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The Dire Effects of Playing the Fear Card

The government's false claims of threats from within unravel Israel's social cohesion and degrade its moral bedrock
Photo: 1STunningART/AdobeStock
Photo: 1STunningART/AdobeStock
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of “For Heaven’s Sake,” one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis,

The Dire Effects of Playing the Fear Card

First posted on Times of Israel

Fear is one of the most essential and critical of emotions for human survival. It enables us to be attuned to possible danger and most significantly, respond appropriately. Its absence threatens our existence.

As humans, we share the emotion of fear with other species. Where we are particularly challenged, and even possibly endangered, is that our capacity for reason may be used to convince us to ignore or “transcend” our fears under the banner of their irrationality. Calls for people to “overcome their fears” are rightly treated with deep suspicion and perceived as dangerous. To call for the transcending of fear is to undermine the legitimacy of our existence.

As Israelis and Jews, we have much to fear. Iran (nuclear or not), terrorism, missiles, alt-Right nationalism, and anti-Semitism are the Top 5 on all our lists. Tell an Israeli or a Jew that these dangers are illusory, or that our moral duty obligates us to discount them, and you rightly become irrelevant and lose all credibility. The politics of reason and not merely the politics of emotion demand that we advocate for and adopt policies which take seriously the dangers that threaten us.

That said, respecting fear and peddling in fear, are not the same. The former is rational, moral, and necessary; the latter is manipulative and destructive. I fear that it is the latter which is on the rise.

Israel’s Nation-State law, the temporarily suspended Loyalty and Culture legislation, the approved amendment to the National Education law, which empowers the Minister of Education to decide alone who is allowed to address students, the creation of lists of “enemies” who it is unsafe for Israel to allow in, and the attempt to immunize legislation permitting the deportation of refugees from an override by the Supreme Court, are not sensible responses to our central dangers. They piggyback on the presence of our legitimate fears and offer us new markets of possibilities. They transform fear from a necessary emotion into an addiction, all for the sake of political gain.

What all these laws have in common is their attempts to train us into believing that our principal fear is not our external enemies but rather our internal ones. Each in its own way attempts to identify an idea, political adversary, or community within Israel or the Jewish people that is the new danger we must fear and defend ourselves against.

All the above do not defend us against terrorism or our enemies who threaten our survival. They teach that Jewish nationalism is supposedly being undermined from within our people and country. Our flag, language, anthem, and calendar are facing a newfound enemy, and calling out for assistance. Our students and public are having their loyalty undermined by an idea, opinion, movie, or all-powerful organization roaming freely in the marketplace and corrupting our society.

All the above is posited despite Israel’s remarkable success and strength, an unparalleled Jewish majority, the dominance of center-right ideology amongst the majority of Israelis for more than a decade, and the prevalence of Jewish identity and nationalist sentiment amongst Israeli Jews.

When fears are real, and the emotion experienced on an ongoing basis, it is easy to convince people that there are more dangers lurking around the corner. Because it is rational to fear, it is rational and safer to treat a potential danger as real, rather than illusory. It is more prudent to fear the illusory than to ignore the real, for the consequence of the first is delusion, while the consequence of the second, death.

The politics of fear creates an addiction to fear among our citizens, and in turn inflicts our politicians with the same addiction. It is far easier to advocate for the defense of Jewish nationalism than to actually try to explain it and infuse it with meaning. It is far easier to call for the defense of Jewish identity than to work to build a vibrant and meaningful one. It is far easier to claim that Zionism in Israel is under attack than to articulate its beauty and significance for Jewish history. It is far easier to isolate and marginalize the “other” than it is to work to build new bridges of understanding and respect.

Once people buy into fear, they fear those who tell them that it is imagined. That is the Catch-22 of Israel in 2018. Mature voices are ignored and politically unpopular. To “win” in Israel you have to prove that you are even more frightened, or at the minimum, as frightened as your adversary.

Overcoming the politics of fear will not result from calls to transcend it, but by educating toward its profound dangers. In the Middle East it is not true that all that we have to fear, is fear itself. There are many fears that demand our attention. There are many, however, that endanger us and are worthy of being frightened of.

The politics of fear undermines Jewish unity and promulgates senseless hatred of fellow Jews. It turns legitimate political disagreements into sectarian ideologies and heresies. It weakens the loyalty and identification of the “heretics” with Israel and Zionism. It converts the right to self-defense and survival from moral obligations into a policy of amoral, unbridled self-interest. It transforms nationalism from a legitimate political platform of collective identity, meaning, values, and responsibility, into a vehicle advocating for isolation, superiority, and moral discrimination.

As Israelis and Jews, we have much to fear. We do not face the choice between fear and hope. If that is the choice, our rational responsibility is to our fears. That said, we need to learn the dangers of some fears, and more importantly, the dangers that the peddlers in fear pose to our society and our future as the homeland of the Jewish people.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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