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Israel is a broken society. And it's not just Bibi to blame

Israel is a broken society. And it's not just Bibi to blame
7 min read

Emad Moussa

07 May, 2024
Israel's allies are snubbing Netanyahu to cloak their complicity in genocide, writes Emad Moussa. But what if Bibi is a symptom of a wider societal disease?
Most Israelis are unable to see things from the other's perspective or accept responsibility for the harm they have inflicted, writes Emad Moussa [photo credit: Getty Images]

In Washington, murmurs of discontent over Bibi's handling of Israel's war on Gaza have turned into outright disdain. 

The decision of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of Israel's staunchest allies, to call for the ousting of Benjamin Netanyahu sent shockwaves throughout the Capitol.

President Biden then trumped Schumer by scolding Netanyahu, calling his approach on Gaza a "mistake", and break decades of bilateral convention. 

Both cases suggest that Bibi, and his right-wing sidekicks, are the problem, not Israel itself. Remove Netanyahu and everything will be peachy.

But how accurate is this? Rather, what drives Netanyahu, and is he solely responsible for Israel's genocidal intent?

What drives Benjamin Netanyahu?

Minimalist theorists point to Benjamin Netanyahu's background to explain his behaviour, conflating the current "Israeli situation" as a reflection of Netanyahu's psyche. 

They would point to Bibi's admiration of Vladimir Jabotinsky's revisionist Zionism — a militaristic approach to control all of historical Palestine — to explain his chauvinism.

They might also point to Netanyahu's father, Ben-Zion, and his — and Jabotinsky's — belief that history is a series of failed attempts to destroy the Jewish people to understand his obsession with Israeli national security.

Finally, they may point to the death of his brother Yoni in the Entebbe raid in 1976 to explain Netanyahu's worldview that splits everyone into two camps: the 'unquestionably pro-Israel' camp and the 'absolutely anti-Jewish' camp.

It is this, they argue, that accounts for Netanyahu's decontextualisation of history. Anti-Israel activists are a 'blast from the past' of the "lachrymose Jewish history", to use a term from Jewish historian Salo Cohen.

In Netanyahu's world, there is a continuum of Jewish suffering from Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of the First Temple in 586BC, to the Russian pogroms and the Dreyfus Affair in 1896, to 1930-40s Germany, and then the Arab-Israeli conflict and the occupation of the Palestinians. 

This outlook is ahistorical, it does not abide by the laws of causality, leading to misperceived reality. Netanyahu, for example, had little qualms in 2015 attributing the Final Solution to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Amin al-Husseini, acquitting Hitler of his genocidal masterplan and pinning the Shoah on Palestinians.

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But what the minimalist theory fails to appreciate is that by focusing the blame on one person you relieve the collective of accountability. Crucially, it distracts from the deeper context in which Benjamin Netanyahu emerged: his Israeli-Jewish electorate. 

Leaders, like everyone else, are the product of their society's belief system, social identity, ethos, and emotional orientations. However extreme, their personal tendencies would not be freely externalised unless they are societally encouraged, approved, or at least tolerated.  

Indeed, most Israelis are indignant with Netanyahu, and blame him personally for the security breach on October 7, the thwarting of a hostage deal with Hamas, and the undermining of Israeli democracy. But this same majority — including the relatives of the hostages — who want Netanyahu to step down to secure a hostage deal simultaneously support his policies against the Palestinians. 

Most of them want the war to continue and believe that unprecedented massacres and war crimes in Gaza are justified. Most believe the IDF is using "too little firepower" in Gaza despite the murder of over 34,750 Palestinians, famine, mass displacement, and the destruction of nearly half of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Israeli social media channels are still teeming with racist, genocidal rants and footage celebrating and mocking Palestinian civilian deaths, including thousands of children.

Many journalists and officials have also been voicing similar genocidal language. This language, according to Chris McNeal, who covered the Rwandan genocide, reminded him of the terms used by the Hutus to incite against the Tutsis.   

The majority of Israelis oppose, in principle, the establishment of a Palestinian state. And like Netanyahu, many interpret the world’s uproar over the Gaza slaughter as anti-Jewish by denying Israel — the occupier — its ‘right to self-defence.’

This skewed reasoning may have been heightened by October 7 but the baseline was already there: a pre-existing, decades-long belief system that made Israeli policies, however controversial, justifiable in the eyes of most Israeli Jews. 

It allows contradictory practices such as wanting a hostage deal and opposing a ceasefire reconcilable. In Israel, there is no contradiction in 'wanting' peace but not the end of the occupation. This allows most Israelis to be part of the occupation either by detachment, encouragement, or tolerance of their governments’ practices.

The violent reality of Israel's 'chosen people'

Three factors are at play here: self-perceived victimhood, self-grandiose, and the dehumanisation of the Palestinians. Ben-Zion and Benjamin Netanyahu did not begin the victim trend, rather, they were and are the product of it.

Zionism was established on the notion of Jewish emancipation from centuries of victimisation, and Israel’s inception was perceived as a victim redemption.

Zionists turning from victims to victimisers after the Shoah did not change their self-image as victims. Resistance and world criticism against their military occupation have deepened that perception rather than triggering self-reflection. 

Israelis are perhaps the only occupiers in modern history who think of themselves as victims — if not the only true victims. This allows them to feel like they are the victims of the very people they occupy and routinely victimise. 

To fuel this bizarre mindset, it needs, among other things, to capitalise upon the pre-existing belief that Israelis are 'the chosen people'.

In a 2023 poll, the majority of Israeli Jews said ‘yes’ to the question: do you believe that Jews are the ‘chosen people’ as the Bible describes?

In another poll ten years earlier, half of Israeli Jews believed ‘very strongly’ or ‘quite strongly’ that Jews are the chosen people. In a 2016 survey, 61% of them agreed that God granted the land of Israel to them.

Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, comments “Most Israelis deeply believe that we are the chosen people…[with] the right to do anything.”

For the above to be true, it requires the elimination of all vestiges of Palestinian victimhood. Who wants competition that undermines one's self-image, perpetual victimhood, and sense of grandiosity? Therefore, Palestinians are routinely and systematically dehumanised.

If Palestinians are not ‘equally human’, it means they have no human rights. It means Israel can cull them as — 'human animals’ — and take over their land with impunity. 

These three factors turn a society’s perspective exclusively inwards, developing into a high degree of self-involvement and narcissism. ‘Victims’ usually tend to focus on themselves and their own suffering, leading to a reduced capacity for empathy, and with that, reduced group-based guilt.

They grow unable to see things from the other's perspective, identify with their story, or accept responsibility for the harm they have inflicted. Worse, they shift the blame of their own doings to their victims: “Hamas made me do it” or — courtesy of Golda Meir — “We can never forgive [the Arabs] for forcing us to kill their children.”

A society with such pathological narcissistic traits feels morally superior and highly entitled to do whatever it takes to ensure its safety, with little regard for moral considerations or physical consequences.  

Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wingers have given the orders to kill 14,000 children and level hundreds of thousands of homes in Gaza, but he has had the backing of the majority of Jewish Israelis to do so. Bibi is a symptom of a diseased society, not the disease itself.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.