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Culture of fear

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History has handed the Jewish people the fear of annihilation on a plate – but while the fear exists, what is feared may not

Seth Freedman

This morning I was invited to speak to a group of senior aid workers who are keen to approach both the Israeli and diaspora Jewish communities with their latest campaign. They are, understandably, apprehensive about the best way to proceed, given the minefield that exists under the feet of anyone seeking to criticise elements of Israel’s policies.

We talked about the most effective way to open people’s eyes to the reality of the occupation, in order to bring home the truth of what is being perpetrated in the name of Israel’s security. Given the volte face that I’ve performed since moving to Israel four years ago, I was asked to describe my most influential experience thus far, in terms of providing a catalyst to the political journey upon which I’ve embarked.

Without hesitation, I replied that it had been my illicit trip to Bethlehem during a weekend furlough from the army. Our unit was serving in the city at the time, and – until then – I had been conditioned to see the residents as potential terrorists who had to be dealt with accordingly in order to avert a deadly threat to our safety.

With no M16 by my side or grenade in my pack, I passed through the checkpoint and took my first tentative steps on so-called enemy terrain. In jeans and a T-shirt, I walked the same streets of the Aida refugee camp that a day earlier I’d been patrolling armed to the teeth and with five other soldiers backing me up.

I gazed casually at the same windows and doors at which I’d previously had to stare, hawk-like, in case a gunman or bomber should burst out and attack our squad. I looked calmly at the same gangs of youths who, when I was in uniform, I’d had to judge in an instant – whether they were benignly intentioned or baying for my blood.

The fear instilled in me by the army all but dissipated once I was simply a tourist strolling through the town. Conversely, the more weaponry and protective gear I carried, the more terrifying the place became which, it dawned on me, was a distillation of Israel’s core and eternal paradox – one that has dogged it since the moment the state was created.

For there to be a justification for Israel’s existence, there first has to exist an existential threat to the Jewish people. Granted, history has handed us that fear of annihilation on a plate, but just because the fear exists, it doesn’t necessarily follow that what is feared does too.

A prominent narrative of the Jewish tradition is that, in every generation, a manifestation of Amalek will attempt to wipe out the Jewish people, just as the original marauding Amalekites did during the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The Romans, Babylonians, Greeks, Soviets and Nazis have all, understandably, been christened modern-day Amalekites – and now Iran is being touted as the most recent member of the millennia-old dynasty.

Fear of extermination is the ace in the Jewish pack of emotions, and has been capitalised on in spades by the virulent strain of nationalism encapsulated in today’s Zionism. Occupy an entire people and crush their hopes and dreams for 40 years? A necessary evil – if we don’t then we’re done for. Fly in the face of international law, basic morality, and even the central tenets of our own, ostensibly compassionate, religion? Sorry, but you have to understand that “they” all want us dead; it’s us or them, from now until eternity.

It’s almost irrelevant who “they” are. One day it’s the Palestinians for daring to try to shake off the yoke of oppression; the next it’s the European left for having the nerve to intercede on behalf of justice and decency. “They” can be a lone gunman, such as Norman Finkelstein or “they” can be a billion people, such as the world’s entire Muslim population, conveniently repackaged as one homogenous group based on spurious racial profiling.

Concrete walls are built between “us” and “them”; orders are given banning Israelis from crossing the divide into PA territory – all under the banner of protecting the security of Israelis. In reality, however, they are merely an insidious attempt to hermetically seal Israel off from the outside world and convince the Israelis that it’s an unavoidable measure to take.

Those of us who’ve come, seen, and conquered our preconceptions of the Palestinian street know full well that the canards being propagated are simply preposterous. Of course, there are some very angry, very violent militants among the Palestinian people, but so too are there similarly dangerous elements in Israeli society, as well as in every ethnic group around the world.

The reaction amongst my Israeli friends when they hear of my trips to Jenin, Ramallah or Bethlehem is usually one of abject horror that I even set foot inside the cities, let alone met the locals and visited them in their homes. “They’d kill you if they knew you were Jewish,” they cry, utterly convinced that a Palestinian wolf lies behind every refugee camp door. The truth is far different, of course; almost everyone I meet knows I am both Jewish and Israeli, and – thus far – I’ve been neither beaten, beheaded nor bludgeoned to death.

It’s totally understandable why the mythology and misconceptions flourish unchecked amongst the Israeli man on the street, or in the diaspora Jewish community. In the vacuum left by enforced separation between Jews and Palestinians, rampant fabrication runs riot, and fiction becomes truth in the minds of the masses. It’s also understandable that the government encourages and promotes such fairy tales, in order to garner support for their never ending policies of irredentism and subjugation.

But just because it’s understandable doesn’t make it in any way acceptable. Morals and ethics are crushed under the wheels of the nationalist juggernaut, and what would be entirely unpalatable in any other circumstance becomes not only tolerated by society, but actively encouraged by the Israeli electorate and their cheerleaders around the world.

By continuing to provoke and bully the Palestinians, they create what they fear. Another generation branded Amalekites: another reason for Israelis to circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and convince themselves that it is simply their lot to be eternally hated and reviled. And no amount of well-intentioned pressure can ever be sufficient to penetrate the calcified layer of mistrust between the Jewish people and the outside world.