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Why I left the cult

on 31 Comments

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
–From Easter, 1916, by WB Yeats

Dear Israel and Israeli Jews,

Maybe it’s pointless writing to you, and I guess I am not expecting a response. I am writing because I feel a certain sense of duty. After all I come from you, so maybe, maybe some of you might listen to me, might get curious, take a risk and entertain what is currently unthinkable to you.

I left what seems like a very long time ago, twenty-five years. I don’t think you’ve changed much since, except for the worse maybe. Psychologies like yours have the nasty habit of getting worse if left untreated. I always remember you as harsh, defensive, hot around the collar and ready to explode at every opportunity, loud and unforgiving. You had pockets of calm and maybe even kindness, but they were reserved for those who lived in the nicer greener places, and they had more money than we did.

I grew up in Bat-Yam and it was terrible there. It was an endless dense noisy mass of concrete; clumps of heavily populated blocks of thin-walled flats as far as the eye could see, separated only by bitumen roads. It’s not what you usually like to show the rest of the world, and it’s not what the rest of the world think of when they think of you. I grew up on Hashikma Street. What a cruel joke that was, naming that awful concrete dessert, Hashikma… ‘The Sycamore’. There were no trees there. During my childhood I had no idea what a shikma tree even looked like. Whoever these people were, did they think that by naming the street sycamore it would somehow make it better for those of us destined to spend our childhoods there? Did they think they could fool us into thinking it was nicer, more idyllic than it really was? All it did was tease and torment. The name of my street spoke to me of something I had no access to and that I thought I could never have.

This schizophrenic split between the name of the place and the reality of it is symbolic of your entire existence. Where I grew up wasn’t much different to many working class neighbourhoods elsewhere in the world, but I was always told that we were not the same as everyone else. We were special, we were better: more moral and ethical, more civilised. Don’t tell me you didn’t say that. I remember very well! I actually paid attention at school.

But with the mind of a child, I kind of sensed that we weren’t special at all. I suspect a lot of children who suffer abuse within their own families at the hands of their own people, develop doubts about their group. If you protected me better, maybe I would still be a part of you. But you couldn’t protect me or other children like me precisely because you are not who or what you say you are, a more enlightened and ethical people. You are a group of humans with gifts and with flaws, and with plenty of cowardice like every other group. You are no different from any human society that hides and even enables crimes against its own children, and that fails to protect the vulnerable in their midst.

A few years after I left you, I gradually began to realise that I was the same as any cult leaver. It was a shock, but looking back I wonder why I hadn’t seen it before. Then again, rarely can people inside a cult see where they are. If they could, the cult wouldn’t be what it is. They think that they are members of a special group that has a special destiny, and is always under threat. The survival of the cult is always the most important principle. Cult members are taught from birth that the world outside is dangerous, that they have to huddle together for safety. Every member of every cult is a recruit.

At this point you are probably going to say that cult or no cult, this was entirely justified. Have I forgotten the holocaust? No. Of course not. Persecution of Jewish people throughout history was very real indeed. Whatever Jewish identity is, Jews were a hated and despised group among many cultures in Europe, and Jews have always had an uneasy co-existence with non-Jews. Any marginalised or persecuted group has an uneasy relationship with the dominant culture. Once you have been discriminated against it’s hard to trust.

But two big things bother me about you. One, this history of persecution is so inseparable from your identity, you can’t see beyond it. Not even your most talented artists, academics, intellectuals and writers, can see beyond. You all seem to be caught up in it, except for a very small and extraordinary minority of people who can see Zionism for what it is. Anyone who has suffered trauma tends to feel separate and different. It’s human psychology once you have been abused, to feel that you are no longer the same as everyone else. But anyone who was abused and traumatised has a duty to get better and not allow the fear and the victimhood to become their identity. Those of us who were abused and traumatised have this duty because if we don’t heal, we either hurt ourselves or others, or both. That’s where you are and that’s what you are doing. You have not only allowed trauma to become your very identity, you have glorified it and are worshiping it as a god.

The second and even more important thing that bothers me is the crime you have committed and are still committing in the name of ‘our’ survival. You wanted a solution to the persecution of your group, and herein lies the problem. You decided to create a Jewish ghetto that you think of as a safe haven, on a land that was fully populated. You came in and took it, committed ethnic cleansing and are continuing to do so as we speak. I know you would not feel that you have completed your mission until you have all the land without the people.

