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January 20, 2016 6:28 pm

The Economist: ‘Israelis Seem Especially Susceptible to Hysteria’

avatar by Adam Levick

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Economist Cover, Feb 25-Mar 2 issues. Photo: The Economist.

Economist Cover, Feb 25-Mar 2 issue. Photo: The Economist.

A 2012 Economist article claimed that Israelis and their Prime Minister fear Iran because they suffer from “Auschwitz complex” — a “ghetto mentality” evidently based on obsessing over past suffering and reinforced by the Jewish festivals of Purim and Passover.

Further, their insight into the inner-workings of the Israeli mind contextualized Israelis’ concerns over a nuclear Iran not by referencing the Islamic Republic’s use of terror proxies to attack Israelis and Jewish targets, nor by citing genocidal designs of Tehran’s leaders, but by suggesting that Jerusalem was relying on “familiar ideological tropes from the Jewish playbook.”

The headline was revised by Economist editors, and the words “Auschwitz Complex” were removed, but the message seemed clear: Israelis are gripped by an irrational fear that prevents clear-headed thinking about the threats they face personally, and as a nation.

A January 2016 article in the Economist (Arab-Jewish tensions force two passengers off an Aegean Airlines flight) doesn’t attempt such an offensive psychological analysis of Israeli Jews, but nonetheless includes a broad, unsubstantiated charge about the national character that is astonishingly facile. The article, commenting on a recent incident in which dozens of Israeli passengers demanded — seemingly for no good reason — that the flight crew on a Aegean Airlines flight from Athens to Tel Aviv remove “suspicious” looking Arab passengers, begins reasonably:

IT STARTED with a flickering of paranoia in the mind of one Jewish passenger; perhaps justifiable, given the recent surge of terrorist attacks in Israel; perhaps prejudicial, emblematic of the deep distrust between Arabs and Jews, who both see a homeland in the Holy Land. It ended with two entirely innocent customers being hauled off a commercial flight…

As is usually the case with such incidents, it is difficult for commentators [at this blog] to know where the blame lies. Perhaps the airline’s staff could have defused the situation better, or been firmer with those initial instigators; perhaps they performed impeccably, averting a still-worse quarrel. Perhaps the Jewish complainants acted with spiteful malice; perhaps they genuinely feared for their lives. Perhaps, indeed, the two Arabs really were acting suspiciously.

Indeed, the next paragraph begins fairly, in noting that a similar incident — one not involving Israelis — occurred on a British flight in 2006.

What happened aboard this Aegean flight made headlines because of its extraordinary outcome—both for the unfortunate Arab pair and for the Palestinian reaction. In many ways, though, these were unremarkable events. This is not the first time that a group of passengers has retreated into a mob-like mentality after picking up the vaguest scent of danger. In a similar incident in 2006, two Asian-looking men were apparently forced off a British flight by their fellow travellers for no greater crime than speaking Arabic.

Then, out of nowhere:

Israelis seem especially susceptible to hysteria: a flight marketed by Arkia, an Israeli airline, was grounded in October when customers belatedly realised that it was being operated by a Czech partner carrier. “I can only feel safe flying with an Israeli company,” one traveller said. Arkia said it was “astounded at the exaggerated response from some of the passengers”.

So, the entire case for asserting that “Israelis seem especially susceptible to hysteria” appears based on a total of two incidents. Even more curiously, the author cites a counter-example to Israel’s putative inclination towards madness in the face of a perceived danger.

Here’s the concluding paragraph:

Earlier this month, Ruti Tehrani, an Israeli bus driver, also faced calls from her passengers to eject a suspicious looking Arab customer. After establishing that the threat was imaginary, she refused, and instead told the complainants to disembark if they felt unsafe. Several of them did. They had time to contemplate their prejudices on the long walk home.

So, what are we to take-away from the example of the Israeli bus driver?

Well, for starters, most who truly understand Israel would see the incident as a reflection of the fact that Israelis — who face terror, jihadism, and existential threats on a scale far and beyond what most in the West can conceive of — are complex and don’t always respond perfectly to every situation.

However, the response to the current terror wave — as with wars and intifadas throughout their history — has, on the whole, been measured and proportional to the threat. Despite the fact that since September 13, 29 people have been killed and nearly 300 injured in 108 stabbings, 37 shootings, and 22 car rammings (acts mostly committed against Israeli Jews by Arab Muslims), day-to-day interactions between Jews and Arabs have largely carried on as usual. Though there have been some calls for Israeli security forces to adopt more draconian measures, the sobriety and moderation of the broad Israeli center — the overwhelming majority of the population — continues to set the parameters of the debate.

Reasonable people can of course raise questions about the behavior of some Israelis onboard the Aegean Airlines flight, as they may question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s policy towards Iran. However, we’d hope that contributors to a journal that claims to offer “authoritative insight and opinion” on international news would avoid such crude, intellectually lazy characterizations of an entire nation.

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