Appealing to Israel’s reason
The approval rating for Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, spiked at the start of the Gaza War but had slumped by the time of this week’s ceasefire. Have Israeli attitudes to the use of force shifted?
Waning popularity: Binyamin Netanyahu. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty
If there were a website that tracked elements of the Israeli national psyche, the way that financial sites show graphs of market indicators, we’d see that Israel’s Holocaust-victimisation index continues its long-term rise.
A related index, tracking belief in Israelis’ ability to solve their 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 downwards, towards reality.
And the graph for a third index, the popularity of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin 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: the Israeli education ministry plans to boost the proportion of high-school history study devoted to the Holocaust. That’s no small task, given how much of the existing curriculum is already devoted to that subject, not to mention the prodigious investment in what has become the de-rigueur Holocaust tour of Poland for 17- and 18-year-old students.
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-fertilisation 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 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 Israel is threatened with annihilation, that it is 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 emphasise 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.