June 26, 2011
Anxiety and Absurdity in the State of IsraelBy Louis René Beres
Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." Israel, in the fashion of every other nation, shrinks from annihilation. How could it be otherwise? Oddly, although Israel's particular existential perils are now plain and unprecedented, there is little evident anxiety about collective death and national disappearance.
In conversation, what does one Israeli say to another? Beseder: "Everything will be alright." This is, of course, a perfectly understandable and fully human reaction. Still, 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 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 imperiled country can somehow endure.
Beseder: "We will be all right." "Are you meshugga [crazy]?" "Who needs anxiety?"
Who can blame them -- these people whose Arab "neighbors'" relentless cruelty is ritually masked in a contrived diplomacy, and then rationalized by endless sanctimony? Existing in the midst of beliefs that are widely divested of reason, the always 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 no corollary dread of disappearance.
Freud 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 hardwired "circuit breaker" that allows us all to somehow discover a sliver of meaning and sanity in an otherwise 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.
Some truths are starkly counterintuitive. Contrary to what almost any Israeli will tell you -- because Israelis do think themselves anxious, at least in the limited medical sense -- Israel actually "suffers" from too little anxiety. 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 remaining days of essential (albeit, perhaps, risky) preparations against 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 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 often sudden awareness that our existence can be snuffed out. Forgetting both Einstein and Buddha, humans are sometimes struck by the paralyzing revelation that we 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. Israel is our obvious case in point.
Both individuals and states may surrender freedom in the desperate but misconceived hope of ridding themselves of anxiety. For states, such surrender can lead to an expanding "unfreedom," that then seeks to crush all political opposition. A timely example would be the thuggish reactions of assorted Arab governments during the recent "Arab Spring."
Such surrenders of freedom can also lead to national self-delusion that effectively augments enemy power and can thereby hasten catastrophic conflict. For the Jewish State, a lack of pertinent anxiety, an absence of the positive aspect of angst, is now leading its exposed people to the very precipice of dissolution.
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 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 nonbeing, the meaningful source of a more durable national life.
Credo quia absurdum. Only by drawing consciously upon the hidden benefits of anxiety over death, of collective fear and trembling before a fate that is both imminent and immanent, can the People of Israel "choose 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.
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