(November 28, 2022 / JNS) A recent op-ed on this site by Richard Cravatts on pro-Palestinian “activism” at Princeton University led me to consider one of the primary tactics used by such activists. It is a kind of discursive terrorism, based on a tactic widely employed by abusers the world over: emotional blackmail.
On its most debased level, emotional blackmail is the threat of brutal emotional reprisal: If the victim does not obey the perpetrator, the perpetrator will retaliate with rage or self-harm that the victim is unwilling to contemplate.
In its more sophisticated form, however, emotional blackmail is a means of psychological domination in which the perpetrator arrogates to himself the right to determine the moral quality of the victim. He then threatens the victim with a terrible judgment should the victim fail to submit to the perpetrator’s demands.
Cravatts describes this tactic as employed by Princeton’s pro-Palestinian activists. These activists make the claim that by engaging in any relationship with Israel at all, students become complicit in the Jewish state’s alleged atrocities. Attacks on students who take part in U.S.-Israel collaborative programs, for example, include rhetoric such as “Don’t make occupation your occupation” and “Your career is not worth supporting apartheid.”
To make one’s own decisions regarding one’s education, the blackmailers claim, is to become an occupier and an apartheidist. This is crude stuff but it often works on insecure young people desperate for the moral approval of their peers.
Indeed, this may be the most despicable aspect of emotional blackmail: It deliberately plays upon the victim’s specific weaknesses. It is not surprising that the blackmailers employ the tactic on college campuses. Students just emerging from adolescence and the protection of their parents tend to be insecure, uncertain of their self-worth and purpose in life. They are easy marks for ideological grooming and manipulation, not to mention abuse. Pro-Palestinian and other radical activists are well aware of this and quickly pounce on such people without any ethical compunction whatsoever.
On campus, moreover, students already tend to hold progressive values that have rendered them nearly helpless before such predators. Most have attended private schools where, if they are white, straight and/or “cisgender,” they have been taught that they are complicit in all manner of horrific crimes—that they have no moral worth whatsoever. Their only means of redemption is to take up the cause of their victims and stand with the designated “oppressed” at all costs. They are groomed to view themselves as morally compromised from birth and thus, ridden by guilt, become easy prey to the emotional blackmail of unscrupulous abusers.
In its more moderate form, this results in submission to the activist creed. But at its worst, it can have horrific consequences.
Norman Morrison was a member of the Quaker religious sect, in which personal morality is one of the highest values and judged by standards so stringent as to be essentially impossible for any mortal to fulfill. In 1965, driven by guilt over his inaction against the incipient Vietnam War, Morrison set himself on fire outside the Pentagon in an act of suicidal protest. Shortly before, he had written a letter declaring, “I must go to help the children of the priest’s village.”
Most horrifying of all, however, was that Morrison had brought his young daughter with him, and only at the last moment allowed her to escape into the arms of spectators. What he might have done had they not been there to take the child is terrible to contemplate.
In the anti-Israel context, there is the more recent case of Rachel Corrie. A college senior, Corrie became a member of the International Solidarity Movement, a terror-connected NGO that exploits foreign activists in service of the Palestinian cause. It is likely that she had already been indoctrinated in anti-Israel ideology, but the ISM almost certainly compounded it by orders of magnitude via a cult-like environment of hate.
Corrie lived for some time in Gaza, where she became infatuated with the people and decided that Israel was committing genocide against them, in which, as an American, she was complicit. In 2003, she knelt in front of an Israeli bulldozer, ostensibly in protest of a house demolition. The driver could not see her, and she was crushed to death.
She has, of course, become a martyr, and her letters and emails have been transformed into books and plays. Yet what they reveal is a deeply insecure and troubled young woman, possessed by existential guilt and desperate to redeem herself. Corrie’s death, in other words, was less a tragic accident than a kind of seppuku—a ritual suicide that she hoped, perhaps unconsciously, would be a moral expiation. She did not come to this conclusion on her own. She was the victim of unscrupulous people who wanted, or at least knew they were likely to acquire, a martyr.
One should not look away from what this means: Emotional blackmail kills. It is a kind of murder. Murder at third hand, perhaps, but murder nonetheless.
It is also part of a very ancient tradition. What the blackmailers are after, in the end, is the most primal of all forms of absolution: the human sacrifice. It is sometimes an emotional sacrifice, but far too often it is also physical.
From their origins in prehistory, such sacrifices were, almost invariably, expiatory acts. They were attempts to redeem a person or a community from their sins, to appease the gods and turn them away from stern judgment. And above all, such sacrifices made the victim a sacred object.
There are many among us, often young and vulnerable, who wish to become sacred objects and are told that if they sacrifice themselves, whether in life or in death, they will become so. It is tragic that many choose to believe this, but that does nothing to redeem those who lead them to the altar.
Judaism has always seen human sacrifice as an abomination, which indeed it is. We should not forget this admonition. No one, however righteous they consider themselves to be, has the right to demand such things from anyone. Like the priests of Moloch, those who use emotional blackmail of vulnerable individuals to achieve such an end stand accused.
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