Every time I met Ariel Sharon during his time as Israel’s Prime Minister he told
me the nation faced “an existential threat.”
That was during the second
intifada, when Israelis were subject to a wave of terror attacks and were united
around their flag and the resurgent idea of Zionism. According to the latest
Jerusalem Report opinion poll, Israelis today still feel their country's
existence is threatened, but in a different way.
The American New Age
writer Marilyn Ferguson called fears “a treasure house of self-knowledge.” The
Israeli treasure house is abundantly endowed, but it turns out the people who live in it aren’t whom you’d expect.
They’re other Israelis.
Because it isn’t Palestinian terror, war, or even
the menace of Iran that keeps most Israelis up at night. A majority are more
fearful of the potentially disastrous actions, policies, or ideas of their
According to this latest poll, 60 percent of Israelis are
most afraid of: the country’s level of education; problems between the
ultra-Orthodox, other religious people, and secularists; bad relations between
Israelis in general; the erosion of democracy; and the plentiful store of
extremists, on both left and right.
You might think that makes Israel a
more normal place than it used to be.
After all, most Americans fear
being raped, murdered, or forced to pay for healthcare by other
They generally don’t fear the destruction of the US by a
foreign nation. But when Israelis fear other Israelis, they can’t afford to be
as complacent about the tensions within their society as Americans
Asked to list their greatest fears, millions of Americans say they are: public speaking, needles, and
Turning in on themselves
“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to
hate, hate leads to suffering,” said the great sage Yoda in “Star Wars: Episode
1 – The Phantom Menace.” He might have been describing the difference between
the old externally threatened Israel and the new internally menaced version.
Israelis have always known how to suffer, but they mostly directed their hate
outwards. Could they be turning in on themselves in a terrible, destructive way?
Kobi Oz, lead singer of the Israeli pop group Teapacks, once told me that
Israelis “escaped the ghettoes and then built new ghettoes here in Israel.”
Instead of creating a unique Israeli identity, he said, Israelis had clung to
their old insular groupings.
They were Haredi, they were Moroccan, they
were Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, religious, secular. Never truly Israeli. Each group
feared the others, but on the surface at least was able to subsume that sense of
threat beneath the more obvious antagonism with the Palestinians and the Arab
That regional hostility hasn’t gone away.
But it’s fair to
say that living in Israel for the last few years, it has seemed pretty
Little terror and even less apparent progress in peace talks is
far from compelling compared to the pulse of adrenaline an Israeli might feel
when he sees, for example, recent news reports about an eight-year-old girl spat
on by Haredi thugs, who consider her inappropriately dressed.
The lack of significant, immediate external threat throws the
divisions within the country into high relief. That’s why, as Jewish Agency
Chair Natan Sharansky never tires of telling me, dictatorships need external
enemies, even if they’re invented. It turns out they’re useful for democracies,
too. Because with the Palestinians rating a yawn from most Israelis – only 16
percent see Palestinian terror or war as their greatest fear –– the society
lacks Sharansky’s external focus.
When fear lurks within a society, it
can only be a matter of time before politicians who propose radical solutions
I’m not suggesting that Israel is heading for a fascist
dictatorship, any more than the viciousness of the Tea Party suggests there’ll
soon be jackboots on the White House lawn. But there’s a lot of space for
unpleasantness between where Israelis are now and the truly unthinkable. Call to
mind, if you will, the often unpleasant measures proposed by Israeli politicians
in the past for dealing with, say, the Palestinians.
Clearly a shared
taste for humus and falafel was never enough to bridge deeply felt national
differences. The same is true of Israeli sub-groups. Imagine those measures
being applied to domestic Israeli rivals.
It isn’t only ethnic or
religious or social lines along which Israelis see themselves fissuring. The
Jerusalem Report survey shows that, even though Israel is smaller than New
Jersey, there’s great scope for fear to adopt different regional flavors even
within such a tiny country.
In Jerusalem, where the intifada saw the most
frequent deadly attacks, 30 percent of respondents put Palestinian terror as
their greatest fear. Yet in the north, where Hizballah has most often unleashed
its violence, an equivalent number of Israelis ranked Iran – backers of the
Lebanese group – as the sum of all fears. So, too, in the Dan region, with its
memories of Saddam’s Scuds and the knowledge that if Tehran launches its
rockets, it will be most likely to aim them at the economic heart of
Such a set of ruptures is evidence that Israel is not the
monolithic edifice so often rendered in journalistic accounts. That might seem
as it should be for an entire nation. After all, Kansans fear tornado season,
and Oregonians don’t. But it’s a startling revelation for Israel, whose central
myth has been that it’s the single, unifying answer to the historical problems
of the Jewish people.
Fear is learned
Neuroscientists know that fear and
trauma repeat with less and less need for the original fear stimulus, until
eventually the threat is long gone and fear ends up being all that’s left.
Psychologists, too, understand that fear is learned, as much as the result of
experience. Palestinian terror attacks, for example, have been negligible over
the last six years. The result is that Palestinian terror and war limps in a
poor fourth when Israelis count their greatest fears. A decade ago, when Ariel
Sharon was prime minister, that would have been unthinkable. Back then, no one
could have imagined the day would come so soon – and without a new peace
agreement – when Israelis wouldn’t care a hang about the Palestinians. Things
change, but around the Middle East they aren’t necessarily changing for the
To fear, of course, is natural. When Alexander the Great asked a
group of European Celts what they feared most, the Roman historian Arrian tells
us they replied that the only thing they feared was “that the sky might fall on
our heads.” In other words, they were telling the Macedonian king that they were
afraid of nothing. Alexander thought they were either boastful or nuts.
Scientists know that fear is an innate characteristic of humanity, one of a
small group of emotions all of us share, such as joy, anger, and sadness. If you
don’t believe that, look at “The New York Times” best-seller list for hardcover
fiction on which eight of the current top 10 novels are entertaining accounts of
murder, terror, war or other things we generally don’t want to encounter in
If there is a positive perspective to be found it’s that the
“treasure house” of fears is now there to be opened. For many years, Israelis
had an excuse not to enter, so exercised were they by external
If, as The Jerusalem Report survey suggests, they are beginning
to focus on themselves, then they may be about to engage in a long-overdue
Since this is Israel, it’s likely to be loud and
unpleasant and ill-mannered, and it could all go horribly wrong. But when the
noise dies down, it is just possible that Israelis may have come to understand
each other in a way that all their previous protestations of unity denied them.
Matt Rees, a former Time magazine Jerusalem bureau chief, is the award-winning
author of the Omar Yussef detective series. His latest novel is ʽMozartʼs Last