How Many People Need to Die? The Manipulation of Grief to Incite War

07/11/2014 04:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014
  • Leeat Granek, Ph.D. Critical health psychologist who studies grief, loss and cancer patients and their families
Lior Mizrahi via Getty Images

On July 2, I published an article in Haaretz arguing that governments manipulate our grief in order to push forward political agendas. On July 3, my theory came to life when news broke of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir's murder. Tragically for the Israeli nation, it was all but confirmed that the murder was a revenge killing by Jewish extremists.

Major media outlets including the the New York Times rushed to interpret the escalating violence, the riots, and the alleged revenge killing as an ancient 'blood feud' between Israelis and Palestinians.

This is misleading and incorrect. The violence sweeping across the country and in Gaza is predictable, though absolutely inexcusable. It is the result of government's manipulation of our emotions. This is not the first time this has happened. The manipulation of grief for political purposes has a long history.

Consider the Vietnam War and the rhetoric around the violent brutality that transpired there. During the War, 60,000 American soldiers died in combat, while nearly two million Vietnamese civilians were killed. Westmoreland, Chief of Staff of the United States Army at the time proclaimed, "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient." We must consider this context and this leadership when reflecting on America's responsibility for unjust war tactics including the military command at the time to 'shoot anything that moves.'

Forty-two years later, at the funeral of the three slain Jewish teenagers, Netanyahu echoed Westmoreland, when he said, "A broad moral gulf separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death; we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty, and we mercy and compassion."

The parallels are striking. The "us" versus "them" mentality -- the claim that our side glorifies life while their side glorifies death -- are used in both instances to justify military action.

The parallels do not end there. In 1968, the American presidential candidate, Nixon pledged to bring an end to the war that was seeing increasing protests and expression of public disgust among the American electorate. Instead, when he came to power, Nixon, shifted the focus of attention from the mistreatment of the Vietnamese and tremendous loss of lives on both sides of the divide to the missing and imprisoned American soldiers who he promised to 'bring home' in spite of having no information or evidence that these missing soldiers could be found. The literature professor Gail Holst-Warhaft from Cornell argued that the exploitation and perpetuation of the families' grief under the public's gaze, and the encouragement of false hope for their missing family members to come home was a conscious and precise manipulation of national loss in the service of continuing the war for several more years.

Although the recent situation with the Israeli kidnapped teenagers is a vastly different context, it has become increasingly clear that the police knew the boys were dead from day one. Anyone listening to the police recording can conclude from the devastating gun shots heard in the background they were murdered almost immediately. And yet the nation and the families of the kidnapped boys were dragged through emotional misery for two long weeks of public vigils, prayer circles, daily media coverage, and manipulation of our hope, yearning, and deep and genuine desire to see those boys home safe.

As with the futile search for the prisoners of war in Vietnam, encouraging Israelis to keep searching for the kidnapped boys while knowing with almost 100 percent certainty that they were already dead was a calculated political tactic. In true Israeli fashion, the grief and anxiety knitted our otherwise deeply conflicted nation together for two solid weeks, building momentum for what is happening in the streets today, and what I fear may be coming in the next few months.

To be sure, while I focus on Israel here who claims to hold the higher political moral ground, Hamas, the terrorist organization that for all intents and purposes rules the Palestinian territories and who recently signed a unity pact with the Palestinian Authority refuses to recognize Israel as a State and aims to destroy any political negotiation process. In the last two days alone, Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets into Israel, sending civilians running to bomb shelters, and openly airs ads on television calling for the destruction of Israel and the death of all its civilians. They are equally guilty of manipulating the emotional allegiances of their people to further their own political agendas, with bloody consequences.

The deplorable and frightening violence erupting in Israel and in the occupied territories is not an inevitable blood feud. It is the logical outcome of leaders who cannot come to the table to negotiate peace for the sake of their people.

Until we recognize how our grief is being used to further agendas that our not our own, we will continue to see the despair, hopelessness, violence, and suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians, many of whom are yearning for peace, quiet, and a time where we will finally understand that enough lives have been lost.