Why People in Israel Live in Constant Fear, and How Their Leaders Capitalize on It

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An Israeli family wearing gas masks during the Gulf War in 1991.
An Israeli family wearing gas masks during the Gulf War in 1991.Credit: Nathan Alpert, GPO
Daniel Bar-Tal
Daniel Bar-Tal

Here’s a riddle: Why are the citizens of a country that is so strong militarily – one that the foreign media tells us is in possessions of nuclear arms – so fearful when it comes to their own security? This feeling is inherent to the experience of life in Israel, in particular that of its Jewish citizens. To better understand the phenomenon, study is needed, especially of the deceptive uses made of this insecurity by politicians and other leaders, and on its far-reaching effects on society and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Insecurity is a psychological phenomenon that differs from the emotion of fear, notwithstanding the strong link between the two. Insecurity is essentially a cognitive (or mental) response, whereas fear is a negative emotion arising from threatening and/or dangerous circumstances. Oftentimes, fear is triggered automatically, by something that is out of our control. Threats or dangers that trigger fear in us may reflect experiences occurring in the present: for example, if we see the remains of a bus that was blown up in a terror attack. At times, fear surfaces because of experiences that occurred in the past – as in the case of air-raid sirens, whose sound may continue to haunt us because we associate them with the warning indicating an incoming missile attack. Fear can also be learned from a variety of sources, such as parents, teachers and leaders.

Israel’s preoccupation with security has become a supreme value and symbol, even a sort of religion, whose tenets dominate the Israeli ethos.

How does insecurity develop? When an individual identifies danger in a given situation, he assesses cognitively his own ability to defend himself. If he calculates that he will have a difficult time defending himself, he will feel insecurity – a psychological belief that is manifested together with fear. Such beliefs are widespread in Israel. We know, however, that there are personal and cultural disparities between different people, meaning that their beliefs are learned. Hence, it should be possible to modify these beliefs by means of reframing a situation and explaining its sources.

Beliefs relating to security and insecurity are characteristic not only of individuals, but also of groups, societies and nations. In a society that lives under perpetual threat, mired in an intractable conflict that is violent and seemingly never-ending – such as that between Israel and the Palestinians – beliefs about insecurity are part and parcel of the ethos of the conflict.

In Israeli Jewish society, beliefs about insecurity contribute to a unique sense of identity among its members, and to a sense of being distinguished from other nations. Along with other beliefs regarding the ethos of the conflict (such as the justness of the cause, the Palestinians’ lack of legitimacy, or glorification of the Jews), beliefs of insecurity constitute the lens through which members of Israeli society view the world and gather new information.

Prime Minister Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb at the UN General Assembly in September 2012.Credit: Reuters

Societal beliefs concerning insecurity are not only stored in the collective cognitive repertoire, but also appear in a variety of cultural products – for instance, books and films; are reflected in the media; and are represented in cultural institutions and the educational system.

An existential threat?

In the final analysis, all human beings aspire to well-being: Deep down, we all feel a need for personal and national security. Therefore, a state of insecurity can have widespread psychological implications: It leads to efforts to create a sense of security; to a heightened preference for what is familiar, and avoidance of situations of risk and uncertainty; to cognitive stagnation that reduces one’s openness to new ideas; and to sharpened sensitivity when it comes to identifying dangers – to the point where perceived dangers are exaggerated, even in non-threatening situations. Moreover, when protection or avoidance are not effective, insecurity is liable to lead to aggression directed toward the source of the perceived threat.

Insecurity breeds conformity, and an upsurge in popularity of leaders of the “Mister Security” model. However, as opposed to the line that politicians sometimes try to feed us, we are not talking about objective concepts here: Feelings of insecurity (or of security) are not connected to the number of nuclear bombs said to be in Israel’s arsenal, or to the number of F-35 stealth bombers it possesses. In reality, these beliefs depend on the subjective outlook of each individual: Each of us develops a sense of security or insecurity on the basis of our own personality and the information we possess.

People within the same group or nation can be differentiated in large measure by their security beliefs. Therefore, even high-ranking Israel Defense Forces officers who have undergone similar experiences may hold differing outlooks vis-à-vis the country’s security situation. For example, the assessments of reserve generals Amiram Levin, Amram Mitzna, Amos Yadlin, Giora Eiland, Yiftah Ron-Tal and Yaakov Amidror vary greatly from each other. None of them possesses an objective yardstick for measuring security; each speaks from his own subjective point of view.

On October 6, 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian tanks were charging into the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, there were no differences in assessment among the Jewish public in Israel regarding the magnitude of the danger faced by Israel: the sense of insecurity was consensual. But, it is not often that we face situations that unequivocally point to a clear and present danger. More often than not, we must contend with blurred, ambiguously lit situations. That is why the narrative offered for years by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to which Israel faces an existential nuclear threat from Iran, has not convinced everyone. Many figures in the country’s military and academic establishments have offered a different assessment of the situation, but unlike Netanyahu, they have not had the same access to the media. The beliefs of the prime minister have received widespread exposure, and have persuaded the majority of Jews in Israel that he is correct.

