Gaza Shows Fading Returns for Netanyahu's Appeal to Jewish Trauma

Netanyahu taps into two contradictory currents in the Israeli psyche: The Holocaust trauma of helplessness, and belief in force as the only solution. But, after Gaza, are Israelis growing less receptive?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend a memorial ceremony for Jews sent to their death during the Holocaust from the Berlin Groenewald station.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend a memorial ceremony for Jews sent to their death during the Holocaust from the Berlin Groenewald station. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom GPO
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

If there were a website that tracked elements of the Israeli national psyche, the same way that financial sites show graphs of market indicators, we'd see that Israel's Holocaust-victimization index continues its long-term rise.

A related index, tracking belief in our ability as Israelis to solve our national problems by force, is still irrationally high. An annotation below the graph, though, might tell us that the force index is due for one of its periodic adjustments downward, toward reality.

And the graph for a third index, the popularity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would look like a speeded-up version of a financial bubble: An unreasonable spike at the beginning of the Gaza War, followed by a steep decline. 

There's also a relationship between this indicator and the other two: Netanyahu has built his career by tapping into the twin currents of victimhood and exaggerated trust in power. The unplanned war in the south initially served him well. But, as it dragged on, he could no longer satisfy the fantasies on which he had relied.

First, a word about the Holocaust index: As Ori Kashti reported on Wednesday, the Israeli Education Ministry plans to boost the proportion of high school history study devoted to the Holocaust. That's no small task, given the how much of the existing curriculum is already devoted to that subject, not to mention the prodigious investment in what's become the de rigueur 12th grade Holocaust tour of Poland.

More time on the Holocaust could mean more study of its universal implications, of the obligation to question authority and to oppose racism. In practice, it will mean less study of general history and of the long fruitful periods of cross-fertilization between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. Instead, students will get more training in experiencing the Holocaust as an immediate terrifying reality. But this is only an extension of the existing trend: Ironically, as the time since the Holocaust grows, Israeli education devotes ever more energy to passing on its post-traumatic stress to the next generation.

The range of individual Israeli responses is vast. As a society, though, Israel shows the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress: Being constantly alert for the next danger, which will be perceived as the original, overwhelming danger. Not only does the screech of a motorcycle sometimes sound like an air-raid siren, the instant response to a barrage of rockets is instinctually that we are threatened with annihilation, that we are once again utterly alone in the world, and that force is the only solution.

This is one reason, not the only one, that the Israelis who most emphasize Jewish victimhood are often the ones who are most certain that we can only solve our problems militarily. You can't reach arrangements with Nazis - so goes the thinking, sometimes explicit, sometimes implied - you have to defeat them totally.

A 2009 Israeli election campaign video that has recently begun spreading online demonstrates such thinking: It shows Netanyahu standing in Ashkelon, where a missile fired from Gaza had fallen that morning. "We need action," he proclaims. And the only effective action is "to shatter the Hamas regime in Gaza." His opponent, Tzipi Livni, was part of the Kadimah government that failed to do so in Operation Cast Lead, he says, "but we will finish the job." It's all so simple: Just unleash the army.

Netanyahu lives the dual fantasy of helplessness and unlimited power more than any Israeli politician since Menachem Begin. While Begin personally escaped the Holocaust, Netanyahu embodies second-hand trauma. "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany," summed up his perception of our enemies, between whom he refuses to make distinctions. His military threats against Iran expressed the hubris that is the opposite pole of the fantasy. Netanyahu's contradictory tone of perpetual fear and overconfidence has resonated with a large piece of the Israeli public. He speaks what they feel.

This summer, though, his miscalculations and those of Hamas led us into the war in Gaza. There's no indication that Netanyahu had a thought-out strategy beyond the hope that pummeling Gaza would restore quiet. In contrast to his words as a candidate five years ago, as prime minister he did grasp that "to shatter the Hamas regime" would not in fact be so simple.

Initially, his uncharacteristic hesitation impressed his usual opponents, while the pummeling raised hopes among his natural constituents. Hence the bubble in his approval rating: 82 percent at the start of the ground operation. According to a poll this week, the number has crashed to 38 percent. The toll of the war made it hard to praise his restraint. Yet he did not provide the military victory that he used to make sound so easy.

Perhaps, under the shock of these events, a humbled Netanyahu will articulate the limits of power. My guess is that's too much to hope for. Still, the indices of the national psyche indicate confusion. This is an opening for other leaders, or potential leaders, to appeal not to our trauma but to our reason.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter @GershomG

Netanyahu, left, with CoS Gantz, center, and Defense Minister Ya'alon.Credit: Kobi Gidon

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