RAMAT HASHARON - On its 62nd birthday, Israel is still in the grip of existential fears. The speech made by US President Barack Obama in Cairo and his conciliatory words to the Muslim world have pushed the fear button in many Israelis who, over the past 42 years, have become accustomed to occupying the land of the Palestinian people.
Yes indeed we are afraid. We are all afraid. We fear war and we fear peace. Fear is an integral part of our lives. We absorb fear through our mothers’ milk. We practice at being afraid when we play with our fathers.
But we do not want to confront, acknowledge or accept our fear. Instead we want to overcome it. We are taught to conquer it, hide it, and be ashamed of it. He who is afraid is not a “man”. She who is afraid is no Deborah the prophet (who led the Israelites in a war against the Canaanites). In our Jewish culture, “the whole world is a narrow bridge” and “the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
But is it shameful to be afraid? Should we be raising a generation of fearless heroes who believe that “it’s good to die for our country”? Should we be cultivating a generation that works hard to suppress that primitive human instinct within us which identifies the dust cloud of a herd of rhinoceroses charging full-force ahead and looks for a way to escape a lethal confrontation with nature’s armoured corps?
For most of us, the recent history of Israel contains painful reminders of the wars that left individuals, families and a whole nation with an open wound. Bereaved parents, orphans, grieving siblings and widows continue to live with painful memories of their loved ones who will not return. People who were maimed, people with post- traumatic stress disorder, former captives — all face hardships on a daily basis. They are victims of heroic wars: of necessary and unnecessary wars.
But the lessons we should take from our long history, both recent and ancient, is not that one should repress fear. On the contrary, it is more courageous to face the fear that overwhelms us and understand that it is a natural emotion that serves an important function. Only when we acknowledge the fear, and study it, can we learn which type of fear is crucial to our survival and which stands in our way: which fear should be encouraged and which should not.
Indeed, it is true that private fear is paralysing and is sometimes accompanied by a desire to escape and suppress. Being scared on a personal level often results in making compromising decisions and choices. On the other hand, public fear can guarantee sanity, realistic observation and the ability to replace distorted notions of unlimited power which endanger the very existence of the people and the state with good judgement.
Former prime minister Levy Eshkol taught us a good lesson about fear and sanity. Before engaging in the 1967 War, he wanted to make sure that there was no other choice even at the expense of tarnishing his public image. Even in our present-day reality we must understand that caring about human life is not a weakness. Our attachment to the legacy of our forefathers does not have to harden our hearts and cause us to sacrifice life on the altar of holy real estate.
Those who exhibit a pragmatism in political and security matters, even if this approach is motivated by a fear of losing international support and legitimacy, should be strengthened and encouraged. Political as well as security pragmatism, resulting in international support, should be encouraged. Hence, we must refrain from the desire to press the “delete button” in the computer of our mind, so as to avoid the elimination of the software which keeps us in states of fear and anxiety. Fear has helped us survive in our distant history and it still helps us protect ourselves and our children today.
The problem with repressing the fear that weighs us down or the tests of courage that we put ourselves through is that these are usually unsuccessful attempts to assume the image of the superhero, who in reality ends up finishing his life with his name engraved on a monument for fallen soldiers rather than beginning his life with his name appearing in a wedding announcement in the newspaper.
The process of accepting fear is not a one-time act. Rather, it is part of an ongoing process of acknowledging our right to live. It is a central component of our belief in the sanctity of life. The bottom line is: we learn to move forward, grow, compromise, forgive, take responsibility, give love and believe in ourselves — even when fear is an integral part of our lives.
Understanding this will allow us to adjust our collective national thought patterns and our patriotic perceptions of reality to make room for good neighbourliness, acceptance of the enemy and a letting go of the need for self-defence measures such as the security wall, or the despicable checkpoints and the settlements which crop up on every hilltop.
The option of becoming a “fearless” superpower in the Middle East that casts a shadow of fear on its neighbours, does not lead to peace and reconciliation but instead to yet another round of Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed. The 17th century British philosopher, Francis Bacon said “he, of whom many are afraid, ought to fear many”. No, we should not strive to be fierce and fearless. On the contrary, we must understand that acknowledging, accepting and understanding our fears is essential to surviving and thriving in the world.
* Dr. Jona Bargur is a member of the Parents Circle-Forum of Bereaved Palestinian and Israeli Families for Peace and Reconciliation. This article is part of a special series on the impact of fear in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).