Culture of fear
History has handed the
Jewish people the fear of annihilation on a plate – but while the fear exists,
what is feared may not
This morning I was invited to speak to a group of senior
aid workers who are keen to approach both the Israeli and diaspora Jewish
communities with their latest campaign. They are, understandably, apprehensive
about the best way to proceed, given the minefield that exists under the feet
of anyone seeking to criticise elements of Israel's policies.
We talked about the most effective way to open people's
eyes to the reality of the occupation, in order to bring home the truth of what
is being perpetrated in the name of Israel's security. Given the volte face
that I've performed since moving to Israel four years ago, I was asked to
describe my most influential experience thus far, in terms of providing a
catalyst to the political journey upon which I've embarked.
Without hesitation, I replied that it had been my illicit
trip to Bethlehem during a weekend furlough from the army. Our unit was serving
in the city at the time, and – until then – I had been conditioned to see the
residents as potential terrorists who had to be dealt with accordingly in order
to avert a deadly threat to our safety.
With no M16 by my side or grenade in my pack, I passed
through the checkpoint and took my first tentative steps on so-called enemy
terrain. In jeans and a T-shirt, I walked the same streets of the Aida refugee camp that a day earlier I'd
been patrolling armed to the teeth and with five other soldiers backing me up.
I gazed casually at the same windows and doors at which I'd
previously had to stare, hawk-like, in case a gunman or bomber should burst out
and attack our squad. I looked calmly at the same gangs of youths who, when I
was in uniform, I'd had to judge in an instant – whether they were benignly
intentioned or baying for my blood.
The fear instilled in me by the army all but dissipated
once I was simply a tourist strolling through the town. Conversely, the more
weaponry and protective gear I carried, the more terrifying the place became
which, it dawned on me, was a distillation of Israel's core and eternal paradox
– one that has dogged it since the moment the state was created.
For there to be a justification for Israel's existence,
there first has to exist an existential threat to the Jewish people. Granted,
history has handed us that fear of annihilation on a plate, but just because
the fear exists, it doesn't necessarily follow that what is feared does too.
A prominent narrative of the Jewish tradition is that, in
every generation, a manifestation of Amalek will attempt to wipe out the Jewish
people, just as the original marauding Amalekites did during the Jews' exodus
from Egypt. The Romans, Babylonians, Greeks, Soviets and Nazis have all,
understandably, been christened modern-day Amalekites – and now Iran is being
touted as the most recent member of the millennia-old dynasty.
Fear of extermination is the ace in the Jewish pack of
emotions, and has been capitalised on in spades by the virulent strain of
nationalism encapsulated in today's Zionism. Occupy an entire people and crush
their hopes and dreams for 40 years? A necessary evil – if we don't then we're
done for. Fly in the face of international law, basic morality, and even the
central tenets of our own, ostensibly compassionate, religion? Sorry, but you
have to understand that "they" all want us dead; it's us or them,
from now until eternity.
It's almost irrelevant who "they" are. One day
it's the Palestinians for daring to try to shake off the yoke of oppression;
the next it's the European left for having the nerve to intercede on behalf of
justice and decency. "They" can be a lone gunman, such as Norman Finkelstein or
"they" can be a billion people, such as the world's entire Muslim
population, conveniently repackaged as one homogenous group based on spurious
Concrete walls are built between "us" and
"them"; orders are given banning Israelis from crossing the divide
into PA territory – all under the banner of protecting the security of
Israelis. In reality, however, they are merely an insidious attempt to
hermetically seal Israel off from the outside world and convince the Israelis
that it's an unavoidable measure to take.
Those of us who've come, seen, and conquered our
preconceptions of the Palestinian street know full well that the canards being
propagated are simply preposterous. Of course, there are some very angry, very
violent militants among the Palestinian people, but so too are there similarly
dangerous elements in Israeli society, as well as in every ethnic group around
The reaction amongst my Israeli friends when they hear of
my trips to Jenin, Ramallah or Bethlehem is usually one of abject horror that I
even set foot inside the cities, let alone met the locals and visited them in
their homes. "They'd kill you if they knew you were Jewish," they
cry, utterly convinced that a Palestinian wolf lies behind every refugee camp
door. The truth is far different, of course; almost everyone I meet knows I am
both Jewish and Israeli, and – thus far – I've been neither beaten, beheaded
nor bludgeoned to death.
It's totally understandable why the mythology and
misconceptions flourish unchecked amongst the Israeli man on the street, or in
the diaspora Jewish community. In the vacuum left by enforced separation
between Jews and Palestinians, rampant fabrication runs riot, and fiction
becomes truth in the minds of the masses. It's also understandable that the
government encourages and promotes such fairy tales, in order to garner support
for their never ending policies of irredentism and subjugation.
But just because it's understandable doesn't make it in any
way acceptable. Morals and ethics are crushed under the wheels of the
nationalist juggernaut, and what would be entirely unpalatable in any other
circumstance becomes not only tolerated by society, but actively encouraged by
the Israeli electorate and their cheerleaders around the world.
By continuing to provoke and bully the Palestinians, they
create what they fear. Another generation branded Amalekites: another reason
for Israelis to circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and convince
themselves that it is simply their lot to be eternally hated and reviled. And
no amount of well-intentioned pressure can ever be sufficient to penetrate the
calcified layer of mistrust between the Jewish people and the outside world.
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