The group Dr. Lifton helped found, Friends of Courage to Refuse, is made up mostly of American Jews. It has pitted itself against the powerful array of pro-Israeli groups in the United States, most of which have what Dr. Lifton calls "an uncritical endorsement of Israel's aggressive policies against the Palestinians."
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON has spent his life studying people in extreme situations. He has written about Japanese survivors in Hiroshima, Vietnam veterans, Nazi doctors and members of terrorist cults. But he has also spent a lifetime as an activist, involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement and the antinuclear movement. The two activities, scholarship and activism, are for him intertwined. All of his work is infused with the struggle to live the moral life.
He and a number of colleagues have organized support in the United States for some 500 Israeli soldiers who have banded together in an organization called Courage to Refuse. These soldiers will not serve in the Israeli-occupied territories, saying they will no longer "dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people."
The group Dr. Lifton helped found, Friends of Courage to Refuse, is made up mostly of American Jews. It has pitted itself against the powerful array of pro-Israeli groups in
the United States, most of which have what Dr. Lifton calls "an uncritical endorsement of Israel's aggressive policies against the Palestinians." He and some 230 supporters
across the country have raised $5,000 to take out an ad this week in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz backing the Israeli resisters. And in this move, as in other grass-roots campaigns of the past, Dr. Lifton sees the kernel of a potent opposition "which could have
considerable influence beyond its numbers."
"When I worked with Vietnam veterans, I found them to have been placed in atrocity-producing situations," he said. "Soldiers found themselves in environments where the
structure of the conflict led them to commit atrocities.
"They were not bad people, not worse than you or me, but they were terrified. They were frustrated at not being able to find and destroy the enemy, at having their own men
killed. They developed an impulse to strike back at old men, children, women, laborers in a rice field, under the illusion that everyone, even those who were not armed, was
the enemy. This can happen when you combat a hostile population, when you fight an elusive opponent. It is what I see happening in the occupied territories."
As a psychiatrist, he views such conflicts as disastrous, not only for individuals but societies. Ordinary men, he said, "can all too readily be socialized to atrocity."
"These killing projects are never described as such," he said. "They are put in terms of the necessity of improving the world, of political and spiritual renewal. You cannot
kill large numbers of people without a claim to virtue. Our own campaign to rid the world of terror is expressed this way, as if once we destroy all terrorists we destroy evil."
Dr. Lifton, 76, is a distinguished professor emeritus from the City University of New York. He is now a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School. He spoke Sunday
afternoon at the Harvard Club in Manhattan, his shock of unruly white hair combed down over his ears.
He is married to the psychologist and writer Betty Jean Lifton and is the father of two grown children. He grew up in Brooklyn. He was deeply influenced by his father, a
politically progressive businessman who was a fervent atheist. As a teenager, Dr. Lifton was drawn to books about contemporary history, and most of his work, he said, has
been concerned with "history and the historical process."
He said that the fundamentalist Israelis and Palestinians, and most avid supporters of "the war on terror" in the United States, combine to further "the growing impulse
toward apocalyptic violence."
APOCALYPTIC violence is aimed at large-scale destruction to renew the world spiritually," he said. "You have this on the Israeli side with these religious groups that were fundamental in shaping the mind of the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. You have this among the Islamist fundamentalist groups like Hamas. But you also have this here in the United States among those who use the threat of terror to justify world domination militarily."
Dr. Lifton said such groups "act in concert," and "even though they denounce each other they contribute to the growth and power of their opponents."
"The mutual violence propels these apocalyptic groups to the center of their societies," he said, "and those that urge peaceful methods to solve conflicts are relegated to the fringes. The interaction of violent groups comes to dominate relations between opposing societies. Voices of restraint are increasingly excluded."
It is this drive for wholesale slaughter, made possible by the tools of modern industrial warfare, that he ultimately says he is fighting to thwart. And it is why he gives
importance to Courage to Refuse. These groups, he says, are a bulwark that can stop a slide into self-annihilation.
"Our own bellicosity is part of our effort to compensate for the weakness and vulnerability that came out of our defeat in Vietnam," he said. "We have built an alliance
with Israeli leaders who share our vision. This has become a unifying principle.
"A war on terror, without limits on time or place, brings us one step closer to the use of apocalyptic violence. Our technology, our nuclear weapons, has made all this a lot
easier. These weapons are apocalyptic in essence and bring this vision to the people who possess them. Islamist terrorists hunger for these weapons, maybe all the more so
because we continue to embrace them."
New York Times January 14, 2003