Hysteria, Shmysteria

A person apparently makes a distinction between their vulnerability to danger in general and their exposure to random violence that lands at their own home.

Shimon Peres reprimanded the residents of Sderot for their outcry over the Qassam rockets. "Qassams, Shmassams," said the vice premier, with a Ben-Gurionesque sneer. While Israel's first prime minister expressed his contempt for the UN ("UN, Shmu-en," he famously said) as he made a bold decision intended to prove Israel's determination to conduct retaliatory raids that were meant to protect it, his pupil demonstrates his heroism against the besieged residents of Sderot. The man, who hasn't taken a step in decades without being surrounded by bodyguards, is preaching moralistically to the residents of a town exposed to shelling about their hysterical reactions.

Sderot's inhabitants are not the only ones. In the early 1980s, there were cries from Kiryat Shmona, under fire from Katyushas. Quite a few of its residents, who couldn't take the terror of the barrages, abandoned it. They were also criticized, regarded as deserters abandoning their positions. Then came the first Gulf War, which proved that the nerves of Tel Aviv residents could get as frayed as those of Kiryat Shmona: the Scud missiles, whose tangible damage was negligible compared to, at least until now, the low lethality of the Qassam rockets, scattered the Tel Avivians in every direction. The wealthy among them escaped to hotels in Eilat, and quite a few preferred to find refuge overseas. Like Peres this week, then-mayor Shlomo Lahat furiously attacked the residents of his city who were fleeing for their lives. And to prove that the mountaintop air in Jerusalem does not instill its residents' veins with fortification, the stormy reactions of residents of the capital's neighborhood of Gilo can be remembered, when, during the early days of the intifada, they were subject to sniping from Bethlehem. They, too, displayed anxiety and a tendency to leave the neighborhood, and they also complained loudly against then-mayor Ehud Olmert and the government.

A person apparently makes a distinction between their vulnerability to danger in general and their exposure to random violence that lands at their own home. A person believes his home is his castle and panics, gets angry and is outraged when that assumption is contradicted by the facts. During the intifada, people were exposed to attacks in public places, but nevertheless, continued to go there and maintain a more or less normal routine -- taking into account that their lives might be at risk. That healthy behavior was the result of a sense of shared fate and sober recognition of the need to continue daily life.

The reaction is different when the victims are residents of a specific geographic region who feel that they've been abandoned, singled out for the trouble that reaches their homes, and don't enjoy a sense of solidarity from the entire country. They're also right. Sderot is usually far from the mind of the public and the attention of the government. If Kfar Sava were hit by rockets from Qalqilyah, the entire country would be up in arms. From that perspective, it misses the point when comparing the reaction of Sderot residents and that of the general public to suicide bombers.

In retrospect, Ben-Gurion's saying about the UN took hold not only as an expression of national determination in the political realm, but also as a sign of provincialism. He blurted out the saying at one of the government sessions in 1955 in response to a comment by Moshe Sharett that without the November 29 UN decision, the state would not have been established. Ben-Gurion responded to that angrily: "It was the daring of the Jews that established the state, and not the UN Shmu-en."

Contemporary Israel has had enough experience to know that it cannot achieve its goals by force alone, and that its prosperity, if not very existence, also depends on its international stature and political skills. The Olmert government should apply that lesson to its attitude to the Palestinians as it tries to stop the fire at Sderot.