Israelis live in a constant state of fear. Walking down the street, getting on a bus — you’re never sure there isn’t someone with a knife or a bomb just around the corner. You push those fears to the back of your mind, somewhere deep in your subconscious. But they’re always there. Even times of relative quiet are no guarantee — the past few years have seen waves of attacks that flare up suddenly and quiet down just as unexpectedly.
Understanding this fear is essential for understanding Israel politics.
You would think that Israelis would be flocking to the Left in droves. Over a decade of right-wing rule has failed to bring security. The status quo has proved untenable. Having sovereignity over an autonomous region whose residents (many of whom hate you and see you as the Occupier of their homeland) come into your country to work everyday, with no real defined borders or proper visa and border control procedures, is not exactly a recipe for safety.
But when people are afraid, they stick to what they know. They’re afraid to take risks. Better the bad thing you know, than the potentially worse thing that you don’t know.
BDS exacerbates these fears, by making Israelis feel more alone and less secure — and therefore less willing to take risks for peace. Undermining the Israeli Left might negatively impact Palestinians by delaying the establishment of a Palestinian state, but it also endangers Israel, which fit in with is the BDS movement’s primary goal — Israel’s destruction. It might give the Israeli Right pause to think that it shares a common enemy with a movement sworn to destroy the state it claims to protect.
All of this means that the Left has a monumental task. It has to convince Israelis to vote for them despite their fears. It has to understand that speaking to people rationally isn’t enough — fear is an emotion that overrides logic. Patiently outlining demographics is not enough. The Left has to convince Israelis that it knows their fear, that it feels their fear – or at least, that it takes their fear seriously.
There are reasons to think that a Palestinian state won’t create peace overnight. Palestinian society is rife with incitement, and hatred doesn’t automatically disappear just because the geo-political reality has changed. Hatred, like fear, is an emotion that overrides logic.
The Left needs to acknowledge that there are real security concerns at stake. It has to explain to Israelis how it plans to protect their lives – not two generations after the creation of a Palestinian state, when we’ve all beaten our swords into plowshares, but in the immediate aftermath, when Israeli security forces are no longer active in a territory that is full of people who want to kill Israelis.
Of course, there are many territories full of people who want to kill Israelis that Israeli security forces are not active in, but none of those other places are a half hour drive from the Knesset or Ben Gurion Airport.
To do this would require vision, but so far, the Left seems to hash out three primary solutions: 1. A tweaked version of the Oslo Accords 2. A tweaked unilateral disengagement plan 3. A bi-national state.
The last solution will be rejected outright by most Israelis because it does not fit into their definition of Zionism. It would also be unwise because studies show that asking two different ethnic groups to share the same territory and democratic government leads more often to civil war than it does to peaceful power-sharing.
The second solution conjures up fear of rockets, and the failures of the Gaza pullout. The first solution conjures up fears from the second intifada, which is perceived as the Palestinian response to the Oslo Accords.
Whether or not these fears are based in reality doesn’t matter. What matters is that they exist, and must be addressed by anyone proposing any of the above solutions who wishes to win an election.
The Left could explain that, with real borders, a proper visa application process and border controls, it will be easier to either keep Palestinians out completely, or to better control which Palestinians get into Israel.
But it’s hard to do that without sounding racist, unless you constantly add a caveat that most Palestinian aren’t terrorists. Israelis know that most Palestinians aren’t terrorists, but saying that is like telling your crying 5-year old who just said that he hates girls who wear pink, that not all girls who wear pink go around stealing lollypops. Your 5-year-old knows that, but the minute you say it, he’ll just get mad at you and hold you partially accountable for his missing piece of candy.
The Left could frame the Occupation as the real threat to Israel: a demographic threat, an immediate security threat, and a threat to the existence of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, which is the definition of Zionism.
The word “immediate” is key, because if people perceive a peace deal as better for long-term safety but consider the process to get there an immediate threat to their lives, they will vote for the Right. Getting them to vote for a party that supports a deal requires getting them to feel that it’s the status quo that poses the immediate threat to their lives, such that a peace process, however risky, is their only hope of salvation.
The Left could also claim that, even if the State of Israel continues to exist, if Israel is no longer a Jewish, democratic state, the Zionist project has failed, which makes the Occupation an existential threat to Zionism. But between post-Zionism on the Left, failing respect for democracy among the mainstream Israeli public, and the fact that the original definition of Zionism was formed by racist, sexist, men from Europe, this argument is unlikely to catch on. Besides, as can be seen from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, existential threats don’t feel as urgent as threats to one’s physical safety.
So how does the Left address fear without resorting to a politics of fear?
This is the main question being asked right now, not just by the Israeli Left, but by left-wing movements throughout the Western world. Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen all point to a crisis of fear in Western society.
If anything, Israel should pat itself on the back for being a trendsetter, for being the first Western country to reach the fear-politics crisis moment – a real case of “Out of Zion comes forth Torah”.
I suppose that, like the movement I’m criticizing – and that I identify with – I’m better at criticizing problems than at posing solutions. However, I’d like to think that if Israel was the first country to face this crisis, maybe it can also be the first country to create a solution. After all, we are the Start-Up Nation.
So what’s the solution?
I don’t know. But I do know that, to paraphrase Ethics of the Fathers, just because the task is hard, doesn’t free us of our obligation to try.