Netanyahu's Genius: Israel's Culture of the Feelgood Bully

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

He knows.

If you're an Israeli, he knows you better than you do. Benjamin Netanyahu can play you like a Stradivarius. And he does.

Even if you're a leftist, say, in the arts. Maybe especially if you're a leftist. Say, in the arts.

He knows the most basic secret of Israelis and their unique culture, the character trait which unites a shocking number of us:

It's not just that we feel victimized. It's that we feel ourselves victims, and we react as bullies. And yet, we still feel ourselves victims, and are convinced – wrongly - that we are not at all bullies. We are certain that we are simply victims acting in clear and legitimate, even therapeutic, self-defense.

Bullying behavior, made to feel good.

Call it the cycle of abuse. Call it the cumulative result of Holocaust and occupation, war and terrorism. Call it selective blindness. But maybe, at some point in the future, if we can begin to become aware of it, and at long last cop to it, then we can somehow call it off.

In the meantime, how does it work? For his voters and others who can still stand him, Netanyahu tells them exactly that – they are victims entire, misunderstood, undervalued, scapegoated, slandered by the world, sold out by the White House, betrayed by the left, snubbed and denigrated by the godless, post-Zionist effete of higher education and the arts.

As a result, for everyone else here, as their blood boils, they feel marginalized, victimized, and they, we, often react in a way which, sure enough, only wins Netanyahu more votes.

Let's begin with a stroke of pure genius. Netanyahu finds the perfect choice for a Minister of Cuture, Israel's foremost exemplar of the culture of the Feelgood Bully.

No one in Israeli public life has better managed to combine protestations of victimization with extravagantly cartoon-quality ugliness of behavior, than has the nation's former ranking military censor, Miri Regev.

Netanyahu knew that in no time, Regev would start a culture war with the very artists that potential Likud voters dearly love to hate. If she got lucky, a new ego-driven, unkempt, intellectually reckless fathead would emerge – like artist Yair Garbuz on the eve of the recent election - to play the victim and, in practice, act the bully, scorning and lumping together the behavior and personal beliefs of entire ethnic, religious, and class sectors of Israelis.

In an elegant expression of Feelgood Bullying, Regev quickly seized on a decision by Palestinian Israeli actor Norman Issa not to appear in a West Bank performance of a Haifa Theater play.

Theater company officials compared Issa's decision to Sabbath-observant Jewish Israeli actors, who decline to perform on Friday nights and Saturdays, and are replaced by other actors.

But Regev was having none of it. On her Facebook page, she threatened to punish Issa by lashing out at the Jewish-Arab children's theater he founded and leads in Jaffa.

“If Norman does not change his mind," she wrote, "I intend to re-examine my ministry’s support for the Elmina Theater, which operates under his management.”

Although a compromise may have been found in Norman Issa's case, the issue of state funding for the arts has since widened to include a debate over subsidies to separate works which deal somewhat sympathetically with a Palestinian who murdered an Israeli soldier, and the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin.

This week, the emotional climate – and the bullying - took a turn for the worse. Ortal Tamam, niece of Moshe Tamam, an IDF soldier whose killer's life is said to be reflected in the play "A Parallel Time," asked to speak to a Sunday gathering of artists protesting threatened sanctions by Regev and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

After deliberations, Tamam was allowed to speak. She discussed both the play and the Yigal Amir film, saying that she opposed censoring the works but also strongly objected to government funds being "used to provide a stage and express sympathy for despicable murderers who are undermining our existence."

Cue the bullying. Interruptions, self-adoring heckling, abject disrespect for someone who has been through much too much, and had made an honest attempt to communicate. Tamam left the stage in the middle of her talk.

It should be stressed that where the Israeli experience is concerned, Feelgood Bullying is not confined to Israel. Witness the recent Jerusalem Post conference, during which U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew was subjected to repeated booing. At least one audience member turned his chair around to show Lew his back.

Journalist Shmuel Rosner, interviewed on several Israeli radio news shows over the incident, later wrote "In some of these shows I was disturbed to learn that many Israelis felt somewhat pleased with this incident, that they do not understand that insulting Lew is self-defeating and dumb."

Most importantly for Netanyahu, the culture debate has served to obscure a host of other issues in which bullying behavior has been excused, papered-over, limply slapped on the wrist, or exonerated.

Just in the course of this week, these include the closing of a case against police officers caught threatening and physically assaulting a uniformed IDF soldier of Ethiopian descent [Netanyahu, who posted on social media a high-profile hug with the soldier, had promised him to set this right]; Israeli troops in the West Bank, caught on video beating an unarmed Palestinian man, were given punishments lighter than those handed an IDF soldier for eating a non-kosher sandwich; and the cabinet, over the explicit protest of the Israel Medical Association, okayed a controversial bill enabling force-feeding of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners. One minister called hunger strikes a form of suicide terrorism. Doctors called the force-feeding a potentially dangerous form of torture.

I was at that artists' meeting on Sunday in Jaffa. I listened to Ortal Tamam, and to what has become known as the Beast Speechand to all of the many artists, writers, and performers who had inspirational messages, thoughtful insights, and honest, well-reasoned pleas – all those whose words no one will hear.

Why will these voices be left unheard? Maybe because the rest of us have been too busy pumping and publicizing bullying behavior. Maybe, just because for some bad reason, it made us feel good.

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