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How Love and Fear Fuel Israel

Aug 07, 2023

Two new books explore the emotions that affect the political life of the Jewish state.

Popular sentiment has a role in the political life of all nations, but the Jewish state, born after two millennia of persecution and yearning, offers a particularly strong case study in how emotion can affect politics—underlying everything from ideology to the drawing of lines on a map. The last six months alone has seen a surge of strong sentiment, ironically, over the question of who gets to decide whether a particular law is “reasonable.” The streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have filled with passionate protestors, their faces distorted by crying or yelling, waving giant flags as water cannons force them off their feet. And the debate has been colored as much by argument as by resentment, anxiety, pride, and a plethora of other potent feelings.

Two new books, Eva Illouz’s The Emotional Life of Populism and Derek Penslar’s Zionism: An Emotional State, zero in on those emotions, like love and fear, which are so seldom acknowledged for what they are but play an outsize role in shaping politics.

Though written from different angles—Illouz is a prominent sociologist, and Penslar is a distinguished historian—both echo the brilliant Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”

Historians have always acknowledged the impact of emotions on the body politic. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides emphasized how fear led the Spartans to declare war on Athens, how fear deafened Athenians to the reason of Pericles, and how fear made them vulnerable to the demagoguery of Cleon. But Thucydides also emphasized the role of love, noting that Pericles failed to persuade his fellow citizens to love Athens and lamenting that Alcibiades, Pericles’s unworthy successor, seduced the Athenians with his proposal to invade Sicily—generating a bolt of eros that, after galvanizing the city, led to its eventual downfall.

More than two millennia later, fear and love are still tearing us apart and bringing us together. Both Illouz and Penslar consider these and other emotions. On the dark side, there are the usual suspects: resentment, disgust, and (in Penslar’s case) hatred; on the light side, Illouz focuses on pride as well as love, while Penslar takes up gratitude.

Consider fear. Illouz paraphrases a famous remark by Thomas Hobbes in writing that when Israel was born, fear was born as its twin. She neglects to add that Hobbes insisted that the news of the Spanish Armada invasion in 1588 caused his mother to give premature birth to him. As for Israel, the fear that accompanied the country's founding stemmed not just from the news that the Arab armies were invading in response to its announcement of independence but also from the “quasi-metaphysical belief,” as Illouz puts it—stoked by centuries of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic experiences that climaxed in the Holocaust—that the world, quite simply, demanded the annihilation of the Jews.

This sense of constant threat is an active force in the country, where fear is permanently installed over the political landscape, giving rise to what Illouz calls a “securitist democracy” whose politics are shaped by existential imperatives. Of course, she does not dismiss the serious and several threats that confront Israel. (Among the people she interviewed were three women who belong to a kibbutz in the northwestern Negev, where “constant fear” dictates their daily schedules and sentiments.) But Illouz also emphasizes the crippling fears that inform the lives of Arabs living in Israel. As a lawyer in East Jerusalem observes, one “lives with the constant threat of incarceration, of stop and frisk … You are in constant fear of being in the wrong place.”

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In the realm of fear, the demagogue is king. The fear spurred by a clear and present danger can have a positive consequence, forging a sense of unity and community where none had before existed. Much more often, however, fear is exploited by political leaders for partisan goals inimical to the nation’s well-being. Illouz describes the dependence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s long political career—he has served as Israel’s prime minister longer than Franklin Roosevelt did as America’s president—on his relentless and skillful manipulation of fear. Illouz even goes so far as to say that Netanyahu wrote the playbook to which Donald Trump’s political career is an appendix. Netanyahu’s rhetoric, she concludes, portrays a state of Israel divided between two camps: “one that would defend the survival of the state, another that would threaten it.”

Similarly, Penslar associates Netanyahu with what the author calls “Catastrophic Zionism,” which combines and capitalizes on the “fear for the survival of Jews outside Israel and those in the state of Israel itself.” Like Illouz, Penslar emphasizes that Netanyahu fueled this fear on the eve of the 2015 elections, when his campaign deliberately blurred the line between Palestinians living in the occupied territories and those who were Israeli citizens, sending a text message warning supporters that “Arab voters [are] moving in droves to the polling stations.” It was a winning strategy for Netanyahu, as it was for other populists one year later. In 2016, as British voters prepared to vote on the Brexit referendum, posters appeared picturing droves of nonwhite migrants under the bold red warning Breaking Point, while American voters, poised to vote in the 2016 presidential election, listened to the Republican candidate Donald Trump warning against droves of drug dealers and rapists massing at the southern border.