You are a product of settler-colonialism, a state created through the removal and the elimination of the people who lived in the territory before you. The relationship you developed with your victims, the Palestinians, bears all the hallmarks of a relationship between settler-colonisers and those they wish to eliminate from existence. Settler-colonisers don’t just remove people off their land. They remove their historical places, monuments, evidence of their history oral and physical, all traces of their existence… If there is no victim, there is no crime. If the territory is cleansed of the character given to it by those who lived there, it is open to take on a new one.

I know what it’s like to be blind to the fact that you are settler-colonisers, people who are committing a terrible crime. You cannot see yourself as the ‘bad guy’ here. You are so steeped in your self-created myth, that you always were and always will be the most tragic victim in the story of humanity. I once was one of you and I know that it is practically impossible to see through your reasoning: ‘We merely returned to our ancestral home. We just want to live in peace with our own people. What’s wrong with that? Why don’t others let us live in peace?’

There is a powerful force field, some kind of a lead-lined shield inside you, that protects your belief from the truth, from reality. You don’t deny that you ‘came back’ and settled the land, you just can’t see what it means. So let me spell it out for you one more time. When a group of people comes into a territory (no matter their reason), removes the indigenous people and takes their land and resources, it’s called settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialism is immoral and it is a crime against humanity. Victims don’t always go silently into the night, so crimes have to continue to be committed until the victims’ resistance and defiance are crushed and they disappear from view and memory. There is nothing original or special about what you are, or what you are doing. You are like all other settler-colonisers before you. Not even your capacity for self-deception and your deception of others are particularly special. It’s been done before. There is nothing special about you at all.

Let’s say you did ‘return home’ as your myths say, that Palestine really was your ancestral home. But Palestine was fully populated when you started to covet it. In order to take it for yourself you have been following quite closely the Biblical dictate to Joshua to just walk in and take everything. You killed, you expelled, you raped, you stole, you burned and destroyed and you replaced the population with your own people. I was always taught that the Zionist movement was largely non-religious (How you can be Jewish without Jewish religion is perplexing in itself). For a supposedly non-religious movement it’s extraordinary how closely Zionism — your creator and your blueprint — has followed the Bible. Of course you never dare to critique the stories of the Bible. Not even the secular amongst you do that. None of my otherwise good teachers at my secular schools ever suggested that we question the morality of what Joshua did. If we were able to question it, the logical next step would have been to question Zionism, its crimes, and the rightness of the existence of our very own state. No, we couldn’t be allowed to go that far. It was too dangerous. That would risk the precarious structure that held us in place.

So like all cults that have ever existed, and those that will no doubt continue to be created, you live in self-imposed blindness. You create and recreate a picture of reality that is filled with holes, but you are OK with that. The possibility of filling those holes brings you face-to-face with your mortal terrors, your morbid fear of annihilation. And you can’t bear it. I know what annihilation means to you. It doesn’t just mean killing. Annihilation means that the Jewish people, that Jewishness itself would no longer exist. To you ‘assimilation’ is also annihilation. They taught us that at school. We were taught that assimilation was despicable, cowardly, treacherous to our people. Whenever Jewish people marry non-Jews in their own countries, and when all traces of Jewishness, whatever it is, become diluted, you worry. You think it’s the end. Because there are no individuals, only the group, when the group goes individuals go too. So you feel any perceived threat to the group as a personal threat to each one of you. That’s why you cry antisemitism so readily and reflexively, whenever you perceive the slightest threat to your cult state.

Abigail Abarbanel today

Abigail Abarbanel today

I left the cult because I wanted to find out who I was. I refused to accept that the only purpose of my life was to defend the cult and allow it to continue. It’s human, it’s mammal, to allow one’s identity to be subsumed by the group, but it doesn’t make for a good life. We survived as mammals partly because we lived in groups. Without the group around them, individuals probably died out in the harsh world our ancestors lived in. Your psychology is nothing more than simple cave/herd psychology and it’s not unique to you. But we as a species have the capacity for so much more. In the world we live in now, our survival depends on transcending our natural base instincts. We can develop and use the moral and ethical part of our brain, the part that gives us self-awareness and concern for others, the part that can take responsibility for our own sins and crimes and can make amends. Our salvation is not in our own little groups any more, but together as one species.

Come on, leave the cult and the ghetto mentality behind, join the human race, do the right thing. You want to be really special, to fulfil a special destiny? By all means! Lead the way to enlightenment by owning up, repenting and making amends, by transforming your identity into something healthy and positive. Show what can be achieved when we are more than frightened mammals…

I don’t expect you to hear me or to see what you cannot see. You are experts at indoctrination and are too deeply steeped in your fear-based picture of reality. You are a great disappointment to me. That’s why I support the BDS against you. If you don’t stop yourself, someone has to.

