appeared on Jordanian television and informed Palestinians and the Arab world that they should understand Oslo as the first phase of the Plan of Phases.2 This was the strategy elaborated by the PLO in 1974 that called for gaining whatever territory could be won by negotiations and using that land as a base from which to pursue Israel’s destruction.

Also, from the time of Arafat’s arrival in the territories in July 1994 until May 1996 and the fall of the Labor-Meretz government that had choreographed Oslo, over 150 people were murdered in terror attacks targeting Israel. This rate of losses to terror exceeded that of any previous twenty-two month period in the nation’s history. The Israeli government knew of Arafat’s support for the terror campaign, his praise of the terrorists, and his exhorting of his people to follow their example, yet it responded with more concessions, as in the Oslo II agreement in the fall of 1995.

A Thesis Proved as Nonsense

Various explanations for this self-destructive course have been offered by people who initially embraced Oslo and were even active in promoting it. Nissim Zvilli, a Labor MK and member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time, recalled in 2002, “I remember myself lecturing in Paris and saying that Arafat’s double-talk had to be understood. That was our thesis, proved [later] as nonsense. Arafat meant every word, and we were naive.”3

But “naïveté” hardly captures the self-delusions that underlay Oslo. In 1997, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit wrote of the course forged by Israel’s political elite and passionately embraced by its intellectual and cultural elites, including himself: “In the early ’90’s…we, the enlightened Israelis, were infected with a messianic craze…. All of a sudden, we believed that…the end of the old Middle East was near. The end of history, the end of wars, the end of conflict…. We fooled ourselves with illusions. We were bedazzled into committing a collective act of messianic drunkenness.”4

But while Shavit’s “messianism” gives a label to Oslo-era thinking, it does not explain it. The explanation lies in the psychology of chronically besieged populations. Whether minorities enduring persistent marginalization, defamation, and attack from the surrounding society, or small states under continual siege, segments of such communities almost invariably embrace the indictments of their enemies. They hope that by reforming themselves in a manner consistent with those indictments they will win relief.

The Psychology of Chronically Abused Children

On the level of individual psychology, the paradigm is the psychology of chronically abused children. This most typically means children subjected to parental abuse. Almost invariably, such children blame themselves for their predicament. They tell themselves, “I am treated this way because I am bad, and if I become good I will be treated better.”

This phenomenon is widely recognized by psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers and is most often ascribed to children’s naïveté. According to this interpretation, the abusers tell their young victims that the abuse is punishment for their being “bad,” and the children, in their naïveté, accept this at face value.

But children are not that naive. The victimized child of an alcoholic father or a chronically depressed, withdrawn, and irritable mother knows that he or she is being treated badly. Nevertheless, such children almost invariably choose to repress that knowledge and to believe that changes in their own behavior – behaving in a more exemplary fashion, being more attentive to the parents’ needs and wishes – can change their parents’ ways and win them a better life.

To comprehend the motivation for this self-delusion, consider the existential predicament of such children. They can, on the one hand, acknowledge their essential helplessness and the hopelessness of their situation. On the other, they can delude themselves, blame themselves for their victimization, and endure the guilt of that self-indictment, of perceiving themselves as “bad,” but also preserve the hope that by their own action, by becoming “good,” they can win relief. Children almost invariably choose to avoid hopelessness at all costs, and adults do the same.

Self-Hatred: A Specifically Jewish Pathology?

On a communal level, the same dynamic is seen again and again in populations under siege. The phenomenon of segments of the community embracing the indictments of the besiegers and seeking relief through self-criticism and self-reform recurs constantly in the history of the Jewish Diaspora.

It has been so commonplace among Jews that some have seen it as a specifically Jewish pathology, a unique Jewish self-hatred. But, again, it can be found in many other populations under chronic attack. Its particular persistence and ubiquity among Jews is essentially a reflection of the unprecedented history of the Jews as a people living under incessant siege.

The broader occurrence of people adopting the perspectives of their tormenters has been popularly recognized over the past several decades as the “Stockholm Syndrome.” The sobriquet had its origin in an incident in the Swedish capital in 1973 in which a bank robbery went awry and several people were held captive by the robbers for six days in the bank’s vault. The captives emerged displaying notable empathy for and emotional bonding with their captors.

Communities are, however, not entirely defenseless against the psychological corrosiveness of living under sustained attack. The major defense is communal institutions that are strong enough to have moral sway in their communities and that convey a countervailing message. This is a message of the community’s being unfairly targeted, of its essential decency and integrity, of the bigotry and injustice of its attackers, of the community’s ability to resist and survive the onslaught and forge a better future for itself.

In terms of the paradigm of the abused child, the equivalent of such institutions would be another adult in the child’s life, a grandparent perhaps, who provides the child with a different perspective. This person gives the message that the child is not “bad.” Rather, he is being unfairly victimized and the fault lies with his abusers, not with him; he deserves better and will ultimately escape his predicament and have a better future. Although such support may not serve to defend the child against further abuse, it can help protect him against the worst psychological reverberations of such abuse. Those reverberations entail continuing to pursue the tack of blaming himself and seeking to appease his abusers through self-reform, a tack that all too often persists into adulthood and dooms such children to lives of ongoing self-abasement, frustration, and misery.

The Weakening of Jewish Communal Institutions

But within the Jewish Diaspora, there was a notable weakening of communal institutions as a result of political changes that marked the emergence of the modern world and modern nation-states. This weakening left Jews even more vulnerable than they had previously been to the psychological corrosiveness of chronic attack. Indeed, so widespread was the impact of that corrosiveness that Max Nordau, the Austrian Jewish writer and early Zionist, observed in 1896, “It is the greatest triumph of anti-Semitism that it has brought the Jews to view themselves with anti- Semitic eyes.”5

There is a profound truth to this on the level of Jews’ sense of themselves as individuals. For example, the Jewish child subjected to constant taunts, even physical attacks, and social exclusion in the schoolyard will very often respond by questioning what is wrong with him and how he can change to win acceptance. This response is comparable to that of the child abused at home. If the Jewish child’s parents and community fail to convey a strong-enough countermessage, such a response becomes virtually inevitable and will likely be carried by the child into adulthood, with the child as adult feeling himself tainted and flawed by virtue of his Jewish identity.

But Nordau could have added that if Jews saw themselves as the haters saw them, they often viewed other Jews as fitting those stereotypes even more. Thus, German Jews not infrequently viewed Polish Jews as the true and deserving butt of Jew-hatred; secularized Jews regarded religious Jews similarly; and unionized working-class Jews held comparable opinions of the Jewish bourgeoisie. Moreover, those who looked at others across the various social divides in this way, and who sought to reform those others or to separate themselves from those others in order to win themselves acceptance by the wider society, did not acknowledge that their biases reflected a pleading for gentile approval. Instead, they cast their prejudices as representing a more progressive and enlightened path.

Not a New Jewish Phenomenon

Again, this was not a new Jewish phenomenon. The twelfth-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela wrote of his visit to the Jews of Constantinople:

Among [them] there are craftsmen in silk and many merchants and many wealthy men…. They dwell in a burdensome exile. And most of the enmity comes about because of the [Jewish] tanners who make leather and fling their filthy water into the streets at the entrance to their homes, polluting the street of the Jews. And therefore the Greeks [Constantinople was at the time, of course, still in Byzantine hands] hate the Jews, whether good or bad, and make their yoke heavy upon them and beat them in the streets.6

The historian H. H. Ben Sasson observes of the passage:

This information certainly did not reach [Benjamin of Tudela] from the tanners; it was how wealthy Jews explained to themselves and to others the animosity of the Greeks towards the Jews. It resulted from the filthy habits of those who followed such a despicable craft, and because of them, all Jews, good and bad, suffered. In this context “good” meant the silk-maker or physician, and “bad” meant the miserable tanner, blamed as the source of this animosity.7

The besieged Jews chose to ignore the actual roots of the hostility directed against them, about which they could do little. Instead they focused their resentment on elements within the Jewish community on the other side of the social-occupational divide. They did so in the service of fantasies that “reform” of those others would radically ameliorate the community’s predicament.

But this phenomenon became particularly virulent in the modern era, and it had an impact as well on the Zionist movement. Herzl conceived of the future Jewish state as a refuge for all Jews. But among the Russian socialist Zionists who came to dominate the Zionist movement, many chose to construe religious and bourgeois Jews as the true targets of anti-Semitism. They spoke and wrote of such Jews in a manner that parroted the rhetoric of the anti-Semites, and sought to construct a nation that would be socialist and secular and therefore, in their wishful thinking, immune to anti-Jewish attack.

