Israelis trapped between indifference and jingoism

by Yaniv Reich on January 14, 2010

“Palestinians are blurry figures,” writes Aluf Benn in a recent Ha’aretz column. “Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh speak, women covered from head to toe mourn in a tent, men run with a stretcher after an ambulance, men concealing their faces fire Qassam rockets. Israelis have no interest in knowing anything further.”

Israeli psychology is an odd mixture of rabid paranoia driven by feelings of interminable victimization and casual indifference to the grave reality of life around us.

I often write about nationalist hysteria. Today I want to highlight the indifference that serves as default Israeli thinking about the status quo by presenting excerpts from an article by Aluf Benn, who characterizes aptly this insouciant attitude. Rather than reprinting the entire article, which is worth reading, I will simply list a number of points.

  1. Let’s assume the optimistic forecast by special U.S. envoy George Mitchell comes true and in two years the establishment of an independent Palestine is declared at a ceremony. The event will be broadcast on prime time, but most Israelis will opt to view “Big Brother 6,” “Survivor 7” or whatever the next television hit is. Viewers will behave this way not because they oppose a Palestinian state but because they are indifferent. Palestine-shmalestine simply does not interest them.
  2. Geography: Most Israelis today are cut off from the conflict with the Palestinians and do not interact with them. Nablus and Ramallah are about 40 minutes by car from Tel Aviv, but in the eyes of Tel Avivians they are on a different planet. New York, London and Thailand are much closer.
  3. The big settlements like Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel can be reached almost without having to see Palestinians.
  4. Sharon did not believe in peace and was not interested in links with the “Arabs.” All he wanted was to protect the Jews from attacks by their “bloodthirsty” neighbors. Keeping them out of sight lets Israelis live as if there were no conflict, with only settlers on the periphery and soldiers on the firing line.
  5. Demography: The “demographic problem” also is not frightening when it is locked up behind walls and fences.
  6. Economy: In the past Israel’s economy relied on Palestinian workers, but only older Israelis remember them at restaurants, construction sites and gas stations . . . . The Israeli economy is geared toward Wall Street, not Shuhada Street. The stock market is hardly affected by routine security issues, and real estate prices are flying high as if this were Hong Kong, not a country under threat on a constant war alert.
  7. Army: The Israel Defense Forces, who sent generations of Israelis to the territories, has minimized the exposure of its soldiers to the Palestinians. Fewer and fewer people do reserve duty, and even fewer in the West Bank. The regular army has minimized the activities of its units in the territories and transferred much of the policing duties in the West Bank to the Kfir Brigade. Air force crews, who carry the burden of the fighting in the Gaza Strip, see the Palestinians as silent spots on their screens fed from drone footage.
  8. Entertainment: Entertainment intensifies the gap in the way Israelis have come to regard their country, and the way it is seen in the world. The local media describes Israel as a Western high-tech superpower, an annex of Manhattan and Hollywood. The foreign media covers the conflict: terrorist attacks and assassinations, settlements and peace talks. When the Israelis who have never visited a settlement see themselves on CNN they are offended: We are not like that. ‘This is anti-Semitic propaganda’, they think.

For these reasons, Benn believes that mainstream Israelis exert no political pressure on the government to change the status-quo. Meanwhile the well-organized right-wing fanatics step into this empty political space, bending the Israeli government to their anti-peace agenda. “Most Israelis simply don’t care; they gave up on the territories a long time ago,” he concludes.

Identifying the critical role of Israeli indifference to the suffering that we inflict on Palestinians is, of course, necessary. But as I stated above, this attitude is only the default attitude, the psychological baseline for most Israelis.

A layer of jingoism on top

If this attitude is the norm, Israeli psychology is also far-too-easily whipped up into a jingoistic froth whenever Israel’s pseudo-fascist leaders decide its time to bombard some Arabs or Persians. At those moments, the indifference not-so-subtly fades away and the most wicked and ignorant sentiments take over. More than 90% of us managed to snap out of our “indifference” to support politically our massacre of Gazans, and Gaza, for wholly ill-defined military objectives.

We also lose our indifference when we feel criticized, as Benn also identifies when he discusses our reaction to viewing media coverage of our pet conflict. Maybe Deputy FM Ayalon went a bit far by intentionally and publicly humiliating the ambassador of an ally (Turkey). But most Israelis agree with his indignation at the criticism leveled at Israel by the Turkish PM and others. There is no indifference there.

Aluf Benn therefore gives Israelis a too much credit.

Indifference is undoubtedly a powerful force perpetuating the conflict.

So is our capacity to abandon our indifference and become sheep-like partisans in support of anything that assigned the name “security” by our violent and corrupt leaders.

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