The Modern Israeli: Paralyzed by the Past

The world fails to understand how the Startup Nation mindlessly repeats its leaders' cliches when it comes to Iran and the Palestinians. This dichotomy stems from fear and Jewish history.


Over the next 10 days, Israel will segue nimbly from Holocaust Remembrance Day (existential fears) to Memorial Day (more existential fears) and then straight into Independence Day (how we overcame the odds, though only temporarily).

It’s an annual rite of passage; either a manifestation of the stark duality of our lives in this country or a dizzying example of Israeli schizophrenia, depending on how one prefers to see it.

But this year the annual dance of two-thirds death and one-third life comes in the midst of coalition negotiations and shortly after an election in which the country’s voters, once again, chose the prophets of doom to lead them over the next four years (or less, if recent form is anything to go by).

The confluence of the days of remembrance with the election and its aftermath is apposite, given that it’s the mindset of the former that led to the results of the latter. Israel voted as it did because the electorate, as a whole, is motivated by a preponderance of fear and a stark lack of confidence.

That in itself is odd, because Israelis are not noted for their lack of self-confidence. The aggressively brash Israeli is virtually a cliché these days.

Israelis ooze self-confidence – and in many cases it’s justified. Israel is not known as the Startup Nation because its technologists and marketers are shrinking violets. The same is true of the country’s deservedly highly-rated scientific and biotech sectors.

Put many Israelis in front of a computer or an electronic microscope in a research lab and they’re among the most capable in the world. Both nature and nurture have had a hand in predisposing Israelis in general, and not just the startup elite, to taking risks, thinking out of the box and questioning holy cows – qualities that can be obnoxious when encountered in the service industries but are a huge advantage in the information-based professions.

As scientists and entrepreneurs, Israelis have also mastered the processes and disciplines – such as risk assessment, boundary testing and total market analysis – that are essential for correct and precise understanding of any given situation. So there exists in the country an influential stratum of people with the necessary, and rare, combination of daring and rigor for groundbreaking achievements in the global arena.

But confront at least 50% of the Israeli voting population with the concepts “Palestinian” and “Iran” and they retreat – instinctively and instantaneously – into a mental bunker. The chutzpah (in the creative sense of the concept) disappears; the knack for putting together “kombinot” is nowhere to be seen. They become automatons, incapable of independent thought or action; mindlessly repeating the tired clichés of their leaders.

That dichotomy – between independent thought in one area and a slavish herd instinct in another – is the essence of modern Israel. It is what both leads us to Nobel Prizes and entrepreneurial triumphs and threatens our very existence. It is the invisible elementary particle that so baffles well-meaning foreigners who admire Israel and Israelis but just can’t understand how such smart people can act so stupidly.

And it all comes down to fear – entirely reasonable fears which have been cynically manipulated by successive leaderships into the rigid, intransigent dread that voted Benjamin Netanyahu back into power. Fear for our lives, fear for the existence of Israel, fear of the Nazis and pogromists who we are convinced are still out there, though wearing different colors.

Our history is what it is and it’s deeply ingrained in the national psyche. There is a kernel of existential fear in just about every Israeli. The only thing that might change that is a prolonged period of peace and coexistence during which our fears can slowly subside – or at least assume a proportion that doesn’t cripple us.

But our fears prevent us from achieving the magnanimity that is necessary for making peace – and the more we delay, the harsher the criticism from the outside world and the more fearful we become. It’s a vicious cycle.

We need to allow ourselves to be guided by our achievements and our proven proficiencies, rather than by inherited angst and the Machiavellian fear-mongering of narrow-minded and power-hungry politicians.

A world of nuclear proliferation, Islamic jihadism and potential environmental disaster is not exactly one without dangers. But they are new dangers; not the paralyzing fears of a past that we cannot change. We have enough contend with in the future without being incapacitated by our history.

Roy Isacowitz is a journalist and writer living in Tel Aviv and an editor at Haaretz English Edition.