Tel Aviv Murder Reflects Israeli Fears

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.

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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