In her essay on the Iliad, written in 1940, Simone Weil paints a dark picture of the role of force in human life. By “force” she means both killing people and using the threat of killing people to enslave them. Both versions turn their victim from a person into a thing. Killing turns the victim into a corpse. Enslavement destroys the victim’s inner life, leaving him able only to be and do whatever pleases his master. The picture is also dark because she sees force “today, as yesterday at the very centre of human history” and derides the “dreamers” who hope for an early escape from this. She praises the Iliad because force is its true hero, and so in this way is “the purest and loveliest of mirrors”. (REFERENCE TO The Iliad, or The Poem of Force.)

In Weil’s dark view, force destroys those who use it as well as its victims. People become intoxicated by their strength and power and do not recognise that the force they have is finite. Their own destruction seems impossible and they exceed the limits of their strength and power and so in turn go down to defeat. The war in the Iliad is “a continual game of seesaw”, with the victors one day being defeated the next day. So “violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch”. The essay was written before the time when Hitler, master of most of Europe, exceeded the limits of his power by attacking Russia. Simone Weil must have felt this case supported her analysis, as indeed it did.

But perhaps not all victors are as power-drunk as Hitler. The delusion of having infinite force is weak when applied as a general mechanism for explaining the kind of persisting violent conflict in which the next move of the seesaw brings the victors to defeat. Perhaps no single explanation fits all cases. This lecture looks at the Israel-Palestine conflict in rather different psychological terms: ones linked to Weil’s idea of uprootedness. Exile is linked to a cycle of violence. The causes of the conflict include economic ones and others that are not purely psychological. But there is a psychological component, an important part of which has to do with exile and the desire to avenge the humiliation and loss of self-respect.

Feelings in exile may never have been expressed with such poignant beauty as in Psalm 137: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? But the end of the psalm, with as much poetry, expresses a terrible thought:

“O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery: yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us. Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children: and throweth them against the stones.”


Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian philosopher who has campaigned for making peace with Israel, points out some of the effects of personal humiliation: “Humiliation has always been Israel’s most powerful weapon against us. From the Palestinian perspective, this can either lead to a stronger will and greater sense of autonomy, or destroy a person’s self-worth, tilling the soil for the nihilism of terrorists.” (REFERENCE TO SARI NUSSEIBEH: Once Upon a Country, a Palestinian Life.)

He brings out some of the links with violence. He quotes a study of people who had unsuccessfully tried to become suicide bombers. Interviews suggested that about 80 per cent were motivated by anger, depression and a desire for revenge. One woman volunteered because Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint had forced her at gunpoint to kiss a group of Arab men. Another was a thirty-five year old mother of five: “In the interrogation, she cited shame as her motivation. Soldiers had tried to strip her naked at a checkpoint and danced around with her as if she were an inflatable sex toy, and in front of a long line of cars and buses full of fellow Arabs. She preferred death, she explained, over having to face her own people after this, especially if she could take a few Israelis with her.” (REFERENCE.)


Remembered harm, betrayal and humiliation often play a large part in the narratives that motivate group conflict. In the aftermath of Yugoslavia, Serbs, Croats and Bosnians made repeated references to their group narratives. Each would remember being betrayed, ruled over, defeated or massacred by one of the other groups. The memories went back centuries. Some Serbs who commanded the war against Croatia, or who ran concentration camps for Croatians, had seen their own parents killed by Croatian fascists, or had been children in Croatian concentration camps. Serbian atrocities against Croatians were partly a backlash against these remembered other atrocities.

The backlash against the experience of defeat and occupation is apparent in the history of German nationalism. Johann Gottlieb Fichte gave his lectures Addresses to the German People in 1807 in French-occupied Berlin. The backlash was most striking after the defeat and harsh peace terms of 1918-19, with the forced acceptance of the humiliating “war guilt” clauses. It is impossible to read Mein Kampf without noticing Hitler’s constant boiling anger at all this. Expunging the humiliation of 1918 was a constant theme of Nazi propaganda, but it clearly found an echo in public opinion.

In the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, both sides see themselves as victims. Many Israelis not only see the Jewish people as victims of centuries of European anti-Semitism, culminating in Hitler’s genocide, but also see the hostility of all the Arab nations to the state of Israel as part of the same anti-Semitism. And some feel a degree of humiliation at what they perceive as the inadequate Jewish resistance to the Nazis. Palestinians see themselves as victims, driven out of their country to make room for Jews, and so being made to pay part of the price for Hitler’s crimes. They also feel humiliated by their defeats and by the Israeli occupation. It is not hard to see why the conflict is so stubbornly resistant to attempts to make peace.