Avigail Abarbanel

Avigail Abarbanel was born and raised in Israel. She moved to Australia in 1991 and now lives in the north of Scotland. She works as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice and is an activist for Palestinian rights. She is the editor of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).

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31 Responses

  1. DICKERSON3870 on October 12, 2016, 3:17 am

    That childhood photo of Ms Ababarnel brings to mind the word precocious.

    • Avigail on October 12, 2016, 3:23 am

      Thank you. That’s really lovely of you to say!

      • JLewisDickerson on October 17, 2016, 12:28 am

        Of course, my heart will always belong to Sweden’s Pippi Longstocking.

      • RoHa on October 17, 2016, 1:00 am
      • Mooser on October 17, 2016, 2:24 pm

        I have a hard time deciding between Pippi Longstocking and Sailor Moon.

      • RoHa on October 17, 2016, 7:01 pm

        I prefer Sailor Moon, but I’d get arrested if I told you why.

      • Mooser on October 18, 2016, 1:21 pm

        “I prefer Sailor Moon, but I’d get arrested if I told you why.”

        Then don’t. It makes us all accessories to the offense. But I ‘ll know better than to bring it up in the future.

    • Mooser on October 16, 2016, 12:41 pm

      And, for that matter “precious”. Take it away, Maurice!

  2. jon s on October 12, 2016, 3:19 pm


  3. RoHa on October 15, 2016, 11:15 pm

    “It’s human psychology once you have been abused, to feel that you are no longer the same as everyone else. ”

    1. The majority of living Jews, including Israeli Jews, have never been abused, oppressed, or persecuted by Gentiles.

    2. I thought that the belief that you are not, and never were, the same as everyone else was a core principle of Jewishness. In my opinion, instilling this belief is a form of abuse.

    • eugene weixel on October 28, 2016, 6:08 am

      Actually outside of Israel a Jew may be molested in some usually slight way by a non Jew.

      Thing is, it’s not all that unique. However when you’re raised to believe that at any time you might be put on a cattle car by your neighbors and sent to a death camp then any slight, real or imagined can be a traumatic experience.

    • Avigail on October 29, 2016, 5:58 am

      @RoHa — You are absolutely right and people keep telling me this. However, it is possible to pass on trauma without abusing the person. It’s enough to grow up with parents who have it for a child to develop it too, even if they have never had anything done to them directly.

      Our limbic (mammalian) brain works, is primed for fear. Nothing gets wired more effectively and more quickly into our limbic brain than an experience that involves fear. Humans have survived not only because we have been able to generalise and make predictions from our own experience, but also because we have learned from the stories of others. We learn the most from those we are attached to the most and whom we perceive as vital to our own survival.

      If you know Jewish religion and also Israeli culture, you’d see that they are both designed to create trauma in subsequent generations, albeit unconsciously. Trauma is the core of Jewish and (by extension) Jewish-Israeli identity. It’s actually human, rather than particularly Jewish. But Jewishness as a perfect example of how this works. When I broke away I didn’t just break away from a political ideology, I broke away from a psychology that taught me that I am supposed to live in fear because I am Jewish. I decided that even if the world was indeed hostile to Jews (which I do not believe and which was not what I found when I left Israel), I still wanted to live a full life that was not defined by fear and suspicion of anyone who wasn’t Jewish.

      In family therapy we talk about ‘multigenerational transmission’ of trauma and also in neuroscience. Like I said above, it is not necessary to have experienced abuse directly to fear it.

      • fasten on October 31, 2016, 1:02 pm

        It has been shown in animals that trauma in a previous generation sometimes leaves an in-built aversion to similar experiences in subsequent generations of mice, but they still behave for the most part as mice who haven’t been traumatised. Abuse victims on the other hand usually are more protective towards others, although some become abusers themselves, having been desensitised to compassion as a human quality. Perhaps the tribalism referred to here is a defensive reflex. I’m not sure. The continued teaching of the Book of Esther shows that putting the tribe before King and country is still taught as a ‘good’ example for the Diaspora. Christian countries do not know this story from the Old Testament. Integration is better for humanity as a whole as Jewish people make a valued contribution wherever they feel that they belong

  4. Mooser on October 17, 2016, 2:12 pm

    “2. I thought that the belief that you are not, and never were, the same as everyone else was a core principle of Jewishness”

    Yes, that’s probably what you think. That’s why you said it.

    • RoHa on October 17, 2016, 7:06 pm

      And in the hope that, if I am wrong, someone will correct me.

