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Tel Aviv Murder Reflects Israeli Fears

Ira Chernus

Why is the murder of gays in Israel different from all other anti-gay violence?  That's the question I asked myself after a gunman killed two and injured fifteen at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv. As the father of a young gay man, I was horrified. As a Jew, I was appalled.

But as an activist for Jewish-Palestinian peace, I was perplexed. I wondered whether homophobia in Israel might somehow be connected to Israel's many years of conflict with its Arab neighbors, its 42 years as an occupying power, and all the violence that Israel has perpetrated as well as endured over those years. 

Israel is not an especially virulent hotbed of anti-gay prejudice.  Israeli police don't attack gay pride marchers on orders of the government, as police in some other countries do. The orthodox Judaism that is the source of most Israeli homophobia is no more reactionary than the conservative brands of religion that feed homophobia in other nations.

In fact, religious reactionaries in Israel probably get less public respect than they do in the United States. And in Israel it's just one religious faction stirring up prejudice against gays, while in the U.S. we have a whole interfaith coalition doing that odious job.

Nevertheless Israel is a unique case, because its political culture has revolved for so long around fear of, and enmity toward, Arabs, especially Palestinians. In the past, out-of-the-blue shootings like the one last week in Tel Aviv have always been motivated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli peace activists have long warned that the moral callousness bred by the occupation and its violence would come home to roost in Jewish Israeli life. Might this attack be evidence that they were right? We can't know for sure until the murderer is identified. Even then, it will hardly be plausible to claim that Israel's policies of domination and violence caused the Tel Aviv murderer to act. Nor do those policies in any way directly cause homophobia in Israel. 

The connection is more subtle. It's about what happens when fear becomes the foundation of public life. Israeli political culture is pervaded by insecurity about the nation's very existence. That insecurity is hardly realistic. Israel has by far the strongest military in its region and still enjoys strong backing from the world's only superpower. The fear that an independent Palestine could destroy Israel is about as realistic as the fear that equal rights for gays would destroy the Israeli -- or American -- family as we know it.

But when insecurity takes hold of a society, reality checks have little effect. That's why many Israelis can make the most absurd claims about Palestinians, just as many homophobes make absurd claims about gays and lesbians, or anyone who doesn't fit their rigid gender stereotypes.

Stereotyping is a huge part of the problem in both cases. Israelis too often make sweeping claims about "the Palestinians," as if the millions of Palestinians were all part of a Borg-like monolith (and, unfortunately, too many Palestinians are equally prone to stereotype "the Israeli").  Similarly, anti-gay forces around the world promote sweeping, often ludicrous, generalizations about homosexuals. 

There's a close link between the stereotyping and the fear. Why do insecure people resort to stereotypes? And why are those people often so conservative, even reactionary, in their politics?  Lots of studies have been devoted to those questions.

A few years ago, a team of psychologists looked at all the studies done over a half-century and found that they generally point to the same conclusions. 

Virtually all of the motives that lead people to be conservative "originate in psychological attempts to manage uncertainty and fear. These, in turn, are inherently related to the two core aspects of conservative thought-resistance to change and the endorsement of inequality. The management of uncertainty is served by resistance to change insofar as change (by its very nature) upsets existing realities and is fraught with insecurity. Fear may be both a cause and a consequence of endorsing inequality; it breeds and justifies competition, dominance struggles, and sometimes, violent strife."

In other words, conservatives want to live in a world where the differences between people are fixed, clear-cut, and organized into simplistic hierarchies of better and worse, because they think that will keep them safe. So they want their world organized by the most basic hierarchy of all: "We are better than them." 

Who the "we" and "them" are is a secondary matter. It could be straights versus gays, or Israelis versus Palestinians, or Jews versus Arabs, or any other convenient pair of opposites.  Any dichotomy will do, as long as it can make life seem simple, unchangeable, and therefore secure. 

Stereotyping is a key to this psychological strategy. It turns complicated three-dimensional people into simplistic two-dimensional images, and that makes the world seem more manageable. When the stereotypes of "them" are negative (as they almost always are) they justify the belief in inequality and the superiority of "our kind of people,"  which is essential to conservatism. 

As the psychologists noted, this claim of superiority breeds and justifies competition, domination, and sometimes violence. It's easy to imagine that the Tel Aviv killer felt fully justified. There's plenty of evidence that Israeli Jews dominating and doing violence against Palestinians -- most of it, though not all, on the orders of the state -- often feel fully justified. After all, "the Palestinians want to destroy Israel"; that's the stereotype on which most Israeli policy is based.

Beneath that stereotype lies an irrational fear so deep that columnist Doron Rosenblum in Israel's leading newspaper, Ha'aretz, calls it paranoia. In fact Rosenblum writes of "at least two outstanding traits of Israeliness: aggressiveness and paranoia," and adds what all the psychological studies confirm:  Those two traits "reflect two sides of the same coin." 

To repeat, none of this suggests that Israel's policies of domination and violence caused the Tel Aviv murder or Israeli homophobia.  But the murder can serve as a mirror, in which Israelis, American Jews, and all of us can see what happens when irrational fears of change and difference take over, whether in an individual mind or a whole society.

We here in the U.S. have plenty of irrational fears of our own to deal with. And we have plenty of groups actively preying on those fears to advance their agendas, including anti-gay-rights groups and Jewish groups supporting right-wing Israeli policies. 

On the Jewish side, the latest case in point is a letter circulating in the U.S. Senate, calling on President Obama to "press Arab leaders to consider dramatic gestures toward Israel" to advance the peace process. 

The letter, initiated by Senators Evan Bayh and James Risch and signed so far by five others, is the top item on the "Take Action" page of the website of AIPAC (the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee).  It has all the hallmarks of previous Congressional letters that have been written in AIPAC's office.  It's no stretch of the imagination that this letter, too, was written by the premier American-Jewish fear-mongering lobby. 

As the Jewish peace group Brit Tzedek v'Shalom tells its members: "There is nothing wrong with calling on all parties in the Middle East to step up to the plate. This is, in fact, President Obama's approach. ... The problem with the Bayh-Risch letter is what is intentionally left out: the need for a complete Israeli settlement freeze to help move the peace process forward." 

In fact, the letter makes it sound like Israel has already taken major steps in the service of peace while Arabs have done nothing.  Read the Arab League's peace plan, now waiting seven years for a response from Israel, alongside reports of Israeli plans to expand settlements and block peace initiatives, to see how misleading this view is. Once again, fear and the conservatism it breeds can crowd out reality, even at the highest levels of government. 

The ultimate tragedy of every right-wing strategy, whether anti-gay, anti-Palestinian, or anti-whatever, is that it's doomed to fail. Trying to prevent change, conservatives only engender conflict that is bound to lead to more change.  Trying to control others, conservatives only insure that the world will grow even further out of their control.  The idea of staying safe by preventing change and complexity is always an illusion. 

But it's an illusion that dies hard. And while it is slowly dying, its victims -- in Tel Aviv, the Occupied Territories, and all over the globe -- are dying too. 

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Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews at


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