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Rent, Cottage Cheese, and Peace

Ron Skolnik
September 5, 2011

What’s Making Israel Tick These Days?

by Ron Skolnik

From the Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents

WHEN I WORKED for the United Kingdom’s embassy in Tel Aviv as a political analyst during the Oslo and Intifada years, diplomats from the ambassador on down would frequently ask me to help them “figure out the Israelis.” Typically, their question had to do with the negotiating process with the Palestinians and whether or not Israel was “ready to make peace.”

I’d cite this or that decision of the Israeli cabinet or a recent statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office. Pretty soon, however, I realized that what my colleagues were looking for was less the “letter” of Israeli policy than the spirit that moved and informed it. What they were really after was help in cracking the code of an elusive “Israeli psyche.”

Although I had been living in Israel at the time for over two decades, the request was rather daunting. I was not trained as a social psychologist, and although I was “dwelling among my own people,” as the Hebrew expression goes, I had never subjected them to a rigorous analysis along these lines. I soon became an avid consumer of any relevant data I could find: the frequent public opinion polls that are commissioned by Israel’s newspapers and television stations, and the public opinion indexes, such as Tel Aviv University’s “Peace Index,” which track Israeli opinion by asking fixed sets of questions month after month or even year after year to identify long-term trends.

I spoke to pollsters and to the admen and PR “gurus” working behind the scenes for various political parties. I started to pay much closer attention to the way language was used, how various words and phrases resonated on the emotional level. I also began to focus on academic treatments of the issue of politics and psychology by attending seminars, reading scholarly papers, and speaking to Israeli political scientists and sociologists.

In other words, I took the assignment seriously, although the conclusions I have drawn over the years are clearly those of a political — not psychological — analyst.

IN RECENT YEARS, the effort to deliver psychological explanations for Israeli political behavior has gone mainstream. As the gaps between the official Israeli and Palestinian bargaining positions have narrowed (don’t forget that Yitzhak Rabin wouldn’t even utter the words, “Palestinian state,” when the Oslo process got underway), more and more Israeli pundits have reached the conclusion that the main barrier to achieving peace between the two warring peoples stands in the realm of perception, not policy.

One explanation of Israeli perception that I have found most elucidating in recent years is Martin Seligman’s concept of “learned helplessness.” Studying the behavioral conditioning of dogs in the 1960s, Seligman discovered that those who had no control over an pernicious situation would soon take no action to counteract an unpleasant stimulus, even after their control had been restored. Later studies extended this concept to the behavior of humans. In a state of learned helplessness, writes Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer, “Even when solutions are available, a mindless sense of futility prevents a person from reconsidering the situation. The person remains passive in the face of situations that could easily be handled without undue difficulty. Past experience determines present reactions and robs the individual of control.”

I first realized the relevance of the concept of “learned helplessness” to Israeli public opinion after a conversation with an Israeli cabdriver during the terrorist wave that struck Israel in the mid-1990s — at a time when the Rabin government was beginning the process of handing over small parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. Here’s how the cabbie understood the situation: “When we didn’t negotiate with the Palestinians and controlled all the territories, there was terrorism. Now that we’re talking to them and giving them territory, there’s still terrorism. When we let them come to work in Israel, there’s violence. When we keep them out of Israel, there’s also violence.” No matter what Israel did, the cabbie believed, the result would always be the same — so why bother trying?

THIS WAS FAR from the attitude in the heady days of 1993 and 1994, as the Oslo process first began and Israelis fantasized about “eating humus in Damascus.” The Palestinians had always been considered a mortal enemy, of course, since well before the creation of the state, but since there had never before been a serious opportunity for reaching a modus vivendi with them, the majority of Israelis were now optimistic and eager to “give peace a chance.” It was only after the letdown caused by Palestinian suicide bombings (following Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Moslem worshippers in Hebron), that the sense of helplessness began to set in. That sense was compounded following the collapse of diplomacy in 2001 and the sharp upswing in Palestinian terrorism.

Seligman and others have associated the symptoms of learned helplessness with those of clinical depression: pessimism, passivity, loss of interest and energy. In Israel’s political culture, I have seen anecdotal and statistical evidence of this type of behavior. Voter turnout, for example, has tumbled. After hovering steadily around the 80 percent mark throughout the country’s history, voter turnout for Israel’s Knesset elections suddenly dropped by about one-sixth over the last decade. Moral protest, and even political good sense, have also plummeted: recent Israeli government outrages such as the firing upon Syrian border-crossers, the shooting of non-violent Palestinian protestors, and Netanyahu’s disdainful response to Barack Obama’s “1967 borders” speech, have all been met with public passivity and apathy.

TELEVISION-VIEWING HABITS in Israel are also indicative of the mood. In the days following the start of the second Intifada in 2000-2001, as violence spiraled, it was a commonplace to hear an Israeli say that he or she would no longer be following political developments. “I can’t watch the news anymore,” was a refrain typical of the times.

This represented a cultural sea-change. The “Mabat” news broadcast of the state-funded Israel Broadcasting Authority was once considered the “tribal campfire” around which the nation gathered at 9:00 p.m. each night. When the commercial TV Channel 2, and later Channel 10, arrived with their fancier news divisions, the IBA broadcast lost its luster, but ‘the news’ remained a binding element in Israeli society.