The mushroom cloud of an atom bomb rises among abandoned ships in Bikini lagoon, Marshall Islands, in this July 1, 1946 file photo.Credit: Joint Task Force One, AP

Nation in uniform

Israeli Jews largely believe that the country lacks the security that makes normal life possible, one in which lack of harm at the individual level and safe existence at the collective level would be assured.

Insecurity has been a fact of life since the earliest stages of the Zionist enterprise in Ottoman Palestine. The threatening, violent approach toward Jews adopted by the authorities during Ottoman rule and by local Arab leaders in British Mandatory Palestine played a role in forming these beliefs. They were subsequently reinforced, during the course of the wars fought with the Arab states, and throughout the struggle with the Palestinian people.

What is it that we are really afraid of? And what will bring us security? The protracted violent conflict has turned Israeli society into a “nation in uniform,” enlisted in something of a dormant war. “Security,” the embodiment of the State of Israel’s role in providing a safe haven for Jews from all corners of the globe and a reason for its existence, has become a key word in the Hebrew lexicon.

Over the years, the concept of security has repeatedly been cited to justify and explain numerous government decisions, even in cases where they did not have direct or immediate implications for national security; moreover, the concept has become a rationale for proactive or reactive moves in the military, political and societal arenas, and even in the educational and cultural realms. It has served as the basis for undemocratic, unethical and even illegal practices, and has been exploited for the mobilization of extensive human and material resources, well beyond the accepted norm in societies that do not have chronic security problems.

Insecurity has been a fact of life since the earliest stages of the Zionist enterprise in Ottoman Palestine.

Security has been defined as the most important objective in Israel’s negotiations with its neighbors, because it is the only legitimate consideration accepted both by most of the international community and by the vast majority of Jews in Israel. Even now, decades after the state’s establishment, the security objective still tops the public agenda. Hence, it plays a decisive role in Israeli politics.

According to Israel, any territorial compromise should be contingent upon credible guarantees for the security of the country and its inhabitants. It is clear, then, why ordinary citizens express deep concern regarding security issues; why security authorities are accorded high regard and trust; and why political leaders, many of whom have emerged from the ranks of the defense establishment, compete among themselves in their claims to having contributed to state security.

Political parties in Israel use the term “security” frequently, seeing it as an important goal and a significant part of their propaganda efforts. The local media offers assessments of the security situation on a nearly daily basis, proposing solutions and making historical comparisons. As numerous scholars have contended, Israel’s major, intensive preoccupation with security has become a supreme value and symbol, even a sort of religion – “securityism” – whose tenets dominate the Israeli ethos.

Roots of the belief

In the most basic way, societal beliefs vis-à-vis security in Israel are based on past experience and on information disseminated via various channels and institutions, whether with regard to the conflict with the Palestinians or to relations with other actors in the region. Every member of society is also exposed to the collective memory of the Jewish people, by means of social, educational and cultural institutions. They come into contact with various ideologies and political viewpoints in which security constitutes a key element, but is also served up along with a range of interpretations and meanings.

First, it is necessary to recognize that the Israeli population experiences violence both directly and indirectly, and that these experiences serve as an important factor in the formation of fear and beliefs about insecurity. But to this factor we need to add other sources:

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.Credit: Suhaib Salem, Reuters

1. External sources

Due to the vagueness surrounding many events, and in view of the lack of access to information by most of the public, Israel’s Jewish population, in forming its security beliefs, often ends up relying on information supplied by its leaders, the mass media and various other cultural products. These tools offer the public interpretations of the nature of the threat and its intensity, and define the steps that need to be taken. The Jewish public often accepts this information as the truth – primarily when it flows consistently and continually, touches on many aspects of personal and societal existence, and is significant – for example, information that pertains to perceived threats by Hamas or Hezbollah. In such instances, the information is likely to crystallize into beliefs held by the society at large.

Among such sources, leaders, particularly political and military ones, play a decisive role. Although they have at their disposal abundant information for the purposes of their own situational assessments – like us, they, too, draw conclusions in a subjective way.

Leaders frame information in a manner that impels the public to understand it in certain ways. They will frequently present information in accordance with their outlook, in order to persuade the public to accept their views. Insecurity – and fear, in particular – can commandeer rational thought, and frightened individuals are easy to lead like a herd. This is what causes leaders to exaggerate and even invent threats at times.

2. The past is always here

Israelis look at the conflict with the Palestinians from the perspective of the past, and this intensifies their sensation of insecurity.

