Settlement poster boy and 'Jewish Home' party chief Naftali Bennet is a big winner of the Israeli-Hamas violence

Settlement poster boy and ‘Jewish Home’ party chief Naftali Bennet is a big winner of the Israeli-Hamas violence

Introduction 

The extant Hamas-Israel showdown is inflicting many casualties. But what could be the greatest of them all may manifest in renewed support for Israel’s right-wing political hawks and the concomitant death of the peace movement.

In the preceding months public opinion polls consistently, albeit to varying degrees, indicated a redoubling of electoral support for some of Israel’s most zealous nationalist and religious-nationalist parties; the settler lobbyist ‘Jewish Home’ — chaired by the enfant terrible Naftali~“there is no room in our small but wonderful God-given tract for another state”~Bennet — is notable among them.

To be sure, such polls—some of which have religious-right bloc increasing their parliamentary share from 61 to 78 out of 120 seats (when factoring in the expected entrance of the new right-wing Kachalon party)—are mere snapshots of momentary sentiment. Plenty can change between now and the next (early) election, which many anticipate will occur in about a year. However, several bellwethers foreshadow the Right’s indefinite political stranglehold.

Going Right

For starters, Israel’s population is at once relatively young (median age of 29; by comparison the US sits at 36) and more ‘right-wing’ than ever before. From 1998-2010, among Israelis in the 15-24-age bracket, those who aligned politically with the right skyrocketed from 48% to 62% while contemporaneously, support for the ‘Left’ plunged from 32% to 12%. And in the last (2013) election, two-thirds of first time voters defined themselves as ‘right-wingers’, as did 58% of those under the age of 35.

Regrettably, this political shift has translated into increasing chauvinism—if not outright racism. For instance, 54% of Israelis under 35—including a foreboding 57.7% of the 18-24 bracket–either agreed ‘totally’ or ‘somewhat’ that the government should encourage Israeli-Arab citizens to leave Israel.

Such sentiment appears to equate with similar spikes in the general population. For instance, in the same forgoing 2013 survey: 52.4% of Israeli-Jews agreed that ‘harsh public criticism of the state should be prohibited’ (up from 41.8% in 2007); 48.9% believed that Jews should have ‘more rights’ than non-Jewish citizens (up from 35.9% in 2009); and 47.6% responded that it would bother them to have Arabs as neighbors (up from 44.8% in 2010)

It was thus surprising that centrist ‘Yeish Atid’ party chief Yair Lapid penned an article recently arguing that “the real Israeli discourse, which is shared by 99% of the state’s residents, is not filled with hatred towards one’s fellowman, does not silence people, and knows how to agree even when it’s okay not to agree.” He must be living in an alternate universe.  

Going Right and Religious

Mediating the trend above is a crescendo in Jewish-Israeli religiosity; which one scholar suggests is transforming the country “into the world’s most religious country” (though I’m sure the Saudis would object).

Indeed, a country whose founding fathers were Atheist is now home to a Jewish demographic  wherein only 43% are ‘secular’. What’s more, even the forgoing aren’t even that ‘secular; a sizable minority (42.2%) ‘very strongly’ or ‘quite strongly’ adopt the biblical narrative that Jews are God’s ‘chosen people’ juxtaposed with 64.3% of the general population. Tellingly, a robust and positive correlation was found between “the rightward tilt of respondents on political/security issues” and the their belief “in the uniqueness of the Jewish people.”

The prevalence of these religious verities is part of a decade long trend. For example the Jewish belief in their ‘chosenness’ jumped 8% (to 70%) over a 10-year span (1999-2009), while belief in ‘the coming of the Messiah’ and the ‘Torah and precepts” as ‘God-given’ scriptures increased 10% (to 55%) and 6% (to 69%) respectively.

There are several ways of assaying this religious awakening. One is pretty intuitive; succinctly, the most devout segment of Israeli society—the Ultra-Orthodox or Haredim—has been popping out far more babies (7 vs. 2.3 per secular/moderately religious couples) than anyone else. So while Israeli youth as a whole have become more right wing and religious, Haredim–whose median age is 20—claim much of it (20% of those under 20.)

Yet if we broaden the scope of ‘religious’ to include those who accept the Jewish biblical narrative —i.e. they ascribe validity to Jewish providence and holiness–Haredi fecundity alone cannot explain the groundswell of such convictions.