      • Mooser on October 18, 2016, 1:23 pm

        “And in the hope that, if I am wrong, someone will correct me.”

        Why bother? You are the only one who can do that.

      • RoHa on October 18, 2016, 8:38 pm

        I see nothing to make me change my idea, but mine is an outsider’s view. If someone with a bit of inside knowledge were to pass it on, that could be a reason for me to change.

      • Mooser on October 29, 2016, 3:28 pm

        “I see nothing to make me change my idea, but mine is an outsider’s view.”

        An “outsider”?, To a facet (if not the most admirable) of the human condition? You think ethnocentrism, and making a cult of it, is unique to Jews?


  5. contributor on October 18, 2016, 3:06 pm

    another test

  6. genesto on October 21, 2016, 5:59 pm

    Beautifully written, Avigail! What you say challenges even the most sacred of the myths surrounding the birth of the Jewish state. For this, I’m sure you have been, and will be, viciously attacked. Freedom, as you well know, comes with a price – sometimes a very costly one.

    My heart goes out to you for making such an honest and courageous statement. I’ll make sure my Jewish wife, who is already an enlightened anti-Zionist and has also paid a price for her alienation from the Tribe, reads this. I’m sure it will bring a tear to her eye.

    • Avigail on October 29, 2016, 6:06 am


      Thank you — that’s very kind of you. The truth is that I am paying a relatively small price compared with what the Palestinians are going through. Yes, it’s unpleasant sometimes and it’s not nice to be completely cut off from anyone with whom I have something of a shared history. I have been inundated with abusive PMs on Facebook in the past few days and it’s not great.

      But I have to say it doesn’t affect me much at all. I remember when I first started, I used to get death threats back in Australia for saying a lot less than what I say in this article. When I first started I was pro-Palestinian but I wasn’t yet the anti-Zionist that I am now. Back then I was a novice and had no idea that this would be the reaction. It shocked me. But it validates what I say, that Jewishness and Zionism are a cult.

      I am so pleased to hear about your wife, and well done to her. I am sorry about the price she is paying for insisting on living according to her values. Because Jewishness is a cult, after all, there is a cost to attempting to leave it or to openly criticising it to the rest of the world. Just watch what any cult out there does to those who question or try to leave… It’s all there for everyone to see. Groups that don’t have a cult mentality, don’t behave this way.

      Your wife might find some comfort in my 2012 edited book (sorry for plugging it here) Beyond Tribal Loyalties – Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists. There are 25 stories there including my own, by Jews from five countries. We are all reflecting on our journey out of Zionism, or at least out of automatic support for Israel ‘no matter what’. They are not all ‘there’ yet, but it’s interesting to trace the emotional and psychological journey, and I do believe the book validates and supports others who have been or are on the same journey.

  7. Avigail on November 4, 2016, 4:52 am

    On the off chance anyone is still reading this… I thought I’d share this directly from my Facebook page. It’s another somewhat poetic ‘gem’ (see below) I received just now in response to my ‘open letter’ article. It came by PM and it’s from a woman (not a FB friend) with an Israeli-sounding name. I won’t share her name. But haven’t blocked her yet so if she looks, she’ll be able to see this post here because it’s public.

    The reason I am engaging with this here is mainly for the benefit of those who might still be feeling a bit confused about Israel and believe that Israeli Jews can be reasoned with about Palestine. I know this is just one example but it is typical of mainstream Jewish Israel.
    This woman’s protective psychological mechanism is powerful. She clearly wrestled with what I said, but couldn’t cope with the uncomfortable feelings it must have triggered in her. So she had to conclude that I’m either insane or desperately unhappy. After all, to be outside the cult you couldn’t possibly be happy or ok… Many other cults believe exactly that. This way she and other cult members can dismiss my words (and any challenge to the cult) as the mindless, pathetic ramblings of a sad, insane creature, and not take any notice of them. Because I’m from there, I’m seen as insane and pathetic. Non Jews who challenge Israel, are of course dismissed as antisemites, which in Israel is also seen as a form of profound insanity.

    Note how there is no engagement whatsoever with any of the substance of my article, only with my ‘character’ and possible motivation for writing it. Note also how her notions of compassion and sensitivity are limited only to her own group.

    The (my) leaving of the cult is really the big issue for her. One that according to her I should keep secret and not talk about so openly and without any show of shame or guilt! I recognise this way of thinking so well. In Judaism there is a law that if a Jew converts, the entire community has to pretend they’re dead, perform the Shiv’ah mourning ritual and never speak to them again (there’s an example of this in Fiddler On the Roof). It’s so clear how the Zionist cult continues the exact same tradition. But then again it’s standard cult practice and by no means unique to Jews.
    What can I say in response? ‘No, I’m actually a happy person and am doing quite well really’?… It’s not only pointless, it’s also shaking this woman’s defences, which for now, she obviously needs. But can you see how cults operate, how well they colonise their members’ minds? There is no individuality or individual identity. Only the group matters. This is a perfect example.

