The Collective Assassin: the insecurity and victimhood behind Israel’s militarism

Funeral of members of Al-Haj family who were killed in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp in 2014 (Eyad al-Baba – APA Images)

Emad Moussa

Mondoweiss  /  January 15, 2021

In his voluminous book “Rise and Kill First” (2019), Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman opens with the blunt statement that ‘…since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world.’ This comes to nearly 2300 operations, killing several thousand people.

The statement is controversial and there is no empirical evidence to support it. In fact, it’s quite possible that in their wars in the Middle East and North Africa in the last three-quarters of a century, France, Britain and the United States engaged as frequently and indiscriminately as Israel in assassinations and controversial black-ops.

What remains uncontroversial, however, is that none of these countries placed targeted killing in as comfortable a moral zone as Israel has done. The recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsin Fakhrizadeh comes as a reminder, yet again, that Israel’s targeted killing can’t be fully explained in geo-strategic terms only. Judging by Israel’s behaviours so far, the high frequency of assassinations must be seen as a symptom of a particular worldview, one related to Israel’s unique perception of threat. In this article I explain the psychology and manipulation of that psychology that justify Israel’s security doctrine and, by extension, the adoption of targeted killing as a state policy.

The Burden of Collective Memory

The phrase “rise and kill first,” comes from the Babylonian Talmud, which reads: “..If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Seemingly promoting a doctrine of self-defence, “rise and kill first” in its original historical context was merely a ‘revolutionary fantasy,’ simply because the Jews in exile were mostly helpless. 

But with the emergence of Zionism, history took on a selective tone and was employed in an over-compensatory fashion. ‘Revolutionary fantasies’ had to be transformed into a physical reality. Phrases and slogans, as well as historical events with little significance, were readapted (and magnified) for the Zionist goals. 

The so-called ‘New Jew’ – tenacious and independent – was meant to abandon the long embraced narratives of victimisation that characterised life in the galut. The Shoah came to confirm that, indeed, the alternative to Zionism was annihilation. The lesson was that in order to thwart the possibility of a future victimisation, passiveness had be replaced with extreme militarism. “Rise and kill first” has since become not only a military doctrine, but a chief principle in the formulation and implementation of security measures.

But, to what extent were the Zionist claims and goals realised?

Today’s Israel is a significant military power (thanks largely to the United States and certain Western countries), and its intelligence arm is far-reaching. So, in a strategic sense, ‘abandoning the passiveness of the galut’ was a success. 

However, whilst presumably eliminating ‘passiveness’, militarism failed to end the sense of insecurity and victimhood that dominated the Jewish consciousness. More ironic yet, the militarisation of almost all aspects of society (in order to deflect insecurity) and the excessive aggressiveness against Israel’s enemies, has created the same (if not worse) insecurity that the militarism was meant to eliminate. In turn, that intensified the mainstream society’s belief that, indeed, ‘everyone is against us.’

Israeli scholars Daniel Bar-Tal and Dikla Antebi in the 1990s framed this phenomenon in terms of ‘siege mentality’. It is a collective mindset where a group of people think of themselves as constantly attacked, oppressed, or isolated by hostile forces who seek to destroy them. Any actions to ensure security, no matter how aggressive or controversial, are deemed morally and politically comprehensible. And any militant responses to these actions may be seen as unjustified and amoral, consequently emphasising the group’s sense of victimisation, and ultimately producing the worst sort of self-defence and security ethos: ‘if we don’t kill, we will cease to exist.’    

I’m a Victim, therefore I kill

From a ‘victim’s’ perspective, morality or consequences are of little importance. Because central to victim mentality is the feeling that one is neither responsible nor accountable for their actions, and forever entitled to sympathy. Any worldview that contradicts this mentality is perceived as antagonistic, and might be taken very personally.

As if to say, if you oppose Israel’s policies, this must mean you deny Jewish victimhood, and this in turn means denying the Jewish State’s (and Jews’) legitimacy and right to exist. Israel’s apologists see the Jewish State’s very inception as a ‘redemption’ or ‘victims’ justice’ after two millennia of exile. In order to feel safe and curb the constant feeling of anxiety, a victim needs to remain in control (of their fate), even if that means resorting to extreme and controversial measures, not only against threats, but against the faint possibility of a threat emerging.

