Iran as Psychotherapy

by Brian on January 4, 2007

in In the News,Living Through Terror

I was interviewed this week by Michele Chabin, a reporter from the New York Jewish Week, and asked to give an “average Israeli’s” opinion on the threat from Iran. How did it make us feel? Were we afraid? Did we have thoughts of leaving? Was the world community’s response comforting or confounding? The interview came up suddenly and I hadn’t had time to think about my answer much in advance. My words shocked even me.

No, we weren’t thinking of going anywhere, I found myself saying. We were staying put, albeit with a newly morbid, much more fatalistic approach to life. Iran might very well make good on its threat to attack Israel, I said. Who knows if the Jewish state will be here in another 5 or 10 years? So we’re trying our hardest to live our life today as fully and joyfully as possible, in the moment and not too obsessed with the future.

Iran as a source of positive psychotherapy? Who would have thunk it?

All kidding aside, what’s going on in Iran is profoundly disturbing. I don’t think there’s any reason not to believe Iranian President Ahmadinejad when he says that he is planning to wipe the “evil Zionist regime” off the face of the planet. His fundamentalist messianic beliefs of the coming of the Iman Mahdi don’t operate according to the same sort of logic we in the West assume must apply. That kind of thinking has already got us into trouble, when we were surprised by the phenomena of suicide bombs, none of which made logical sense to non-believers’ eyes.

Those who hope that Ahmadinejad doesn’t really mean it when he denies the Holocaust and that simply uttering stern words of diplomatic admonition will delay his country’s pursuit of a nuclear option, or that the receipt of such weapons by the world’s leading exporter of terror will not change the planet as we know it, are trading in foolish delusion. He means it, just like Hitler meant it some 70 years ago. And although it’s the entire world that’s at risk if Iran goes nuclear, Israel is first on the shopping list. The question is: how should we respond today? And at this point, can we?

Let’s examine the question from both the national and personal perspectives. On the national level, I think something clearly needs to be done. Severe sanctions could have the intended effect, but they would have to be truly strong and enforced across the board; sadly, there is little unanimity amongst the world’s leaders on how this should be accomplished, let alone that it should.

A military strike seems equally unlikely – the U.S. in the wake of the Baker-Hamilton report and Democratic control of Congress is looking for ways out of the Middle East, not how to add more partners on its dance card. Europe remains its usual impotent self. The job – if it needs to be done – increasingly looks like it will fall on Israel alone.

Could Israel even do anything, though? It’s been pointed out that Iran began preparing for a potential Israeli attack as soon at it saw how Iraq lost its Osirak reactor in 1981 at the hands of Israeli warplanes. Iran’s nuclear production facilities are better protected and more dispersed, making Israel’s job that much more difficult, many would say impossible. What about protecting the country from incoming missiles. Could the Patriots and Arrows in our arsenal do the job?

This is where Israelis who support a military option begin acting messianically themselves. We want to believe that Israel must have some super secret plan up its sleeve that defies the laws of nature. That we can sneak into Iran and destroy every one of their facilities in one go without a single screw up, without a single casualty, and with no counter-response, in the same way that the War of Independence and the Six Day War seemed impossible to win and yet we did. If we are fired upon, our defenses will protect us flawlessly, hitting every target. If we must go up against Iran, the thinking goes, it can only be with God’s help and perhaps His direct intervention.

But we’ve already used messianic language in our last regional conflict, this past summer’s war with Hezbollah. With supernatural faith, our leaders proclaimed that the entire threat from Lebanon would be wiped out in a matter of days by our natural logic-defying Air Force. Even if there are some who still can debate who “won” and who “lost” the war, the fact is that Hezbollah was only dented not destroyed and has already rearmed, ready to launch another 1,000 missiles into Israel at a time of its choosing.

Our family and friends reading this now are probably hitting their heads against the wall. If your analysis is right, what the heck are you still doing there, they will be screaming into a hundred telephones and email messages in the hours to come. You admit you’re potential sitting ducks. Get out while you still can. Forget about the Jewish people, the state, all the values you’re trying to instill in your children. Zionism has failed…you’re courting disaster not defending against it. After all, if Jews had fled Germany when they could have, they would still be alive and that’s the most important goal, right?

But what if everyone had the same thoughts and got up and left? What would be left of Israel? To what extent would a mass exodus from the country only accelerate its destruction by spurring on its enemies to attack what would be correctly perceived as a weak and hopeless enterprise? No, Israel was founded to provide not only a safe haven for the Jewish people in a world hell bent on its destruction, but a place where Jews could fight back.

So how do you cope with such a threat – realized or otherwise, potentially stoppable or not – hanging over your head? On the personal level, you do the only thing left: you go on living as “normal” a life as you can, with even more gusto than ever. The good news: we already know how to do that.

In 2000, when the Palestinian violence in Israel first broke out, we were scared, let’s make no bones about it. And at first, we did alter our lifestyles considerably. We stopped going out to cafes, we refused to ride on public transportation, we pretty much stayed at home, afraid to tempt the suicide bombers who were waiting at the door to every mall, school and restaurant.

Over time, though, we developed the resilience that now seems part and parcel of the Israeli character. “We won’t stop living our lives in the face of terror,” we declared. That was, indeed, the impetus for this column, which I began writing after the horrific bombing at Hebrew University that took our cousin Marla in its wake.

That line of thinking is back now with a vengeance, it seems, when it comes to Iran. We won’t let the threat looming over us stop us from our daily activities. We’ll keep going to “Boogie,” the twice-monthly free-form dance evenings my wife Jody and I have come to cherish. We’ll make our nightly “family dinner” a sacred space. We’ll go on more family vacations to exotic places like the one we recently took to Egypt to see the pyramids despite the warnings against Israelis (or Westerners in general) traveling to the heart of the Islamic Arab world.

I would be delighted if, like on the old Bullwinkle and Rocky show, there really was something surprising up our collective sleeves and we miraculously prevailed against the Iranian threat either militarily or diplomatically. In the meantime, it’s our job to work on our personal battles, to confront our inner Iran, to help us live fuller, better and, yes, ultimately more miraculous lives.

Here’s the link to the article in the New York Jewish Week.

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