    FB PM text:

    “I can’t be your friend or your enemy. I only pity you. To drop to this level of insensitivity toward other human beings means insanity. Well the entire world as it seems suffers from a stronghold of insanity. Muslims are killing each other; some Jews grew up to become their own enemies. Compassion has deserted the earth…but you personally if you really mean what you said in your post, are frolicking with insanity, since a normal person who is so happy to leave her country and fellowmen and dwell in Scotland… what kind of satisfaction do you get when you scream it to the heavens? A happy person is the one who is so afraid to jeopardize it and keeps it jealously secret… You are howling like hungry wolves in the wilderness… You couldn’t convince me… Thus I conclude that you are indeed a very poor and miserable person, very much unhappy, and the only resource left to you is to target your own roots. Are you happy? No, absolutely not… You very badly sick to the point of losing all common sense.”

    • MHughes976 on November 4, 2016, 8:42 am

      There seems to be no argument here and the intention to insult seems somehow to melt into an overwhelming sense of self-pity. ‘A happy person is the one who is so afraid to jeopardise it keeps it jealously secret’ associates happiness with fear and isolation quite alarmingly. Whereas you always come across as quite cheerful.

    • echinococcus on November 4, 2016, 10:44 am

      In Judaism there is a law that if a Jew converts, the entire community has to pretend they’re dead, perform the Shiv’ah mourning ritual and never speak to them again

      That’s another textbook case to establish the strictly tribal-racial character of Judaism, really. I don’t know if there is any known case of anybody sitting shiva over any atheists, be they so flamingly Bolshevik, as long as they do not officially join another established church. Or marry an equally atheistic person who happens to be born “in” another church.

      I suppose that is still the shell-shock of a nomadic pastoral tribe discovering the universalist religions. Non-proselytizing group that recognizes polytheism while banning the cult of all gods but the special tribal one under death penalty. They are still there, no matter all the later frills, the one-way conversion permits, the pretend-universalist statements to adapt to some impartial morals. It’s all really repellent to the religion, it’s still a covenant with a tribal god who’ll protect the biological brethren against the gods of the other tribes –the nations.
      Hence Zionism.

      The other observation that’s really stomach-churning is that it seems way easier to discard all religious superstition than tribal belonging. While we have millions of cases of people calling themselves “Jewish” with no religion at all, the converse, of a religious Jew having no tribal loyalties at all, is rarer than a white elephant.

    • Mooser on November 4, 2016, 2:24 pm

      ” I can’t be…/… losing all common sense.”

      People shouldn’t get near a keyboard during a Ziocaine Syndrome Episode. The results are unfortunate.

      • Avigail on November 5, 2016, 9:59 am

        @Mooser — :)

      • Mooser on November 5, 2016, 12:18 pm

        Yes, I know, the name is misleading. But it is not unusual for early researchers to go down the wrong path and bark up the wrong tree. The remarkable resemblance of Ziocaine Syndrome episodes to the effects of continuous alcohol and cocaine abuse on the character gave rise to the name “Ziocaine”. More stricter inquiry now points us to the conclusion that it is entirely a disabling behavioral syndrome. With all the mishegos that implies.
        I took a Red Cross First Aid class (I was the injured dummy) so I know about this medical stuff.

  8. Somervillein on July 31, 2019, 11:43 pm

    It is almost 3 years since you wrote this article, but I have just discovered it and want to congratulate you on your liberation from the “cult,” as well as warning the world about it. I have just ordered your book, “Beyond Tribal Loyalties,” which will complement the recent “Reclaiming Judaism from Ziionism” by Carolyn L. Karcher. Best wishes for peace and happiness, based on reason and justice, to YOU and everyone!

  9. philip.mcfedries on October 24, 2019, 2:59 am

    Thank you so much for your ‘letter’. I grew up in a cultish church and leaving was traumatic – that was long ago now. Recently, since 2014. I have been an activist for Palestinian rights with all the ups and downs of this fraught issue. Your letter has helped me perhaps more than anything else I have come across to understand what we are up against. It’s going to be [and is] one hell of a fight!

    • Mooser on October 25, 2019, 12:48 am

      What a wonderful comment. I hope Ms. Abarbanel sees it.

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