Daniel Bar-Tal
Political psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal. Photo by Limor Edrey
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AFP
Popular protests in Jerusalem, August 6, 2011. Photo by AFP

Ten days ago, Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal landed in Israel after a year in the United States. He returned with a heavy feeling, apprehensive that what he would find upon his return to Tel Aviv University would be pretty much what he had left when he departed for a sabbatical at Brandeis University.

In recent years Bar-Tal, a political psychologist, has specialized in studying the psychological barriers in Israeli society to changes in its diplomatic-security situation. In a research project that he conducted together with Dr. Eran Halperin of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, it was found that such barriers prevent a desire to receive information, including facts, that contradict the worldview supporting the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The researchers had the impression that neither the yearning for peace, nor the fear of war and a military defeat, nor the demographic threat, would bring Israelis out into the streets.

On Saturday night he called me excitedly from the heart of the rally in Tel Aviv, and shouted from within the crowd: "Listen, it's unbelievable. I've discovered a treasure trove of energy and initiative. I actually feel electricity in the air. For the first time in years, I have hope that it's possible to carry out a first-class social change here, after all. A light has appeared at the end of the tunnel."

Bar-Tal has written and edited over 20 books, published more than 200 articles and chapters in books, and won many international prizes. In the past he served as the president of the International Society of Political Psychology, which last month presented him with its Harold Lasswell Award, the most prestigious prize in his field, for his outstanding cumulative contribution to it.

You said that we have before us an authentic and extraordinary phenomenon of a middle class that is conducting one of the most just political battles in Israeli society. Why are they leaving the cafes now, of all times?

Bar-Tal: "As the studies of [political scientists] Michal Shamir and Asher Arian demonstrate, the sense of economic hardship and the social frustrations have existed for years among the electorates of all the parties, from the right to the left. The present protest is based on a sense of relative deprivation. People feel that their situation is steadily worsening, and they are finding it more difficult each day to support their families. The proper connection has been made between these feelings and the housing crisis experienced by young people, in addition to good slogans and a new leadership that comes from the backbone of the nation - if you will, the salt of the earth. I identify strongly with the issues of the protest, with the way the struggle is being led and with the people leading it.

"For years, security and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have pushed economic and social hardship into a secondary place. Although there's a very close connection between these two issues, they don't connect in the minds of most of Jewish society. Not only do people not feel any dissonance about it, they are even angry when their personal hardships are linked to issues of peace and security. The path that has now been chosen crosses all the viewpoints regarding the conflict and unites those in distress. Had the leaders singled out a part of the problem - for example, the question of financing the occupation in general and the settlements in particular - many people would not have joined the protest movement and some would have left it.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded not only in bringing about a new political-social-economic order, but also in constructing the political culture of '1984' and implanting a language and norms taken from the totalitarian world. The protest movement is making every effort not to be seen as political, at a time when every one of Netanyahu's acts is political in essence. He and his people have succeeded in communicating to the Israeli public the sense that only supporters of his policy are allowed to be political. Look what efforts the protest movement is making to avoid being seen as leftist. After all, the left-wing worldview is legitimate all over the world, from the United States to France, from Nepal and India to Chile. Here the right has succeeded in delegitimizing everything connected to the left: labels, people and ideas. Not to mention the treatment of the Arab minority, which is worse than the treatment of Jews in Europe in the 1920s.

"A political culture has developed here that does not recognize the principles of equality, freedom of expression and pluralism, which are the iron foundations of democracy. Instead they manipulate patriotism, so that an Israeli patriot is only someone who supports Netanyahu's leadership, his ideology and his policy. All the others are considered traitors, with everything that label implies. Does that remind you of anything? That is why the protest movement is fleeing any attempt to link the socioeconomic situation to the freeze in the peace process."

Soon, probably in September, after the United Nations vote on a Palestinian state, the security issue is likely to take first place again. Will that be the end of the social protest?

"As we found in our study, the barriers to information regarding the conflict are very profound. They are constantly being reinforced by the government in all the institutions and through media outlets as well. Therefore, there is a reasonable possibility that the government will raise the level of threat and fear prior to September, and in so doing, may cause the disintegration of the protest. But if the movement fails, or achieves little, I expect a danger in that at least some of the people will turn to violence, as happened in Greece. Then it will be easier for the government to handle the protest.