An alternative variable is needed to fill the gap: the psychological impact of the 2nd Intifada.

Terror Management Theory and the 2nd Intifada

The aftermath of the 2001 Sbarro Restaurant bombing

The aftermath of the 2001 Sbarro Restaurant bombing

Decades of research have demonstrated that when “reminded of death, people’s collective self-definitions become more important, and they adhere more strongly to their cultural worldviews and defend these views if necessary.” In other words, the exposure to death—whether directly or vicariously—prompts us to disquietingly contemplate our own.  Coping with the resulting existential-anxiety, humans find sanctuary in moorings that “provide meaning, purpose, value, and hope of either literal symbolic mortality, through either an afterlife or a connection to something greater than oneself that transcends one’s mortal existence.”

Unsurprisingly, such recourse often culminates through an increased “investment in core religious symbols, self reported religiosity, and [the] belief in divine intervention.”

That said Israel’s pre-adolescents and young adults of today grew up in a period whereby a miasma of death pervaded the air. Between 2000-2005 Palestinian terrorist-groups launched a total of 141 suicide bombings that claimed the lives of 1,000 Israelis; a casualty count only exceeded by the 1948 and 73 wars. In March 2002 (aka ‘Black March’) the attacks crescendoed to an average of 1 every other day—among them the infamous ‘Passover massacre’.

Israeli society–particularly the inchoate brains of its youth–was scarred. One could never know whether a simple farewell or even a slice of pizza would be the last.

Although the end of the intifada provided a much-needed respite, it was soon cut short by a summer encore of terror. Four thousand Hezbollah rockets paralyzed the lives of over 1 million Israelis; forty-four of which (on top of the 121 killed in battle) wouldn’t be around to sift through the rubble.

By 2009, jibing with the other religiosity barometers above, 60% of Israelis believed in the afterlife–an uptick of 6% since 1999; the highest aggregate in roughly 2 decades—and 72% believed in the ‘power of prayer.’ While not apodictic, it’s reasonable to assume that the decade of macabre convulsions left many Israelis terrified of death and pining for existential solace that would inject order into the snafu of life.

A renewed embrace of biblical folklore and the exalting eschatological absolutes they bestow was just the antidote; a God who cherished the Jews—his children–above all else and would never abandon them. As is canonized and recited every year at the Jewish Passover table: “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

Seen through this ontological lens, the Arabs become the latest machinators of Jewish extinction—just like the Nazis and Persians before them. But try as they may—as they had in 1948, 67, and 73–they’ll never succeed. After all, they’re fighting God’s chosen on their own God given turf.

While such shibboleths simplify a complex reality and afford comforting aplomb in the face of frightening existential uncertainty, they’re also pernicious to the prospects of peace. A bevy of studies have established a negative correlation between religiosity and amenability towards political compromise vis-à-vis an ethnic ‘other’. This was confirmed yet again in a 2010 survey in which 55% of a combined group of traditional, religious, and Haredi adolescents (15-18) and young adults (21-24) preferred the political status-quo—i.e. the occupation—over a two-state solution; by contrast, such was the view of 33% of seculars.

The Religionization of the IDF

Soldiers_praying_beside_an_armored_personnel_carrier_unit_130

The religious-nationalist renaissance of Israeli youth is at once a corollary and a stimulus of an increasingly pious military. Today, almost half (up from 2.5% in 1990) of Israeli infantry officers are ‘national religious’, many of whom were trained in “pre-army academies that teach Judaism, Jewish history, as well as physical training and military subjects.”

This growth was partly by design; the wave of liberalization that overtook Israeli society in 80s and 90s—a bi-product of economic liberalization and public outcry over the contentious 1982 Lebanon War—undermined the ‘warrior-spirit’ of its secular military aged youth. Breaking from the past, many started opting out of serving in combat units—some from serving altogether.

Confronting shortfalls in motivated manpower, the military leaned heavily on the religious establishment—which typically discouraged army service in favor of full-time religious learning–“to provide it with high-quality personnel”.

But the latter’s assent came with some strings attached; chief among them, “the expansion of the role of military chaplains from the traditional role of providing religious services, to the religious socialization of secular soldiers, while partly supplanting the relatively liberal Education Corps.”

It was an ostensible win-win situation; the army could replenish its ranks while incorporating a new curriculum that would impart “religious values to motivate sacrifice among secular conscripts.”

