Israel, in the fashion of every nation, positively shrinks from annihilation. How could it be otherwise?
Oddly, however, although Israel’s particular existential perils are now plain and unprecedented – and at a time that the United Nations is welcoming a Palestinian terror state – there is little evident anxiety about collective Jewish death and disappearance.
What does one Israeli typically say to another upon meeting? Beseder. “Everything will be alright.”
This is perfectly understandable, of course, and a deeply human reaction. Nonetheless, especially in view of current survival threats, it is also absurd.
Every Jew is familiar with Deuteronomy 30:19. “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” But, in choosing life, there must always be a prior and even palpable anxiety about death. Without such existential anxiety, there can be no adequate understanding of what is needed in order to live.
What is true for individuals is generally also true for nations. Israel is fast approaching a critical survival moment. At the same time, most citizens remain assured that their persistently imperiled country can somehow endure.
Beseder. “We will be alright.” “Are you meshugga?” “Who needs anxiety?”
And who can blame them, these vulnerable Jews whose Arab neighbors’ relentless cruelty is ritually masked in an always-contrived diplomacy, and rationalized by endless sanctimony? Existing in the midst of zero-sum beliefs that are widely divested of reason, the unreciprocated Israeli hopes for security must inevitably yield to uncertainty, incoherence and despair. Strangely enough, there is little genuine apprehension of another collective extinction; there is, in short, no corollary dread of disappearance.
Freud, a Jew in Vienna, would have understood. No one person, he reasoned, is ever truly capable of imagining his or her own death. More than likely, this primal incapacity reflects a hard-wired “circuit breaker” that allows us all to somehow discover a sliver of meaning and sanity in an otherwise apparently pointless universe. Thus it is that millions of Israelis can seamlessly integrate absurdity into their steadily narrowing living space, as a preferred bulwark against unbearable prospects of annihilation, as an indispensable source of personal reassurance.
As we ought to know by now, some truths are starkly counter-intuitive. Contrary to what almost any Israeli will tell you, because Israelis do think themselves to be anxious, at least in the limited medical sense, Israel actually “suffers” from too little anxiety. By refusing to tremble before the real and expanding prospect of chaos and disintegration, Israel may soon be unable to take the crucial and presumably risky steps needed to stay alive.
Because all things move in the midst of death, and because death is the one fact of life that is utterly irremediable, Israel’s denial of its national mortality may rob its still-remaining days of essential preparations against both genocide and war.
For nation-states, as well as for individuals, contemplating and confronting death can mentor nurturance of life. Although paradoxical, a cultivated awareness of nonbeing is ultimately central to each nation’s core pattern of potentialities, and, therefore, to its physical survival. Whenever a state chooses to deliberately block off such an important awareness, as Israel has done, it loses, possibly forever, the critical life-extending benefits of anxiety.
There is, of course, a distinctly ironic resonance to this entire argument. Anxiety, after all, is generally taken to be a negative, a plainly deforming liability that cripples, rather than enhances, life.
But anxiety is never something we “have.” Rather, it is something that we “are.” To be sure, it is correct that anxiety can lead individuals to experience the literal and always-unwelcome threat of self-dissolution, but this precise pattern, by definition, is not a true problem for nation-states.
In the end, anxiety stems from the stunning and often sudden awareness that our existence can be snuffed out. At one time or another, all people are suddenly struck by the potentially paralyzing possibility that we humans can become nothing. This is correctly called Angst, a word related to anguish, which comes from the Latin angustus, “narrow.” This Latin term, in turn, comes to us from angere, “to choke.” Anxiety, unexpectedly, may draw existential nobility from its hidden conquests of the absurd.
Here, subtly, also lies the core idea of birth trauma as the prototype of all anxiety, as “pain in narrows,” through the “choking” straits of birth. Kierkegaard proceeded to identify anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom,” a definition that leaves open the idea of such pain as something positive, precious and good. Such dizziness can enhance the survival of entire nations, as well as individuals.
Both individuals and states may surrender freedom in the desperate but misconceived hope of ridding themselves of anxiety. For states, any such surrender can lead to an expanding “unfreedom,” a condition that may then seek to crush all political opposition. A timely example would be the thuggish reactions of assorted Arab governments during the recent “Arab Spring.” This does not imply, however, that successor Arab regimes will necessarily be more free.
Truth can sometimes emerge through paradox. Imaginations of collective mortality, images that are generated by a common national anxiety, are integral to survival as a state. To encourage such productive, if disturbing, imaginations, Israelis will now need to look closely and unflinchingly at the probable survival consequences of: (1) their cumulative territorial surrenders to an impending Palestinian state; and (2) the corresponding and synergistic development of nuclear weapons in Iran. Israel cannot reasonably survive these interpenetrating consequences.
Wholly visceral presumptions of collective immortality are manifestly unhelpful to Israel’s security. Finally ridding themselves of such presumptions, the people of Israel must now learn to cultivate all plausible imaginations of national death in order to prevent collective annihilation. Strange as it may first seem, Israel must promptly discover, deep in the terrible abyss of possible nonbeing, the meaningful source of a more enduring national life.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and lectures widely on international relations and international law. The author of many major books and articles, especially in Israeli security studies, his work is well-known within senior academic, military and government circles in Israel. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.