Cheryl Lamin, Ph.D
As the threshold for violent attacks on Israelis decreases, our fear that anyone who wakes up “on the wrong side of the bed” might grab a common household item or vehicle and take out their rage on innocent bystanders increases. Naturally, we feel afraid, and in the diaspora, we feel confusingly vulnerable and disconnected.
Common responses to this situation may include canceling trips, writing alarming e-mails, fretting with our friends, or fearing to venture into public places. Ultimately, however, will those actions bring us closer to our Jewish values, or move us temporarily away from the suffocating fear?
From an evolutionary science perspective, our “reptilian brain” becomes activated in response to a threat, causing our sympathetic nervous system to react in a fight-or-flight mode, increasing physical protection and species survival. Through human evolution of symbolic thought processes, we respond to the image of the threat in a physiologically similar way as the real-life physical threat. Our prehistoric ancestors most assuredly had acquaintances who heard about the proverbial saber-toothed tiger beyond the hill and did not heed the warnings. But our direct ancestors are those who listened to stories and remembered the vivid details and whose sympathetic nervous systems were activated when hearing about those dangers. Retelling, remembering, and relying upon imagination became as protective as experiencing the danger itself. One needed only to hear about a potential threat to experience a physical response as the body prepared to run, play dead, or retaliate. While learning about random, vicious attacks from across the globe, it is no surprise that Jews in the diaspora feel an increase in physical and psychological fear.
With the goal of engaging in behavior for long-term psychosocial well-being, first we must acknowledge with communal self-compassion that it is human to feel afraid of these events. Then, we must commit to activities that are meaningful and rich, and help us become the people we want to be.
Today Israel is as secure as it has ever been. Most of its Arab neighbors are weak and/or even failed states. Saudi Arabia is consumed by its conflict with Iran and a disastrous war in Yemen. Iran will not build a nuclear bomb soon. Hezbollah can launch a lot of rockets, but will hesitate to do so because that would bring greater retaliatory ruin than in 2006 to much of Lebanon. And Hezbollah is stressed by its own war in Syria, as a result of which it no longer has the popular support it once did from Sunni Arabs.
Yet Israelis feel insecure because of the internal terrorist threat. Not just Palestinians, but even Israeli Arabs are suspect. Such terrorism is precisely that kind of unpredictable, very small-scale threat to life that causes a great sense of helplessness because it is random. The Palestinians themselves are suffering from a kind of collective nervous breakdown that makes them feel helpless and frustrated. They have lost all hope for a better future. Their dishonest, ineffective political leaders have corrupted what local self-rule they possess. They feel more hemmed in than ever by Israel, and it must by now have become obvious to them that their situation is not going to improve. So, useless but dramatically nasty suicidal violence will continue to appeal to many.
Can Israelis cope with this? The truth is that in many parts of the world people face far worse situations, and Israel itself has often been in much greater danger. Israelis will get used to this new kind of occasional, deadly incident. Israel will become a bit more repressive and create more barriers, and that will lower the
danger. The problem won’t go away, but it will be contained. Life will go on quite normally for most Israelis. For Jews in the diaspora, the reality is that little has changed because of these recent assaults. The status quo remains as it has long been, and certainly what is going on right now is no reason to avoid visiting Israel.