Israel and the ‘Chronic Conflict Virus’

While Israel is not an island, the New Jersey-sized nation can undoubtedly relate to thalassophobia. It is the world’s sole Jewish state, and is surrounded by a sea of Arab neighbors.

July 31, 2019 13:24
Israel and the ‘Chronic Conflict Virus’

Prof. Asa Kasher. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Thalassophobia: A Greek word that describes an intense and persistent fear of the sea or of sea travel. Vacationers traveling to islands like Hawaii have documented experiences of this alarming sensation. The feeling of isolation – that there are no human beings outside of a little green dot in a world of blue – often gets to people. Travelers express the feeling of ominous threats coming from everywhere.
While Israel is not an island, the New Jersey-sized nation can undoubtedly relate to thalassophobia. It is the world’s sole Jewish state, and is surrounded by a sea of Arab neighbors. Most of these countries would never invite Israel to a neighborhood barbecue – indeed, 17 of those in the Arab League do not even recognize Israel as a state. And unlike on tropical islands like Hawaii, threats from “the Arab sea” are very real. Israel has been involved in military conflict since her formation. The world’s spotlight of chaos has always shined bright on the young state.
While Israel is sometimes considered a younger, Middle Eastern version of the United States, the two countries are vastly different. Israel’s condition of chronic conflict impacts the daily lives of its citizens: instead of going to university at 18, kids grow up quickly in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“Comparing Israeli students to US students, Israeli students who attend classes after having served are more mature,” says Prof. Asa Kasher of Tel Aviv University, who wrote the IDF’s Code of Conduct. The Israeli students “have a general attitude toward life that is more comparable to adults. In the US, when you teach undergrads, you call them kids – their general attitude toward the world is more similar to that of kids than to that of Israeli ex-soldiers.
“Think about a young officer, very early in their military service. Some are slightly older than 20, many are younger. They shoulder quite a heavy responsibility. They have a responsibility to the defense of the state, and a responsibility to the lives of their subordinates. It’s a very heavy responsibility that most [American students] don’t ever shoulder.”
Israeli teens serve a country that is constantly defending its right to exist. Service is radically different from America’s voluntary service, in which there is no imminent, direct threat. While many Israelis never have to fire a weapon, the threat that they will be called into action is always there.
Despite this huge burden, Kasher does not believe serving in the IDF has a profound effect on citizens’ mentality. “They know more, they have experience dealing with responsibility and risk, and they have experience sometimes losing comrades, so they’re more accomplished adults. But their general mentality I don’t think changes in the army.”
Regarding the psyche of Israelis, Kasher maintains that “it is dangerous to make generalizations about the Israeli population” due to its diversity. Asked if he thinks Israel’s tense relations with its neighbors and frequent military conflict has affected all citizens in the state, Kasher is dubious.
“The population contains very different groups,” he cautions. “There are those who serve in the army, there are those who come with a strong religious background not to serve, there are Jews in the army and there are non-Jews who don’t serve.
“People who serve are very thoroughly briefed about the operations in which they participate; they are very thoroughly briefed about military ethics and law that apply to their activities. On the other hand, people who aren’t briefed, who haven’t served, for them, headlines on television or in the newspaper are always shallow. [Headlines] are quite often misinterpretations of the facts and reasons of the situation. So their attitude is based on some general intuitions and general attitude toward the conflict and the IDF, so it’s completely different.”
Despite Kasher’s reasonable warnings not to make generalizations about Israel’s diverse population, I am going to do it anyway.
Israelis are unlike any group of people in the world, and that is due to their environment.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress evaluating the psychological state of almost 9,000 Israeli Jewish teens over 14 years old (1998 to 2011) revealed a correlation between mental health issues (including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and paranoia) and exposure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to the study, teens displayed the greatest amount of mental health symptoms during escalations of the conflict such as the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, and during the uptick in global terrorism during 2010 and 2011. The teens’ mental health issues peaked during elongated periods of terror: the second intifada (2001-2005), and during Hezbollah rocket fire in 2006 and 2007. The study concludes that Israel’s violent environment puts its teens at risk for mental health problems.
Every citizen knows someone who was killed during the five-year second intifada. Innocent bystanders got caught in crossfire. Everyday workers boarded buses that were spontaneously bombed. Children lost their parents, and parents lost their children.
Traumatic events like these are not easily forgotten: it is not easy to forget the brother who was killed on his daily bus route, the bombing of the apartment building next door. It is not easy to forget that many of those who supported and participated in the Palestinian uprising of the early 2000s live as close as right next door, to this day.
I believe you can see the effects of Israel’s constant armed conflict on its citizens’ mentality by the way they vote. Despite facing a series of corruption charges, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month became the longest-serving leader in Israel’s history.
Why do Israelis continue to elect a leader who according to the country’s own attorney general should be charged for bribery, fraud and breach of trust? The numbers tell a part of the story: according to B’Tselem – The Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 1,072 Israelis were killed by Palestinians while 6,303 Palestinians were killed by Israelis between 2000 and 2009, encompassing the second intifada and the war in Gaza.
Netanyahu took office soon after the Gaza war ended in 2009. Since his inauguration, 195 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians, and 3,485 Palestinians were killed by Israelis. Wars with Lebanon and Syria have been avoided. Tensions with the Hamas government in Gaza have not escalated to a point of mass destruction.
Israelis heavily value a sense of security, and thus Netanyahu remains the popular choice for his experience as a proven leader. It is probable that many of those who vote for him actually hate him. However, his voters believe he is the best option because of the relative safety his government has provided for the past decade. After what Israel has been through, who could blame the citizens for valuing security over all else?
When I walk around Jerusalem, I do not feel unsafe. Israelis around me do not look frightened, or wear an expression that suggests they are expecting a missile to drop from the sky. People casually go about their days, bargaining for vegetables at the market and running to make the bus on the way to work. My claim that the armed conflict affects the psyche of Israelis should not be taken strictly at face value. Rather, think of Israel’s constant conflict as a dormant virus.
When a virus enters the body, it invades cells and takes over their functioning. Israel’s virus – the “Chronic Conflict Virus” – invades cells, or Israeli citizens, and affects their mentality. The virus causes symptoms of thalassophobia.
Viruses sometimes develop into diseases, which affect the entire functioning of an organism. During times of armed conflict, Israel’s chronic conflict virus is activated in all cells, or all individuals. This activation in turn triggers the disease that affects all of Israel, the organism itself.
The “Arab sea” around Israel is not going away, so neither are Israelis’ symptoms of thalassophobia. And unless US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is an unexpected, world-changing success, the “chronic conflict virus” does not appear to be dissipating any time soon.
Israelis live with the chronic conflict virus every day, and even if they do not show it, it affects them. Only time will tell if someone can find a cure for the world’s most unsolvable case.

Bradley Levin is an undergraduate student at Boston University, studying psychology and creative writing

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