Security beliefs are clearly influenced by experiences in the nation’s past, and stored in the narrative of the collective memory. However, the objective of collective memory is not to provide an objective, historical description of the past, but rather to describe it in a way that serves the continued existence of society in the present – in particular given that the society is in conflict. This narrative is to some degree based on actual events, but it is also selective, biased and distorted, so as to comply with present-day needs. Under its influence, society can be led to disregard certain information (for instance, an injustice done to a rival group) and focus on other things (for instance, an attack by enemy terrorists on a civilian population). Collective memories of war-related traumas and/or acts of genocide can trigger heightened sensitivity such that people will embark on a search for information that corroborates the belief in the existence of a potential threat or danger. Given the collective memory of Jews in general, it would seem that Israelis are conditioned to believe there is a genuine, immediate and existential threat – both to the collective security of the state and to themselves as individual citizens of that state.

A lengthy history of persecution, coerced conversion, deportations, pogroms and genocide have induced among the Jews the sense of a protracted, never-ending threat to their existence, and the realization that they cannot expect assistance from anyone else in times of distress. The memory of 2,000 years of exile has inculcated in many Jews the sense that the existential threat has not passed, but has rather merely taken on a new form. The Holocaust, in which the suffering of the Jewish people reached a new peak, particularly empowered such feelings and profoundly influenced the Jewish consciousness. Indeed, many Israeli Jews see the modern threats posed by their neighbors as a direct continuation of eternal anti-Semitism. They look at the conflict with the Palestinians from the perspective of the past, and this intensifies their sensation of insecurity.

3. Everything is political

Political ideology or views can have an influence on individuals similar to that of information sources. When political positions play a major role in the mindset of the individual – and in particular, when they create a clear, generalized ideological outlook – they will have a unique effect on the manner in which members of society view the world. They influence the type of information that receives attention and the manner in which it is coded and arranged within the brain. For instance, Israelis who believe in the “Greater Land of Israel” have a range of feelings of insecurity – as well as different solutions that they believe would ensure security – different from those of Israelis who believe that the strip of land in which we live is the homeland of not one but two nations. Similarly, a look at the platforms of the political parties over the years shows that the right-wing parties place much more emphasis on dangers than the left-wing ones.

4. Try it yourself

Many of the experiences Israeli Jews undergo have a direct effect on their security beliefs. Some of these experiences have a direct connection to security in Israel per se, whereas others, which take place or took place in another location, have nothing to do with the Palestinian conflict.

The first category of experience is a product of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It includes, for example, military service, taking part in a war, or injury or loss of a friend or relative as a result of a hostile event. These experiences have direct implications on beliefs related to the security situation in the country. Nonetheless, it is not always possible to predict the magnitude of the effect that said experience will have: Different people reach different conclusions based on the same experiences.

The second category of experience may be the traumas that a person has suffered through in his or her life by way of an accident, death of a loved one, and the like. It can also include living through a collective trauma such as the Holocaust. The conclusions one draws may be dependent upon previously acquired knowledge, the information absorbed in the course of the experience, and the degree of the individual’s openness to alternative information. It is not unusual for two individuals who have both been in Auschwitz to have emerged from that hell with very different approaches to Israel’s security questions.

A Holocaust survivor shows her number tattoo.Credit: Getty Images / JTA Photo Archive

Cognitive work

When Israeli Jews believe that the world is not safe for them – their emotions are sincere and genuine. But it is important to realize that insecurity is not a genetic trait, but rather a phenomenon that is based on one’s perception of reality: It is a product of the learning and the sociological processes that the same population undergoes. The entirety of history, as they remember it, can underscore and transmit a sense of insecurity. That is the main message emanating from the collective memory of the Diaspora, it is the primary lesson of the Holocaust and it is the result of ongoing experiences related to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The social environment provides a structure for beliefs relating to insecurity, nurtures them and maintains them in all of its mechanisms and institutions. It is not easy to change such perceptions, as they have struck roots deep in the cognitive repertoire of Israel’s Jews and in the inner recesses of their souls. Nevertheless, perceptions of insecurity have not been handed down from on high: Rather, they have been learned and reinforced over years – and the hostile environment has played its part in inculcating them as well.

Nevertheless, psychology teaches us that it is possible to regulate our feelings, sensations and thoughts. We need to undertake cognitive work that will raise important questions regarding the interests that guide our leaders in creating an atmosphere of insecurity and fear; questions about the influence of experiences that occurred in the distant past – and are no longer relevant to present-day reality; and questions about a completely new reality, the one in which the Jewish people now exist.

Primarily, we must understand that life in constant insecurity and fear, without a proper understanding of the conditions in which the Jewish people exist in Israel, directs us toward a narrow perspective, one that limits our opportunities to cope with challenges of the present and the future. And these also demand that we take a calculated risk.

Daniel Bar-Tal, professor emeritus at the School of Education of Tel Aviv University, is an expert in the fields of political and social psychology.

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