"In any case, a failure of the protest movement could lead to despair and escapism that would be destructive to Israeli society. The big question is to what extent members of Israeli society will surrender to fear, will be obedient and submissive to the powers that are trying to divert Israel from the social-democratic path."

Mortally wounded

I understand that you expect that the protest won't stop with the prices of cottage cheese and apartments, and that the middle class will enlist to save the peace process.

"The situation in which we find ourselves is no coincidence. It is not the outcome of an unexpected natural disaster. This is a planned situation that has a guiding ideology and a leadership. It took place in an orderly process, anchored in instructions and laws. Benjamin Netanyahu is the architect of this path, which is designed to systematically impose his neo-liberal worldview, an ideology of Greater Israel and subsidized Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. Netanyahu was the one who canceled the parallel tax that employers paid for their employees' health insurance and restored the ceiling on the health tax, which benefited the wealthy.

"The blow to the middle class caused by the present government is not coincidental. This is an educated class that serves as a social foundation of unparalleled importance. It constitutes a foundation for a just and egalitarian social order, the gatekeeper of democracy. This is the class that is supposed to preserve the foundation of a moral government and that shoulders the main burden of financing government activities. This is a role filled by this class the world over, but in our society it has consistently shrunk, been eroded and undermined. The results are clear: Not only has the quality of life been harmed and the social gaps have broken all records - all layers of Israeli democracy have also been mortally wounded."

You spent last year at a Jewish university in the United States, and met with members of the Jewish community, most of whom identify as liberals. How do they view democracy in the Jewish state?

"When I arrived in the United States, I assumed I would find a receptive audience in the Jewish community, and a willingness to discuss the processes taking place in Israeli society. To my great regret, in most of those communities I found paralysis. The most progressive Jewish circles there - those who demonstrate against any American injustice, protest the undermining of human rights in Iran and Sudan and of freedom of speech in China and Russia - turn blind, deaf and dumb when it comes to the lack of social justice, or oppression and discrimination, in Israel. They don't want to know what's happening, and for the most part refuse to conduct a rational discussion about the deterioration of Israeli society.

"There's a combination of existential fear, a desire to hold on to the symbol at all costs and quite a bit of strong-arm tactics on the part of people with money and influence. I saw how a wealthy businessman threatened the rabbi of a Reform temple in a small town, Newton, near Boston, that if the president of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, spoke in his synagogue, he would discontinue his donations to the community. The rabbi panicked and canceled the lecture.

"It's hard to believe that in the strongest democracy in the world, such a destructive process is taking place. The same Jews who followed the greatest critics of American society, such as Louis Brandeis or Martin Luther King, Jr., are losing their principles and their way when it comes to Israel. They prefer to ignore the deeds of their 'wild relative' and don't understand that if they don't cry out in time, this behavior will only increase and they will be left with a symbol empty of any moral and humane value.

"But I also met courageous, open and active groups that are ready to fight for their principles and to warn against the path of Israeli society. Recently, Brandeis University hosted the annual conference of the Association for Israel Studies [comprising scholars in the social sciences], which by the Israeli Foreign Ministry's definition could be considered the greatest anti-Israel conference in the world. At dozens of sessions, penetrating criticism was heard about the behavior of [Israeli] society in all areas of life, from the deterioration of democracy and the institutionalization of discrimination against the Arab minority, to the reinforcement of the economic gap and the loss of the moral compass, and up to the destructive influences of the occupation and the militarization of society."

And where do you find your colleagues, the intellectuals, in light of the revolutionary protest here?

"In Israel hundreds of critical academic studies are published every year about society's behavior, but unfortunately the articles and doctoral theses adorn the libraries of the institutions of higher education - the intellectuals' mute testimony about what is taking place in our country.

"Israeli intellectuals are conducting a broad, profound and productive discussion about Israeli society. They are doing so in the best scientific tradition, characterized by criticism and reflection, in spite of the anti-intellectual atmosphere in Israel, mainly against those engaged in the social sciences, the humanities and the arts. Not only are they not appreciated, and their opinions not taken into account, but they are under surveillance and suffer persecution. There are organizations that receive support for that purpose from members of the government. That reminds me of similar processes in various countries which - officially - the State of Israel does not want to resemble."