This has always been Israel’s notion of pre-emptive security and military doctrines. Think of the 1967 Six-Day War [June War]. The attack on neighbouring Arab countries was justified as a pre-emptive strike to thwart a pending Arab attack. Since then, evidence shows it was unjustified: At the time, even though Egypt and Syria were quantitively superior, Israel possessed a distinct qualitative advantage in terms of modern jet fighters and missiles that made it nearly impossible for Egyptian air force to penetrate Israeli airspace. Meanwhile, Israeli jet-fighters were penetrating Egyptian airspace up to the Suez Canal on a daily basis and even had flown over Cairo on several occasions (see Guy Laron’s book “The Six Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East”).

In 1981, to justify the attack on Iraq’s reactor, Menachem Begin invoked the Shoah victim narrative despite very little evidence Iraq was planning or had any interest in attacking Israel. The sheer fear of Iraq possessing nuclear capabilities triggered Israel’s fight-or-flight mode, leading to the destruction of the Iraqi reactor. To Begin and many in his circle, the equation was clear: either this – a controversial strike – or another Auschwitz.

For the pilots who carried out the mission (Operation Opera), as it was shown in the History Channel documentary Raid on the Reactor (2006), the aim was to prevent another Shoah. IAF pilot Lt. General Shafir says: “many of us are grandsons and sons of people who’d been through the Holocaustwe’d been part of a mission to prevent another Holocaust” [02:31]. And: “I felt I was flying for my grandfather who died in a Concentration Camp” [25:33].

Today, such a mind-set is firmly in place, and whatever information the intelligence formation shows about Iran (or any other opponent), chances are it’ll be filtered through layers of collective memory and emotional orientations. Once fear is so strong, it acts as a filter for information processing. In fact, social psychology has long identified such a phenomenon and framed it with a theory called feelings-as-information. As highly anxious individuals, many Jewish-Israelis — leaders across the political spectrum included — are inclined to selectively search for and absorb information that confirms the validity of their fears about Iran and ignore the information that does not.

Capitalising on the Psychological 

Even though there is a largely psychological drive to Israel’s security perception, collective memory never failed to provide Israeli leaders with the right tools to pass controversial laws and justify military actions. I’m talking about the difference between the genuine psychological after-effects of trauma and the conscious utilisation of this psychology for political purposes.

On one hand, understanding today’s conflict in light of Jewish history provides meaning and purpose to many in Israel. In its extreme form, today’s conflict(s) is seen, among other things, as a continuation of the Jewish ‘continuum of suffering’ since the ancient times. To some right-wingers, the Palestinians and Arabs are the modern reincarnation of the ancient Amaleks. Any Palestinian act of resistance – violent or peaceful – therefore, is interpreted as another step in the diabolical plan to annihilate the Jews. 

On the other hand, wallowing in victimhood has given Israeli leaders (and the public) the tools to frame the criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism; in other words, directed at Jews qua Jews and not because of Israel’s policies.

Think for example of how Israel’s enemies have been framed in existential terms, and made historically relevant in order to emphasise Jewish-Israeli victimhood and therefore: justify (to themselves and their enemies) Israel’s controversial military actions; alleviate the society’s collective guilt about the occupation; and pressure the international community for financial and logistical aids. 

Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, for instance, was repeatedly depicted as a Nazi. In the book “Semites and Anti-Semites”, Bernard Lewis tells us that Israel’s daily Ma’ariv justified the 1956 invasion of Egypt by claiming that it prevented Nasser from becoming ‘Hitler of the East.’ To Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban in 1969, ‘the 1967 borders are the borders of Auschwitz.’ And, to Menachem Begin, the PLO was a ‘neo-Nazi organisation’ and, on the eve of Lebanon’s invasion in 1982, going after Arafat was parallel to pursuing ‘Hitler in the bunker.’ Later on, Begin justified the invasion of Lebanon as a pre-emptive measure meant to prevent another Treblinka. He said: “we have decided there will be no more Treblinka.

Today, collective memory is instrumentalised to place the Palestinians in a similar historical context. This heightens the Jewish-Israel public’s sense of threat and, as a result, any policies against the Palestinians – assassinations included – become moral and legitimate. In that worldview, Palestinians can commit diplomatic antisemitism by joining UN bodies and treaties. They also commit ‘popular struggle antisemitism,’ by throwing rocks or going out on protests. Palestinians can also commit ‘literary antisemitism’ by writing about the Palestinian struggle.

The type of resistance is irrelevant as long as it contradicts or opposes Israel’s righteous self-image as a historical victim or takes exception to the country’s superior moral entitlements.

I remember in 2017 at a Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, Ronald Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, describing BDS as a form of antisemitism, ‘although in disguise.’ He said: “It’s a political form of antisemitism cloaked in the guise of anti-Israel sentiment…Palestinians have pushed BDS with the goal of wearing down the Diaspora Jewry’s support for Israel … to strengthen the Palestinians’ position and put pressure on Israel to make concessions. That’s one of the key reasons why we need to expose BDS for the fraud that it is.”