The Practical Consequences of Bias

This bias had practical consequences. In the early 1930s, for example, David Ben-Gurion recognized the growing dangers facing European Jews and argued for a public relations campaign to pressure Britain to permit large-scale immigration to the Yishuv (the prestate Jewish community in Palestine). Many of his socialist Zionist colleagues, however, opposed him for fear that the arrival of religious and entrepreneurial Jews would undermine the creation of a New Jew – socialist and secular – and instead lead to a polity that invited anti-Semitism.

Another practical consequence can be seen in the response by some elements of the socialist Zionist camp to the Arab attacks of 1920-1921, 1929, and 1936-1939. Some chose to construe the attacks as an understandable reaction to the ways of traditional and bourgeois elements in the Yishuv. They insisted that if the Yishuv were built on purely socialist principles, the Arab working class would see the Jews as brothers and there would be no enmity.

Various voices within the socialist camp also reacted to Arab attacks by blaming Arab hostility on the supposedly misguided Zionist effort to establish a Jewish state, and they advocated Jewish abandonment of that goal. Again, those who would blame the Jews did not acknowledge that they were seeking to placate the Jews’ attackers but rather cast their stance as enlightened and progressive. For example, they wrapped themselves in socialist internationalism and insisted that Jews should be more forward-looking and forswear nationalist aspirations.

A related response to the Arab assault came from another part of the Yishuv. Jews in Western Europe had, since the beginning of the modern era, confronted intense opposition to their being granted civic rights in their respective countries. A key point made by those opposing such rights was that the Jews were a separate, alien nation. In response, many Jews sought to demonstrate that they were solely a community of faith, not a nation. German Jewish reformist movements in the early nineteenth century even sought to change the liturgy to delete references to longing for Eretz Israel and Jerusalem so as to erase any suggestions of national, and not purely religious, Jewish identity and aspirations.

Buber: Justifying the Arab Aggressors

Elements of the German Jewish community in the Yishuv embraced these same predilections. They defined the proper Zionist project as the building of a Jewish cultural center, not a state, in Eretz Israel, and responded to Arab attacks in the same manner so many of them had responded to anti- Jewish indictments in Europe. They even more emphatically argued against nation-building, justified Arab aggression as a reasonable reaction to the misguided state-building of the Yishuv leadership, and viciously attacked Ben-Gurion and his pro-state associates.

Of course, they once again did not acknowledge that they were seeking to placate the Jews’ attackers but rather wrapped their stance in moral self-righteousness. They insisted that Judaism had evolved beyond narrow, nationalist concerns. It was now exclusively focused on its universal message and mission as a moral force in the world, and nation-building represented a regressive, atavistic, and shameful course for the Jews.

The most prominent figure in this camp was the famous German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. In 1929, the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, orchestrated large-scale attacks against the Jews of the Yishuv that led to, among other atrocities, the murder of more than sixty Jews in Hebron. Buber, then still in Germany, blamed the massacres on the Jews for not having been accommodating enough of Arab sensibilities and urged an amnesty for those Arabs convicted of murdering Jews.8

Buber’s response to the Arab attacks of 1936-1939 (he immigrated to the Yishuv in 1938) was similar. He and many of his associates on the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also opposed efforts to push Britain to liberalize Jewish immigration. Even in the face of the notorious Chamberlain White Paper of 1939 severely limiting immigration at such a desperate time for European Jews, the circle around Buber campaigned in support of such limits and insisted that there should be no additional Jewish immigration without Arab consent.

In an article in Haaretz in November 1939, two months after the start of World War II, Buber not only argued that the Zionist objective of a state was immoral; he also asserted that, as all nationalisms were, in his view, intrinsically and equally morally bankrupt and that Zionism was “performing the acts of Hitler in the land of Israel, for they [i.e., the Zionists] want to serve Hitler’s god [i.e., nationalism] after he has been given a Hebrew name.”9

The Impact of the Shoah

Such perspectives were largely marginalized by the war in Europe, the Shoah, and the establishment of Israel. The nation came together in absorbing the survivors from Europe and the Sephardi Jews fleeing the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East, and Israelis overwhelmingly dedicated themselves to the state’s survival and well-being.

But the marginalization of those perspectives sympathetic to Arab aggression and critical of the Zionist enterprise was not simply a consequence of the flow of events. It also derived from an optimism that the Arab siege would soon end and Israel would indeed become a “normal” state. In addition, the segment of the population most receptive to anti-state rhetoric was the socialist Zionist camp. However, the nation’s leadership was drawn from that camp, and many more on the Israeli Left identified with Ben- Gurion and his successors than with the anti-state circles.