This began to change in the early 2000s, however. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave impetus to the process by carrying out what Haaretz journalist Sefi Rachlevsky called a “targeted assassination of hope” when he rushed to tell the nation right after the Camp David summit that the Palestinian leadership was “not a partner for peace.” When his successor, Ariel Sharon, seconded the message, many Israelis lost whatever hope they still harbored that they could effect positive change. They began to move on — and their television viewing habits gravitated to escapist ‘reality’ TV.

Increasingly fatalistic, Israelis became inclined to accept the chronic political violence as an unfortunate ‘fact of life,’ like death or taxes. This sense of helplessness grew even stronger during the past ten years when even the Israeli right’s prediction that Israel could end its problems through crushing military force — “let the IDF win,” was their typical battle-cry — proved illusory.

I AM NOT claiming that every citizen of Israel suffers from learned helplessness. Research has confirmed that not all people (or dogs, for that matter) are affected the same way by seemingly uncontrollable events. Those of us who approach life with an optimistic ‘explanatory style,’ for instance — those who generally believe that the obstacles before us are not permanent — tend to hold on longer to a belief in our ability to effect change and escape adversity.

Still, although not all Israelis have become disengaged from the important political developments around them, a significant number have — enough, in fact, to affect political outcomes. How else can one explain, for example, the bizarre electoral success of the Pensioners’ Party in 2006, which came from nowhere to garner 186,000 votes (including 10 percent of the Tel Aviv vote) and seven of the Knesset’s hundred and twenty seats? The party, which completely disintegrated by the 2009 election, focused its outreach on tens of thousands of Israelis who had planned to cast a blank ballot in order to express their boredom with the political world!

Perceived loss of control has also been associated with stress, fear and anxiety. In situations of conflict, educational psychologist Daniel Bar Tal notes, the side that perceives itself as weaker is prone to developing anger and hatred towards its rival. Although Israel is certainly dominant compared to the Palestinians, Jewish Israelis typically see themselves as the underdog relative to the surrounding Arab and Muslim world. This makes their hostility towards the Palestinians rather ‘understandable,’ at least in psychological terms.

In the political sphere, anti-Arab animus was the signature theme in the 2009 election that catapulted Avigdor Lieberman’s xenophobic Yisrael Beiteinu party to an historic third-place showing. It is especially interesting to note the frequent reports coming out of Israel that suggest that the draw of ‘Liebermanism’ was not the specifics of his platform, but his tough, angry, in-your-face-style. As Israeli psychoanalyst and columnist Carlo Strenger has noted, Lieberman’s attraction for many was not the expectation that he would effect change — few, for example, thought he would really force Palestinian citizens of Israel to sign the loyalty oath he proposed — but his ability to channel and validate the vague anxiety they had long been feeling.

FORTUNATELY, the human psyche can also bounce back and heal. Psychologists relate that, just as helplessness can be learned, so can a sense of ‘mastery’ — a belief that we can have an impact on the events around us. In the last few months, more and more Israelis seem to be recapturing this belief.

The first sign came this past January, when more than ten thousand gathered in Tel Aviv to protest a series of anti-democratic initiatives by their government. Although this was a far cry from the six-figure demonstrations that Peace Now and its allies regularly pulled together in the 1990s, before learned helplessness set in, it was the largest left-wing rally in years.

Then, in June, more Israelis relearned mastery in a completely unexpected way. Sparked by a 40 percent hike in cottage cheese prices, Israel’s dairy staple, and inspired perhaps by the civic energy of the Arab Spring, over one hundred thousand Israelis signed up for a Facebook-organized boycott. The campaign worked: the Tnuva, Strauss and Tara dairies quickly slashed prices, and Israeli newspapers celebrated the victorious “Cottage Cheese Rebellion.”

But the boycott, as Tnuva’s Arik Shor predicted at the time, was “an event that goes far beyond cottage cheese.” Buoyed by a regained sense of control, tens of thousands of Israelis have now pushed past ‘digital activism’ to take part in a street campaign that is protesting the astronomical cost of renting or buying an apartment. While thousands have set up tent camps along the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheba and elsewhere, more than forty thousand turned out for a July 23rd march, more than one hundred thousand on July 30th, and more than a quarter of a million during the first week of August, in cities and towns throughout Israel — demanding social justice, the reversal of privatization, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s resignation.

As I write this column, this sweeping protest movement is ongoing, and its results are not known. Should it achieve a similar level of success to the cottage cheese boycott, it could start to influence the more divisive issues on the Israeli agenda — peace, democracy and human rights. Signs are growing that an ‘Israeli Spring’ is taking shape, as expressed by a recent housing protest banner that read, “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu.”

Indeed, much of Netanyahu’s appeal has been rooted in his ability to reinforce the Israeli public’s sense of inevitability about ‘the situation.’ By assigning full responsibility for the protracted diplomatic impasse to the Palestinians, for example, he has essentially explained to the Israeli public that movement towards peace is “beyond our control.” Energized, however, by the mastery they have learned in the cottage cheese and housing rebellions, it is quite conceivable that masses of Israelis will soon be telling their prime minister and his government that diplomatic standstill is just not good enough.

Ron Skolnik is executive director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), a non-profit organization that supports a genuine peace between the State of Israel and its neighbors (including the Palestinian people) based on a negotiated land-for-peace solution. Partners for Progressive Israel, which until recently published the journal Israel Horizons, will be conducting this column throughout the year to come.