It does not take much to see the cognitive distortion in Lauder’s reasoning. On one hand he admits that BDS is a political tool to pressure Israel towards concessions to the Palestinians, yet he equates political pressure to a form of irrational racism. 

In this over-dependence on and/or outright manipulation of Israel’s ‘sense of threat’, Lauder follows a line of reasoning embraced by almost all of Israel’s leaders, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu. In this type of reasoning Israel is always an effect in the causation chain, but never a cause. Lauder nevertheless did not go as far as labelling BDS a strategic threat to the Jewish State, as Netanyahu repeatedly had done.

 A Needed Threat

This is almost the same type of psychology and manipulation of psychology that has been implemented against Iran, and which allowed if not morally legitimised the assassination of some of Iran’s scientists. In the past decade, Jewish Israelis increasingly believed Iran presented an existential threat.  Thanks to the political rhetoric and incitements by Israel’s politicians, especially Netanyahu, and to the Trump Administration’s overhyped antagonism against the Islamic Republic, the belief that Iran is an existential threat has intensified. The mere fact that Trump cancelled the Iranian nuclear deal proved to many in Israel that indeed, our feelings about Iran are genuine, and hardly a misplaced historical projection.

Realistically, however, evidence shows that regardless of all the anti-Israel bluster and occasional demagogic and antisemitic slogans, Iran remains a highly cautious country making realistic calculations. There are no signs that the official bodies in the country – despite the tightening US sanctions and Israel’s endless incitements– seek a regional war. What’s at stake is a lot more than simply teaching Israel a lesson. Not to mention that ‘Iran as an existential threat’ isn’t a hegemonic view among Israeli military generals or intelligence officers

A master manipulator, Netanyahu needs the ‘antisemites’ in Tehran not only as a smokescreen for his corruption, but mainly to justify and rationalise Israel’s fear and anxiety. A collective that sees itself as victims requires an external enemy to confirm and validate these feelings – even if that enemy is only a reconstruction of an older trauma. In the absence of, say, the Nazis, the Iranians are the replacement.

Let’s remember that a decade after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Israel still saw Iran as a potential ally. In his study, “Israel’s Construction of Iran as an Existential Threat”, Gareth Porter explains that it was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 who broke away from this view and began the construction of Iran as a threat. After Rabin, the first Netanyahu government didn’t feel Iran represented an existential threat. Uzi Arad, then the head of the Mossad, advised Netanyahu that Iran’s missile programme was never directed at Israel but had emerged in the crucible of the eight-year-long war with Iraq.   

As the conventional threats by the Arabs receded, Israel needed a new enemy. According to Trita Parsi in his book “Losing an Enemy”, the position toward Iran occurred not due to any change in Tehran’s rhetoric or views of Israel, but rather due to the change in the regional scene. The collapse of Iraq’s military power cleared the deck for Iran to be seen as an existential enemy. He quotes Israeli Brigadier General Shlomo Brom who said: “Nothing special happened with Iran; but because Iraq was removed, Iran started to play a greater role in the threat perception of Israel.”

So, Iran basically replaced Iraq as Iraq replaced Egypt a decade earlier. In other words, enemies change but Israel’s self-perception as forever-threatened remains the unshakable constant. It might even be the mover and creator of new enemies.

So far, it seems that Israel’s actions have never been about security — at least not in the narrow sense of security. The security that Israel has always been about is an existential security, a somatic conviction that if Jews do not control their own state, they will unfailingly face a new genocide. In this context, it is probably not far-fetched to visualise a group of Mossad agents taking an oath to ha-shoah l‘olam lo ‘oud (the Shoah, never again!) before setting off on an assassination mission. Their fear, anger, and vengeance are directed at what they see as a Nazi replacement, and in the absence of real Nazis, everyone else who presents a threat to the state of Israel may be seen as one.

Even though these feelings of victimisation might be genuine, victimhood itself is a profitable business and keeping one’s self-perceived status as a victim (and promoting it) is a valuable political asset that needs to be capitalised on – constantly. To build on the public’s historical  anxiety and intensify their fears is to keep the collective memory a daily occurrence in the present. Among other things, this provides easy answers to Israel’s complex context, especially when it comes to guilt. In such a context, assassinations become only a necessary procedure for survival, an act of ultimate patriotism. No regrets, nothing to be sorry about.

After all, one needs to rise and kill first those who want to kill you, even if the possibility of a threat is only an assumption.

Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British academic, whose focus is the social psychology of mainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflic