What Israelis fear most

It isn’t Palestinian terror, war, or Iran that keeps most Israelis up at night - a majority are more fearful of fellow compatriots.

Argument DO NOT REPUBLISH 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
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 compatriots.
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 Americans.
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 can.
Asked to list their greatest fears, millions of Americans say they are: public speaking, needles, and clowns.
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 states.
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 remote.
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.
Internal divisions
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 take hold.
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 Israel.
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 better.
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 reality.
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 threats.
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 self-examination.
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 Ariaʼ (HarperCollins).