Be Scared: Netanyahu's Secret Weapon

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Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014.Credit: AP

Thomas Hobbes, author of “Leviathan” – one of the most important works of modern political theory – famously declared that when he was born his mother gave birth to twins: him and fear. We may wonder if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime was not also born as a set of Hobbesian twins: as an aggressive view of Jewish history, and as a regime based on fear.

Renewing his staunch intention to hold on to his controversial and already-infamous speech before the joint houses of the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu summed up his political philosophy at a recent Likud conference.

“I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel,” he said, “but as a representative of the entire Jewish people. Just as I went to Paris, so I will go anyplace I’m invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us. Those who want to kill us are, first and foremost, any Iranian regime that says outright it plans to destroy us. I will not hesitate to say what’s needed to warn against this danger, and prevent it.”

Perhaps we have here the secret of Netanyahu’s bizarre success: his self-appointment as the proud and forceful representative of world Jewry, and his apocalyptic invocation of imminent and overwhelming danger.

Fear is a political emotion – that is, an emotion manipulated by elites that in turn has an impact on the political orientations of citizens. When wielded by elites, fear is theatrical: Regimes of terror hold show trials, burn books in public, set up public executions, and spread terror to intimidate those they designate as their domestic enemies.

In democracies, fear can also be present and theatrical, but it spreads in a less centralized way, is provoked by what it views as its external enemies, and is conveyed more indirectly, through the televised spectacle of the news. The images of terror attacks, 9/11, Islamic State’s gruesome executions – all these create disgust and panic and reinforce solidarity within democracies.

Such fears can in turn have a deep impact on the politics of democracies. A poll taken after 9/11 in the United States showed that a majority of those surveyed had become more conservative, thus suggesting a direct link between fear and right-wing political orientation.

Another poll taken in 2004 in the U.S. showed a strong connection between thinking that civil liberties can be suspended for security purposes and watching a lot of TV news, going to church and voting Republican. Conversely, those who thought civil liberties should not be sacrificed for security, also had more varied sources of news than TV, and were more likely to be secular and to vote Democrat.

In other words, fear is a part of a “political ecology,” in which media hungry for images with high emotional impact, and political and economic elites invested in “security,” interact with religiosity and mutually reinforce each other to create a right-wing voter.

Few democratically elected heads of government have used fear as blatantly in defining their discourse as Netanyahu. Fear is his surest and closest political companion: It is Iran’s nuclear power; it is the Arab world; it is a Europe that hates the Jews; it is the Jews who have forgotten to be Jews (and presumably are about to destroy the Jewish civilization); it is Isaac Herzog who betrayed the nation in going to the recent Munich Security Conference; it is the leftists who want to sell the country to the Arabs – in short, it is all those, outside and inside the country, who want to bring about the demise of Israel and the Jews.

What has gone unnoticed is that Netanyahu has uniquely mixed the invocation of fear of democracies and with that of the fear of terror regimes: Similar to Americans during the cold war or to Bush after 9/11, he constantly refers to external enemies (Iran, Arabs, Hamas, Palestinians, anti-Semites, Europeans, etc.) but nevertheless, and more scandalously, refers to his opponents as the internal enemies of Israel (leftists, secular people, Herzog, Yitzhak Rabin) – as if the latter and the former had the same common objective, the demise of Israel. Netanyahu has, by and large, been unpunished for such scandalous positions.

Why, we may wonder, is fear cultivated with such relish by him? Why is fear so politically sexy? For an obvious reason: It yields immense political benefits in a country born of destruction and still surrounded by enemies. But fear is not only the response to real security threats. When it is manipulated ad nauseam by a politician, it comes to justify a worldview and a political strategy.

For one, fear, far more than anger, justifies the aggressiveness and violence that are at the heart of the Israeli right-wing view of politics. That is, it is easier to justify morally military aggressiveness or domination by invoking fear than by claiming proudly to be the neighborhood bully. If you are the kind of guy who enjoys carrying weapons, it is easier to explain this publicly by claiming you are afraid of street crime, than it is to say you value the feeling of power that a gun gives you. Fear is the moral excuse of the violence and “securitism” that have replaced political know-how and wisdom.

Second, fear overrides not only thinking but, more important, all other emotions. Evolutionary biologists suggest that fear is the emotion of pure survival. It helps us flee or fight. Fear invades the psyche and overrides all other emotional reactions. So, if fear is well manipulated in the public sphere, it is the emotion that will win out over other inclination – such as the desire to improve one’s life; compassion for the distress of others; a sense of shame at the leader’s embarrassingly petty corruption. The desire for survival will always beat out other desires (Hobbes, by the way, built a major political theory of the state based on this simple insight). Fear, then, will be especially dominant in a country defined by “survival” and engaged in it as a mode of life.

Finally, fear demands immediate action rather than a vision of the future. It is the emotion of the “here and now,” it is the emotion of those who lack a vision, of those who actually and actively block the future of their nation but hide it by invoking the immediate present of survivalism. In truth, it is the emotion of those who are only busy with their own survival and not with the well-being of the citizens they represent.

But the truth is that we should be scared. All those who believe in democracy should be scared. We should be scared of waking up in a country in which religious fundamentalists become dominant among political elites; where lawmakers will face a choice between Jewish religious law and human rights for lawmakers; and which is blind to its screaming inequalities, and has become resigned to the moral scandal of military domination. More than anything else: We should be scared of the fear that dominates Israeli consciousness and turned apathy into the quiet accomplice of policies and politicians that are taking us to the abyss.

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