But the siege did not end. Even the peace with Egypt was followed by Egyptian reneging on the approximately two dozen provisions of the Camp David agreement involving normalization of commercial and cultural relations, and the government-controlled Egyptian media persisted in their anti-Israeli rhetoric and even escalated their anti- Semitic content.

Viewing the Likud as Alien Others

No less significantly, in 1977 the socialist Zionists lost their monopoly on national power and over the next fifteen years Likud either led the nation or was equal or senior partner in governments of national unity. Likud’s roots lay in a merger of the party of Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist successors and Israel’s Liberal Party (opposed to the country’s socialist economy). Likud’s constituency was drawn largely from the Sephardim, generally religious and entrepreneurial, and the more religious and entrepreneurial among the Ashkenazim.

Much of the socialist Zionist camp viewed the new leadership and its constituency as alien others. Many Labor Zionists now became more receptive to arguments that Arab hostility was a response to Israeli policies, that it was the control of the government by the Old Jew – the religious and the entrepreneurial – that perpetuated the Arab siege, and that if the Left would only regain power and make sufficient amends and concessions the other side would be placated and peace would be won.

The Peace Movement’s interpretation of the conflict was no less divorced from reality than had been German Jews blaming eastern Jews for anti-Semitism, or secular Jews blaming the religious, or socialist Jews blaming the European Jewish bourgeoisie.

But under the conditions of the continuing Arab siege and the Likud ascendancy, it won more and more adherents on the Israeli Left. Those adherents, cowed by the persistence of the siege and wishing for its end, grasped at any seemingly positive statement from an Arab political figure to bolster their wishful thinking ignoring all countervailing evidence.

For example, the PLO’s proxy representative in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, declared to an Arab audience in 1992, “We have not conceded and will not surrender any of the…commitments that have existed for more than 70 years….We have within our Palestinian and united Arab society the ability to deal with divided Israeli society…. We must force Israeli society to cooperate…with our Arab society and eventually to gradually dissolve the ‘Zionist entity.'”10 He made other statements in the same vein.

The Peace Camp like the Abused Child

Yet Husseini was a Peace Movement favorite. Mordechai Bar-On was a founder of Peace Now and author of the most definitive history of the Peace Movement. He wrote of the period before Oslo, the time of the Husseini quote, “A new generation of Palestinian leaders was emerging…. Younger people like…Faisal Husseini…. Most of the peace groups on the Israeli side maintained contacts with these new leaders and tried to persuade Israelis that these Palestinians could be partners in negotiations.”11

Bar-On also explained the failure of some Israelis to be persuaded as due to their benighted nature, their not sharing the Peace Movement’s open-minded and forward-looking sophistication. He noted that the Sephardic Jewish community in Israel tended to be more distrustful of Arab intentions and added that this seemed, in surveys, to be related to educational level and level of religious traditionalism. He further observed that the less educated and more traditional segments of the Ashkenazi community were likewise more distrustful of the possibilities for genuine peace than were Israel’s elites.

Bar-On concluded: “Higher learning, it is believed, exposes individuals to a wider variety of opinions, trains them in new analytical and flexible modes of thought, and enables them to relate to issues in a less emotional and more self-critical way, which leads to greater tolerance and understanding of the ‘other’ and of the complexity of the issues.”12 This is Bar-On’s rationalization for the peace camp’s grasping, like the abused child, at wishful delusions that sufficient self-reform, sufficient efforts to become “good,” would win relief.

New History:
Rewriting the Past of Israel and Zionism

Also resonant of the paradigm of the abused child is that adjunct to the Peace Movement, the so-called New History. The practitioners of the New History have sought to rewrite the past of Israel and the Zionist movement in a way that revealed the supposedly unfair treatment meted out to Palestinian Arabs and to other Arabs as well.

The implicit, and often explicitly acknowledged, intent of its authors has been to get Israelis to perceive Arab hostility as an understandable response to Israeli misdeeds. They encourage Israelis to see their neighbors less as irreconcilable foes bent on Israel’s destruction than as people like themselves who simply want – have always simply wanted – a fair resolution of the conflict, and so to be more forthcoming, to make painful concessions, to achieve that fair resolution.

