Israel 2015: The Politics of Fear and Bad Faith

03/26/2015 03:17 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

If Netanyahu is a magician, to fathom his reelection one must master the politics of dark magic. Few tutors introduce this art better than George Orwell in 1984. The "Two Minute Hate" commences with Goldstein's face on the big screen, denouncing Big Brother and the party, and demanding peace and freedom of speech and thought. As Goldstein's image "produced fear and anger automatically," Winston Smith, the protagonist rebel amidst the ecstatic crowd, could sense how "his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia." When "the hostile figure melted into the face of Big Brother," the crowd broke "into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of 'B-B!... B-B!'... Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise." Doublethink transpires: "to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies... to repudiate morality while laying claim to it," and "the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed."

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Directed by Michael Radford; based on a novel by George Orwell
© Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Directed by Michael Radford; based on a novel by George Orwell.

Fear leads us, as it does other animals, to fight, flee, or freeze. But as humans we have a fourth option: to think. Yet thought requires time to allow for the conscious taming of the animal instinct, supplementing--never supplanting--it with our uniquely human capacity to be critical, to deliberate, and to choose. In principle, democratic elections are precisely about encouraging citizens to take time and to reflect, to make a conscious and conscientious choice between distinct political options. In practice, election campaigns often seek the opposite--the politics of "bad faith," partly by deceiving others, but mostly by deceiving ourselves. Bad faith in the latter, existentialist, sense is about reducing ourselves and others to "things," succumbing to essentialism and determinism. Bad faith is about who you are, not what you do--the permanence of righteousness and viciousness, not the provisionally right and wrong. Politics then becomes not a matter of human agency and free choice, but of listening to, and obeying, the beat of the drum. The most effective political drums are those of death, dignity and identity: surviving, avenging humiliation, and standing with your tribe against its foes. The ballot box transforms from a vehicle for thoughtful, forward-looking change to an echo chamber of fear, faith and fate. It is more about the vindictive and self-vindicating Election Day, less about the four years that follow.

Many politicians are apostles of bad faith, but in Israel, Netanyahu is its high priest. Like Winston in the chambers of The Ministry of Love, Israeli Jews are solemnly summoned on electoral cue to enter Room 101 to meet "the worst thing in the world." Circumstances are always conducive. Whether it is the Iranian nuclear project, the Arab Spring, ISIS, Hamas, a Palestinian state, anti-Semitism in Europe, Obama, Israeli Arabs, the traitorous media or the ominous Left--the room sums up our fears.

"The world has many images of Israel," wrote Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz in 1948, "but Israel has only one image of itself: that of an expiring people, forever on the verge of ceasing to be," with each generation seeing before it "the abyss ready to swallow it up." The threat might change, but the abyss, instructs Netanyahu, abides; there is no partner and no choice. But unlike Winston's Grand Inquisitor, Netanyahu still veils--from himself as well--the seeking of "power entirely for its own sake... Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power."
Can bad faith be broken? Hardly, and never entirely. The Israeli left has taken a twofold reaction to the right. One is its own liberal leap of bad faith, constructing an essentialism around "us vs. him," per the Zionist Union's motto. Second is dismissal, dodging the gaping abyss while denouncing others as paranoid. Both approaches have mostly backfired. Like Begin in 1981, Netanyahu went to the town square to denounce the condescending, godless leftists who scorn the "Mezuzah kissers," and it worked. Like himself in 1996, Netanyahu inflamed the divide between Jews and Arabs in Israel to incite the former against the latter, and it worked.

Netanyahu-Herzog mini-debate, Channel 2, March 14, 2015
© Channel 2, Netanyahu-Herzog "mini-debate," March 14, 2015.

Given Israeli demographic trends, identity politics cannot aid the left. Israeli liberals, both Jews and Arabs, need to recognize both the abyss, which is not a mere mirage, and their own bad faith, in order to reach out to non-liberals. It is only through personal responsibility and social solidarity that true liberty--shouldering the human burden of free choice--can transpire, and change our world for the better. Finally, this piece itself may suffer from bad faith; Bibi too can change.