Thus, in 2002 the Chief of the General Staff enlisted ‘Beit Morasha’, a center for Judaic studies, to formulate a pedagogy that the IDF Education Corps could use to strengthen Jewish identity and enhance “the connection of commanders and soldiers to their land, values, heritage and people, thereby filling a vacuum apparently identified in the secular school system.”

Another watershed came in 2006, when Brigadier General Avi Ronsky, a settler from the West Bank, was appointed as the IDF’s Chief Rabbi whose self-avowed mission was to “reconnect the soldiers with the values of Judaism,” thereby rectifying what he viewed was a crisis of secular Zionism.

Unfortunately, by treating one problem, the Army was creating another: a growing class of soldiers whose subservience was torn between the dictates of state and those of their faith.

These fissures quickly surfaced following the government’s 2005 decision to evacuate Jewish settlements in Gaza; a move that—perceived by many as a violation of Jewish law–met great opprobrium from religious soldiers and their rabbis alike. Ultimately, to avoid what would have been an ugly head-on collision, the state truckled and allowed conscientious dissenters to abstain.

Incidentally, that same year a state commission investigating the growth in illicit West Bank outposts reported that “without the IDF’s both passive and active cooperation, the illegal settlements could not have been expanded.”

The surging religiosity immanent in the IDF poses doesn’t bode well for the countries wherewithal to carry out the territorial concessions necessary for a peace agreement. As Yagil Levy writes: “One of the lessons learned from the Gaza pullout was that the greater the critical mass of religious soldiers, the more limited the military is in deploying troops for evacuating settlements.” And as more religious shoulders are drafted into the military—a track recently adopted to satisfy public calls for an ‘equal sharing of the burden’—the problem will fester.

No less harmful is the religious socialization of army inductees. While many of those drafted are religious to begin with, the increasing number of religious commanders together with the more pronounced pulpit of IDF rabbis creates an atmosphere in which others are prone to assimilation.

Lastly, Israel’s high military to political crossover rate, coupled with the wellspring of religious-nationalist officers, portends that those who climb the ladder to positions of security and political authority are increasingly likely to be uncompromising ideologues loath to territorial concessions under the pretext of achieving ‘absolute security.’

Hamas Rockets: The Right’s Best Friend

Hamas' expanded rocket range

Hamas’ expanded rocket range

The ultimate nail in the coffin to a peace-oriented government is conceivably a recent development: a Hamas rocket arsenal whose range covers almost the entire country.  Indeed, a recent study exploring the variation in the range of rockets from 2001 (the year Hamas fired their first rocket) to 2009 showed that “voters who reside in the range are more likely to vote for right-wing parties.” In fact, the latter are seen increasing their vote share by 2% to 6%, which if all voters were within the rockets’ range, would translate to an additional 2-7 seats in the Israeli Knesset.

Interestingly, even when running as incumbents (i.e. presiding over a period in which the rocket range enlarged), right wing parties are not punished by the electorate. To the contrary, the Likud party—which chairs the current government—gains additional votes irrespective of incumbency.

Considering Hamas’ now habitual targeting of Israel’s geographical bastions of left wing voters—Tel Aviv in particular—these findings carry important implications. Despite the fact that cities like the aforementioned have—thanks to the Iron Dome—been more or less unscathed, the psychological effect of inbound missile sirens and the attendant jolt of running to bomb shelters cannot be understated. That at least a subset of erstwhile ‘centrist’ or left wing voters would “elect candidates who are less willing to make concessions” in the coming election is a certainly a plausible prognosis.

Conclusion

At a press conference held on day 4 of ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu candidly stated that “the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan (i.e. the West Bank).”

Indeed, the impact of Hamas’ expanded rocket range on an electorate–particularly its large cohort of young voters– that had already become more religious/right-wing suggests that the ‘Israeli people’ will likely ‘understand’ and vote accordingly for nationalist security-minded parties in the next election.

Sadly, a nation that provides its government a mandate to perpetuate a military dominion over any future Palestinian state is one that is going to condemn itself to eons of more violence. Because one thing is certain: failing to reshuffle the political status quo can only endanger Israeli security.

True, territorial concessions and the attendant withdrawal of Israeli troops may very well yield the self-same outcome—if only in the short term. Yet in taking the risks for peace Israel allows itself two—instead of one—possible trajectories: things could get worse—but they also could very well get better better.

Alas, with more and more Israelis aligning with the religious-right, more and more are becoming incapable of doing the math.