The New History is largely bogus history. As one critic has noted, what is true in it is not new and what is new in it – typically the claims most damning of Israel – is not true. One recurrent criticism directed at it by other historians is that its proponents offer a very simplistic, two-dimensional view of the Arabs.13 There is little conveyance of the complexity of decision-making by Arab leaders; rather, Arab decisions and actions are depicted as straightforward and predictable reactions to Israeli policies.

This recurrent weakness in the New History has at times been ascribed to authors’ limited grasp of Arabic and, hence, limited access to the literature that would give them a fuller, more nuanced and realistic understanding of the shaping of Arab policies. But the truer explanation for the two-dimensionality of Arab decision-making in the New History is its authors’ wish to see Arab behavior as simply reactions to Israeli behavior. They want, in effect, to see Israeli behavior controlling Arab behavior, just as the abused child wants to see his own behavior as controlling that of his abusive parent. Such a distortion of reality is essential to the child’s fantasy that the abuse has been a response to his misbehavior and that his becoming good will inevitably elicit better parental treatment.

Not Prepared to Live in a World without Solutions

Perhaps the single example of Oslo rationalizations most resonant of the psychodynamics of the abused child is a statement by Oslo’s chief architect, Yossi Beilin, in 1997. Defending his Oslo endeavors, Beilin declared, “I want to live in a world where the solution to an existential problem is possible…. I am simply not prepared to live in a world where [problems] are unsolvable.”14

Confronted with the reality that Israel faces problems it cannot resolve by its own actions, Beilin wished not to believe that reality and simply closed his eyes to it. He embraced the delusion that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the other side desires what he desires and the world can be rendered what he wants it to be if only Israel is sufficiently forthcoming. In the same way the abused child, faced with a painful and insoluble existential problem, chooses to believe that he truly can solve it, that his behaving better will make his world right.

Haaretz‘s Ari Shavit wrote in 2001 of the consequences of Beilin’s “solution to an existential problem.” Shavit pointed out that the nation was enduring “a profound existential crisis” brought about by a decision “produced and directed by…Yossi Beilin…who had Israel sign an illusory document [the Oslo accords] which undermines the foundations of its existence.”

Addressing Institutional Failures

Throughout the history of the Diaspora, Jewish communities likewise suffered difficult situations becoming even worse, losses being piled on losses, because of the psychological corrosiveness of their predicament and the allure of delusional comprehensions that misread dangers, set Jew against Jew, and grievously compromised communal defenses.

As noted, in some cases the abused child is spared all the devastating consequences of his self-blame by an adult who conveys to him a different message. Strong communal institutions can at times do the same for populations under siege.

Oslo was ultimately a failure of Israel’s institutions, political, educational, academic, cultural, and media-related. The Arab siege is going to continue, and if those institutional failures are not addressed the nation will inexorably once again risk its existence by chasing mirages of peace.

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1. Aharon Megged, “One-Way Trip on the Highway of Self- Destruction,” Jerusalem Post, 17 June 1994.

2. Foreign Broadcast Service, “Near East and South Asia, Daily Report Supplement, Israel-PLO Agreement,” 14 September 1993, 4-5.

3. Haaretz, 27 July 2002.

4. Haaretz, 26 December 1997.

5. Cited in Meir Ben-Horin, Max Nordau: Philosopher of Human Solidarity (New York: Conference of Jewish Social Studies, 1956), 180.

6. Cited in H. H. Ben-Sasson, “The Middle Ages,” in H. H. Ben-Sasson, ed., A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 385-723, 469.

7. Ibid., 469.

8. Martin Buber, “The National Home and National Policy in Palestine” and “The Wailing Wall,” in A Land for Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, ed. Paul R. Mendes-Flohr (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 82-91, 93-95.

9. Haaretz, 16 November 1939; cited in Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 244.

10. Al-Ra’y (Jordan), 12 November 1992; cited in Ze’ev Benyamin Begin, “Years of Hope,” Haaretz Magazine, 6 September 2002.

11. Mordechai Bar-On, In Pursuit of Peace (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996), 217.

12. Ibid., 165.

13. See, e.g., Robert B. Satloff, review of Benny Morris’s Israel’s Borders Wars, 1949-1956, in Middle Eastern Studies, October 1995, 953-57.

14. Cited in Haaretz Magazine, 7 March 1997.

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Dr. Kenneth Levin is a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Princeton-trained historian. He is the author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege (Hanover, NH: Smith & Kraus, 2005).