We tend to hate the things we fear. With great care and clarity, Penslar traces not just the long history of hatred aimed at Jews by anti-Semites and many anti-Zionists. He also tracks the hatred that most Zionists directed at the British during the mandate governing Palestine from 1918 to 1948—a hatred that shifted to Palestinians after independence. His summary of Israel’s denial of its citizens’ own anti-Palestinian hatred and its baleful consequences is especially powerful. Though many Israelis, Penslar writes, “bore the knowledge of what they had done during the 1948 war, the instruments of official memory … presented a sanitized version, denying not only the violence wrought by Jews against Palestinians but also the presence of hatred and rage behind it.”

We also hate those things which disgust us. In another of her books, From Disgust to Humanity, Nussbaum measures this emotion’s noxious effects on societies. Whereas anger, which can lead to urgent political or social reforms, has its uses, disgust is worse than useless. As Nussbaum argues, it leads at best to “escape and disengagement” and at worst to racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. Illouz, who cites this book of Nussbaum’s, argues that disgust also fuels anti-Arab sentiment in Israel, a trend boosted by what she calls “disgust entrepreneurs” whose task is “to create, engineer, and reinforce disgust from some groups to others.”

One trailblazing entrepreneur was among America’s most toxic exports: Meir Kahane, the founder of Israel’s ultranationalist and racist Kach Party. His extremist views on citizenship, marriage, and education—all of which align with a politics of purity driven by fear of contamination—set the standard for admirers who now have prominent roles in Netnayahu’s government, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, the current national-security minister, who belonged to Kach’s youth movement, and Bezalel Smotrich, the current finance minister, who called for “wiping out” a West Bank town that was recently at the center of violent actions against settlers.

Ben-Gvir spoke at a commemoration for Kahane last year and reminded his audience, “Ultimately, Rabbi Kahane was about love.” That love can be as problematic as it is powerful was underscored by Ben-Gvir’s proviso that Kahane loved Israel “without compromise, without any other consideration.” In a superb account of the ties that bind Eros and Eretz Israel, Penslar reveals the pivotal role played by historians and novelists—not just Jewish writers such as Heinrich Graetz, whose sentimental historical narratives about Jews over the centuries won a wide following in Europe in the 19th century, but also Gentile writers such as George Eliot. The eponymous hero of the latter’s novel Daniel Deronda, a noble and sensitive youth who discovers his Jewish roots, in effect became Victorian England’s rejoinder to the self-interested, unscrupulous character of Fagan from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist— Deronda was someone with whom Jewish and Gentile readers could fall in love.

Penslar pursues the impact of literary works on the evolution of American Jewry’s emotional ties to Israel well into the 20th century, including a long glance at Leon Uris’s Exodus. Published in 1958, the novel sold more than 20 million copies and galvanized American Jewish readers. As they became enamored with the characters Ari Ben Canaan and Kitty Fremont, they fell even more deeply in love with the idea of Israel—albeit an Israel where all Israelis were portrayed as brave and brilliant and all Arabs as untrustworthy and unworthy. (Penslar gives short shrift, though, to the film version. Was I the only American teenager who, when he left to work as a kibbutz volunteer, was humming Ernest Gold’s theme song?)

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Just as love can unite a people, a love that is built on excluding others can also divide. Illouz offers a sobering account not only of the deepening animosity between Israelis and Palestinians, but also of the persistent acrimony between Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities. It is no secret that Netanyahu’s Likud party has won the support of Sephardic voters by exploiting their resentment over the discrimination they have experienced. As Illouz argues, Likud’s populist and nationalist rhetoric has seduced the Mizrahim—Jews of Afro-Asian descent—despite the fact that the leadership is almost exclusively Ashkenazi and their neoliberal policies penalize the very people who support them. As a result, she concludes, “nationalism has come to be a class marker, as it has become the identity of those who stand diametrically opposed to … the ‘cosmopolitan class.’”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Illouz and Penslar both conclude their books by investigating hopefulness as an emotion. Israel, after all, originated as a great vessel of hope for people across the world—nationalism as a kind of redemption for a long-suffering people. Illouz suggests that hope, in principle, can strengthen the bonds of fraternity not just among the nation's own members but with other countries as well, opening the way to dialogue, tolerance, and justice. Perhaps, but there is something forlorn in hoping that hope will carry the day. Given recent events in Israel (and the United States), Penslar’s conclusion, tragically, carries greater weight. He reminds us that the Hebrew word for hope is tikvah, whose literal biblical meaning is “cord” or “rope”—“something to hold onto.” Many of us now find ourselves grasping this cord more tightly than ever before.

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