In recent weeks I’ve had many conversations with friends from the United States, some while they were visiting in Israel, others through correspondence and phone calls. In all these talks the issue of Iran came up. “What do you think?” they asked me, the Israeli. “Are you afraid?”
Like many other confused lay people, I am unsure of what is right or wrong, and I choose to rely on one expert or another. I am increasingly resentful of the divisive and manipulative activities of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is pushing American Jews to a most uncomfortable place and making support for Israel a partisan issue. But am I afraid?
As I was formulating my response, I realized that there might be a gap between what the person was asking me and how I heard the question.
In one case, a liberal rabbi asked me this question with great anguish as we were having a festive Shabbat meal in Jerusalem. There was real concern in her voice, even pain. I searched inward and realized that I did not share in that anguish. I discovered that the two of us have two separate existential dispositions.
I am a third generation Israeli. My grandparents came here more than a hundred years ago. By doing so, they not only determined my fate, but also provided the conditions that enabled me to grow up without the type of existential fear that many Jews in the Diaspora experience. As someone who was born after 1948, I grew up on the foundations of nation building, war and conflict. I served in the military and participated in combat. I lived through terrible periods of terror.
But in all these situations, I never felt that my existence was at stake. I was aware of the dangers my loved ones and I could face, but I did not see them as a threat to our basic collective being. Similarly, when I travelled around the world, I did not feel an existential threat, even when there were known warnings.
I guess that in a way, I am a Zionist success story — or, to use A.B Yehoshua’s terminology, I became “normal.” So when I’m asked if I am afraid, I don’t feel the sense of anguish and concern that comes from the person asking the question. I feel at home.
My experience is supported by scores of data indicating that Israelis are known to be happy, to feel good about raising families in their country and to live long and healthy lives.
And yet, Israelis are not really normal. They might not be existentially afraid, but they have developed a deep sense of suspicion and even aggression toward everything that is not “us.”
In the 1970s, a popular song climbed high on the Israeli hit parade. It was called: Ha’Olam Kulo Negdenu (The Whole World is Against Us). The song describes in simple lyrics how the entire world resents us, and concludes by saying: We shall overcome; we don’t give a damn about them. Forty years later, not much has changed.
Social scientists and cultural experts have commented on the fact that Israelis live in a siege mentality, do not trust anyone and respond with excessive force when they feel intimidated and attacked. Israelis might not feel that their future is at stake, but they walk and talk with their hands on the trigger ready to fire. The occupation of Palestinian territories and the Israeli Arabs’ resentment of the Jewish domination of Israel have magnified the problem. Fundamentalist and religious isolationist ideologies add another layer to the resentment Israelis show toward the “other.”
Israelis might not be afraid, but they are surely repressing deep fears and insecurities. These insecurities cause many Israelis to be intolerant and xenophobic. The Israeli “success” may have cured us of the basic diasporic fear about a secure future, but in the present there remains a mentality of fear and mistrust of “others.” How ironic that, for most North American Jews today, there is little fear regarding the “other,” but there is an ongoing anxiety about the collective Jewish future.
In Israel, we are fairly confident in our future. We’re just not quite sure how to live together and manage our relationships with the world.
Dr. Elan Ezrachi is a Jerusalem-based consultant to International Jewish organizations and the interim CEO of Melitz.