Green Horizon Magazine

The Work of Culture: Transforming the US—Israel “Special Relationship.”

June 19th, 2016  |  Published in Uncategorized

By Justine McCabe


I recently saw the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, about John Newton’s agonizing moral journey in eighteenth century Britain from slave ship captain/trader to leading abolitionist (as well as composer of the compelling hymn of the same name). This production powerfully illustrates “the work of culture” described by anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere1 as “the process whereby symbolic forms existing on the cultural level get created and recreated in the minds of people.”

The work of culture is a creative process. It is a process of symbolic transformation: as individual members of a society and its institutions engage in this process, their personal and collective longings—for security, liberty, happiness—as well as personal and collective difficulties—conflicts, aggression, guilt—can be transformed into publicly accepted systems of meanings and symbolic forms. In feedback fashion, these meanings and forms organize, and are re-organized by, the individual members of that society, and the society itself.

The “work of culture” offers much toward understanding any society, including its politics.

For starters, Obeyesekere emphasizes that symbols—whether personal or collective— can be characterized by two dialectical functions, regression and progression, forming the poles of a unified continuum—the very nature of symbolic process. Regressive movement in symbolization involves a turning back and dwelling in or near the earliest motivations and impulses of human beings. These early motivations include the whole realm of basic needs: for nurturance, protection, attachment, recognition— and their frustration. It also includes fantasies of omnipotence and perfection; fears of abandonment, separation, merger, domination, annihilation; feelings of insecurity and incestuous and aggressive impulses. By contrast, the progressive movement of symbols also involves these early motivations and conflicts but engages, works with them, actively reorganizing them in a direction away from their archaic sources and primitive forms, and towards their transformation and beyond—to considerations of the ontological, even the numinous, in human existence.

This is nothing particularly new to the psychoanalytically savvy reader. However, what is salient here is viewing symbolic forms qualitatively, that is, viewing them in terms of their degree of remove from these earliest motives. This perspective produces, according to Obeyesekere, “different levels of symbolization. Some come closer to, some more distant from, the motivations that initially . . . triggered the symbolic formation.”

Thus, more “regressive” symbols and rituals may provide catharsis for the individuals and groups employing them. However, the release of negative or primitive impulses and emotions happens just superficially and temporarily, only to return anew, formatively unchanged. Moreover, any change can only be superficial because such symbols are, by definition, constituted more “simply” precisely because they have moved only/primarily infrom—and actually have more resemblance to—the underlying primitive motives and impulses themselves. As such, they lead the symbolizer(s) back toward, or but a short psychological distance away from these deep human urges and conflicts.

Although by definition, all cultural symbols have some remove from their motivational underpinnings, symbolic forms that operate with relatively little remove, tend to repetitively evoke the darker side of any person’s psyche. Thus, without the requisite complexity to enable “symbolizers” to enter, rise though and transform this darker side, such regressive symbols leave them repetitively returning to, or lingering around, more primitive motivations, chronically unable to “see the light.”

By contrast, the progressive movement of symbols takes up these earliest human preoccupations and moves them toward reorganization and transformation. Indeed, symbols and rituals are progressive in so far as they are sufficiently complex and developed to go the psychological distance well beyond their underlying sources. This is where multiple levels of meaning may be made. By demonstrating a progressive capacity, such symbols attest to the virtually unlimited potential we have as human beings to meaningfully rework, reform our most primitive urges, motivations, and experiences.

Thus, symbols and rituals are progressive to the degree that they can fire the human imagination to express, grapple with, and transform the ontological concerns that are generated in and beyond childhood, and throughout the human life cycle: issues of life, suffering, and death; the nature of vengeance and compassion, war and peace, hate and love. Amazing Grace does the transformative “work of culture” quite well by facilitating the passage of the audience along with the actors through the painful struggle of Newton’s dark experience dealing in slavery, and then “into the light” of Newton’s individual and societal transformations: seeking moral freedom for himself and for everyone. (Indeed, with his efforts, British slavery was abolished in 1807). Ultimately, like Newton, the play moves us all—to act. But sadly, in most societies, the arts and some religious traditions are much better at doing this transformative “work” than are political bodies, especially national governments.


To illustrate this, consider the governments of the US and Israel, countries whose national formative acts—dispossession and ethnic cleansing of their native peoples and their denial— constitute significant, albeit reprehensible, components of their “special relationship.”2 These components continue in the form of unequivocal political/financial support by the US for Israel’s gross violation of Palestinian human rights under an illegal occupation and apartheid-like system within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as well as for its non-Jewish citizens.

Two recent events put into high relief the “regressive” commonalities of that relationship. Yet these also represent possibilities for a change in direction to include progressive elements that might even contribute eventually to a transformation of that relationship.

