In these troubled times, we witness a disquieting revival of radical, incendiary talk in Israeli civic discourse. Inflammatory speech sounds more shrilly these days in media and social networks, risking the ignition of hatred and violence. Politicians and commentators resurrect the old poisons that saturated the air before the deadly rally massacre. In online forums, some voice regret that Hamas rockets avoided settlements, while one prominent analyst mused, the Gaza captives serve Netanyahu’s personal interests. This burning hostility toward Netanyahu, the gathering clouds of incitement against him – these have composed central forces in Israel’s slide toward civil strife in the months before the Hamas massacre. The hour has come for the public to erect ethical barriers in debate and repudiate those who traverse them. To do so we must scrutinize the character of hate speech in Israel, particularly the phenomenon of Bibiphobia.
I do not enumerate myself among Netanyahu’s fervent supporters. While deserving credit for some great achievements in the different public offices he has held over the last three decades, his conduct in late years, especially his public confrontation with the justice system, betrayed impropriety. Legally one may govern while indicted, but propriety expects self-restraint from assailing public prosecutors, leaving that to defense counsel. When the head of government decries conspiracy, confidence in state organs decays. It would have been best had Netanyahu resigned during the election series of 2019-2022, clearing the path for new leadership.
But this article addresses not the man Netanyahu so much as the excessive animus toward him and its impacts on state and society. Since investigations opened in 2016, the strain around Bibi has dominated news coverage. For years, major news outlets aired leaks from confidential case files, surrounding them with typically hostile commentaries casting Bibi as corrupt and dangerous, eclipsing other vital issues.
Gradually, resistance to Netanyahu crystallized into a political bloc united to oust the elected premier. “Crime Minister” movements emerged, dedicated to force his resignation. Weekly protests drew thousands unanimously shouting “Go!” (Lech!). His detractors took to harass his family, invading their privacy. Bibi’s alleged misdeeds served to justify his harassment, even providing pretext for displaying artworks depicting his execution. Even those who take issue with Netanyahu’s governance must acknowledge the irrationality underlying the opprobrium heaped upon him. Other Israeli leaders proved similarly authoritarian or corrupt yet escaped comparable indignation and venom. The hostility toward Netanyahu – Bibiphobia – has become a national obsession in Israel, attaining delusional dimensions.
Bibiphobia is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon that should be examined from political, social, and psychological points of view. While Netanyahu’s vilification forms part of a deliberate propaganda campaign by varied interested parties, most of his critics are well-meaning, believing him an existential threat to Israel’s future. How did so many fail to notice the hyperbole, losing all capacity to distinguish between earnest critique and hysterical incitement?
In Bibiphobia we glimpse unconscious mechanisms also responsible for other phobias: splitting and projection. When one represses aspects of oneself deemed negative, those split-off parts adopt qualities of an alien mental presence – the “shadow” self. This shadow self covertly influences thought and emotions, while becoming an unconscious source of anxiety, shame, or guilt. With maturity one integrates their shadow. Often, however, it is projected outwards, that is, attributed to another person or group perceived as a rival or enemy, progressively painted to arouse anxiety, hatred, even paranoia. History shows anti-Semitism operating through these mechanisms. So too, it seems, emerged the image of the Israeli Antichrist: Bibi.
In a previous piece (Makor Rishon, 12/23/20), I argued that anti-Semitic imagery internalized over centuries haunts Israeli society, projected by some onto rivals like the ultra-Orthodox, settlers, or post-Zionists. Bibiphobia focuses contradictory anti-Semitic imagery onto Netanyahu, attributing to him greed and self-interest alongside nationalist-racist designs, disloyalty and treason alongside fascism, authoritarianism and arrogance alongside weakness and cowardice – all echoes of the anti-Semitic stereotype tradition.
Of course, this analysis doesn’t apply to substantive critics of Netanyahu, however unsparingly critical. One can easily distinguish criticism motivated by principle rather than hatred by its capacity for nuance and conscience. Like an obsessive-compulsive disorder, Bibiphobia colonizes mental bandwidth. For some, any discussion inexorably drifts toward diatribes against Bibi, disallowing all other perspectives. Nationally, the media’s excessive Netanyahu focus displaced matters critical to Israel’s future like religion-state relations, Jewish-Israeli identity, and regional ties. The endless Bibi debates have forced small-mindedness, binary thinking, and polarization.
With Bibiphobia at its core, Israel’s degraded civic discourse also barred earnest assessment of the justice system’s condition, opening the door to extremism and violence. The Netanyahu-led government hastily sought to impose severe judicial reform, while opponents launched violent protests rejecting the established order. To critics, Netanyahu resembled a tyrant instituting dictatorship, and that led them to cross yet another red line – drawing the IDF into political fighting, as reservists heeded calls by opposition leaders for mass draft resistance. With IDF integrity imperiled, generals began sounding alarms over weakened defense capabilities, the Air Force commander suddenly made to personally persuade pilots to fulfilling their service obligations. By October 7th, Israel teetered at the brink of civil war.
The ensuing bloodshed shocked the nation from its collective delusion. Like waking from a fever dream, Israeli society regained sanity to rediscover identity and purpose. The tunnel vision faded, and the people of Israel remembered who they were and in what region they lived. Long suppressed forces have now found positive expression, seen in the bravery of Israel’s fighters and society’s coalescing solidarity.
However, the saga is not yet over. Paradoxically, the tragedy opened the gate to healing and unity, but inciting rhetoric is already returning, even in wartime. Even the reasonable question of Netanyahu’s degree of responsibility for the failure to prevent the Hamas massacre could turn into another obsession that reignites Bibiphobia. Will the end of the Gaza war blow the starting whistle for the war of the Jews? Will we know to stand up to ensure that after the cannons fall silent the nation will continue its recovery? Israel’s future still hangs in the balance. May we not miss the moment and may the bitter ripen into sweet.