One, the Iran nuclear agreement, forged by Senator John Kerry for the Obama administration and endorsed by the international community, challenges the bond between the two countries. This deal is vehemently opposed by the Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu3, American Zionists and many AIPACfearing members of Congress as an “existential” threat to Israel—“our sacred ally” according to my Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)4. Yet, this non-violent solution to what many see as a non-problem (Iran has no nukes, does not intend to make any), puts a spotlight on the relationship’s pernicious nature. On the regressive side, it raises the question of whether Congress will deepen this ultimately self-defeating alliance by deferring to Israel’s demands and reject this international effort for peace. Or will Congress oppose the Israeli government and endorse a deal that could help stabilize a Middle East whose volatility has transmogrified into constant chaos and violence, especially since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?

In terms of the “work of culture,” this is an opportunity for the US government to recognize the primitive character of its relationship to a Zionist Israel, which is evidenced historically by American kowtowing to Israeli hysteria and bullying5 and supporting Zionism’s racist policies—at high moral and security cost to the US. All these policies keep Israelis, Palestinians—and Americans—in the symbolically regressive terrain of aggression, vengeance and masochistic suffering.

To move in a progressive direction, Congress would support the deal, thereby helping to defuse the worst threat of its failure— an Israeli military attack on Iran and nuclear proliferation in the region (Israel already has nukes6). Of course Congress would likely “suffer”7 via AIPAC disfavor (e.g., by AIPAC’s undermining “unfaithful” political candidates like former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney; or withholding millions in campaign contributions), as well as bear accusations of anti-like that from Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee that the Iran nuclear deal “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

Actually, Huckabee’s allusion to the Nazi Holocaust is a good example of a politician relegating us—“citizen-symbolizers”— to dwell only in the regressive side of human experience— fear, aggression, unresolved suffering. There is no movement (language/action) to engage us in and through these distressing experiences with the aim of encouraging us toward the human potential for peace and cooperation that can exist (and has) even among diverse peoples.

However, if Congress were to support the deal, it would also be starting—however slowly— to disorganize the destructive nature of the US-Israeli alliance, reflect the opposition of a majority of Americans to providing special compensation to Israel over the deal,8 and to even echo Secretary Kerry’s tearful rendering of the agreement as a triumph of peace over war: “When I was 22, I went to war . . . .I went to war and it became clear to me that I never wanted to go to war again.”9


A second situation relevant to this discussion is the Confederate flag controversy that followed the murder of nine African- American members of Charleston’s historic Mother Emmanuel AME Church by the avowedly white racist Dylann Roof during a bible study meeting in the church into which he had been welcomed. While less obvious, the connection to the American- Israeli “special relationship” exists in the ignominious meanings of both flags: the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism, slavery and apartheid-like Jim Crow laws for African-Americans especially; and the Israeli flag, a symbol of dispossession, racism and apartheid particularly to Palestinians in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), or to millions of refugees world-wide.

The “work of culture” is clearly evident in this controversy.10 That flag, originally a symbol of resistance against the “North” by racist segregationists who wanted to protect the white privilege and superiority embodied in the enslavement of African- Americans, was revived by southern whites during the 20th century, particularly in response to the threat of abolishing Jim Crow laws by the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Public response to the murders focused on whether the Confederate flag should continue to fly atop the South Carolina (SC) statehouse in Charleston (as it had since 1961): supporters claimed it as a symbol of southern “pride” and “heritage”; opponents saw it as a symbol of racist hatred and slavery and should be eliminated from all public buildings.

Clearly, as a symbol, the Confederate flag is a regressive one, with little “symbolic remove” from those primitive motives and impulses that constituted it: hatred, aggression, inferiority, insecurity, and fear of the “other.” Whatever release of negative emotions is accomplished for those who would fly it, the release is superficial and temporary—the emotions neither digested nor transformed. Because the constituent elements of the flag resemble the underlying motives of its supporters—to enslave, to aggress, to be superior—the feelings evoked by the flag return, formatively unchanged.

And, at the extreme, this symbol of hatred can evoke hateful actions. Dylann Roof often appeared in photos with the Confederate flag.

Then, shortly after the June 17th murders, the SC legislature recognized it as a racist symbol and voted it off public grounds, with Republican Governor Nikki Haley signing the removal law on July 9, 2015. In the intense debates leading up to that vote, the “work of culture” became apparent. Wading through the pain and guilt associated with slavery and Jim Crow, the legislators struggled for 13 hours of contentious debate to find their way and did—in their vote. As SC State Rep. Jenny Horne said, the legislators must take “this symbol of hate off these grounds,” that it would be “adding insult to injury” to the victims’ families if the flag were allowed to continue flying. Haley herself described the process of transformation that had occurred: from the murders to profound expressions of forgiveness and prayer by the victims’ families which, in turn, Haley believed, led to compassion from the larger society, ultimately embodied in the action to remove the flag.11

The Confederate flag removal was a small symbolic gesture in the larger context of the US history of slavery. Racism goes on. But it does illustrate what doing the progressive “work of culture” can accomplish if governments were to engage it more.


Turning now to the Israeli flag and what it may mean for many—for Israelis, Palestinians, the US-Israeli relationship, for peace—when the symbolic constituents of this national emblem continue to be regressive as described above.12 The Israeli flag is a blue hexagram—the Star of David— between two blue horizontal stripes on a white background. The blue stripes represent those of the Ashkenazi tallit, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl; the Star of David, a symbol of the Jewish People, Judaism. Israel’s identity as Jewish and democratic, is oxymoronic since 25% of its citizens are non-Jews—mostly Palestinian Muslims and Christians—who suffer under an apartheid-like system that by law privileges Jews. How can this national symbol not be alienating to these non-Jewish Israelis, among others?

In addition to the fact that this flag represents such state actions as illegal military occupation and colonization—600,000+ Jewish settlers in the OPT with no end in sight—the flag originated after the First Zionist Congress of 1897. The Zionist movement’s aim was to create a Jewish state in a country that was already inhabited by Palestinians; a “Jewish” state which came into being by dispossessing the majority non-Jewish native population who owned 94% of the land in 1947; a “Jewish” regime that continues to violate international law by preventing the refugees from returning to their homes in Israel because they are not Jews.

Thus, this flag predominantly represents the regressive movement in symbolization we visited above, by constantly directing Jewish-Israelis and those with whom they would make peace (Palestinians), back to the earliest motivations and impulses in all human beings: fear/paranoia, greed, aggression, insecurity; fantasies of omnipotence, rejection of the “other,” and masochistic suffering that never ends. Like the Confederate flag, the constituent elements of the Israeli flag have little symbolic remove from the underlying motives of its Zionist supporters— to occupy/dispossess, to exclude (non-Jews)13, to aggress, and dominate. Again, the negative primal feelings are evoked by the flag return formatively unchanged. And in feedback fashion, the extreme actions derived from these feelings continue: the bombing of Gaza in 2014 and now, rejecting the peace offered by the Iran nuclear deal and opting for more conflict. By contrast, for change in a symbolically progressive direction, Israeli actions—the flag itself—would move a greater psychological distance from these primal motives and impulses.

The flag would have to become one depicting what’s so, the multicultural, de facto “one state” that now exists between the Mediterranean and River Jordan; the Israeli regime would change by choosing a democratic sharing of the land and cooperation over its current exclusivity and violence. In sum, a progressive symbol would, by definition, be consistent with the progressive actions it evoked.

Finally, Israel could move in a progressive direction if the U.S. takes a different stance:

Does the U.S. continue to encourage regression by giving Israel support for its bad behavior? Or do the US and Israel begin to acknowledge and suffer through the guilt and shame of the past, on the way to reorganizing its relationship toward supporting human rights and democracy for all, surely the only road to genuine security for all?

JustineJustine McCabe is a cultural anthropologist who worked in the Middle East and is now a clinical psychologist practicing in CT. She is a former co-chair of the United States Green Party’s International Committee

ENDNOTES 1 The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformations in Psychoanalysis And Anthropology. Gananath Obeyesekere, 1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2“What Indians And Palestinians Share” by Justine McCabe, published in New London, CT’s The Day, 5/29/2005 044A55451DE9 3 “Israel clears the Bench in Iran Fight,” by Robert Parry, July 24, 2015 4 During a conference call about the Iran agreement with CT constituents, July 16, 2015 5 “Israel Could Lose America’s Democrats for a Generation,” July 28, 2015. James Traub writes: “I found it astonishing that Kerry had answered a question about the most consequential diplomatic agreement the United States has signed over the last four decades as if he were the foreign minister of another country [i.e., Israel].” iran-nuclear-deal-john-kerry/ 6 “Nearly 65 percent of Americans believe Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program should be officially acknowledged. Almost 55 percent believe the program should be subject to international inspections.” June 8, 2015. be-acknowledged-and-inspected-300095382.html 7 This would be “transformative suffering,” which I have distinguished from “masochistic suffering” elsewhere. (See “The Role of Suffering in the Transformation of Self,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1991.) 8 “Poll: Most Americans oppose compensating Israel for Iran nuclear deal,” July 27, 2015; israel-for-iran-nuclear-deal-300118910.html; “Do Americans support the Iran deal? A lot depends on how they’re asked,” July 21, 2015 html 9 “As Kerry Recalled His War Experience at End of Iran Talks, ‘Everyone Had Tears in Their Eyes,’” July 15, 2015. end-iran-talks-everyone-had-tears 10 “Let’s Stop Pretending the Confederate Flag Isn’t a Symbol of Racism,” September 9, 2013 b_3876157.html 11 “South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s Must Watch Speech Before Signing Bill to Remove Confederate Flag from Capitol Grounds: VIDEO” July 9, 2015 confederate-flag-from-capitol-grounds-video (Haley acknowledges the inclusivity toward Roof by his victims: “Nine people took in someone they did not know, that did not look like them and in true love, and true faith, and true acceptance, they sat and prayed with him for an hour.”) 12 Of course this discussion also pertains to the American flag, which I consider in a more extensive paper from which this essay is drawn (“The U.S. Culture of Violence and the Work of Culture”). 13 “‘This is our Israel, this is for the Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel.’”: A Palestinian-American’s story of being detained at Ben-Gurion Airport.” (The link includes a picture of the Israeli flag at the airport): source=Mondoweiss+List&utm_campaign=bc21c47239-RSS_EMAIL_ CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b86bace129- bc21c47239-309259818


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