by Eetta Prince-Gibson
Israel’s new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has promised the Israeli public that he, together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will make Israel stronger and more secure.
I have never felt less secure.
Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, David Ben-Gurion, once famously declared, “May every Jewish mother know that she has put her son under the care of commanders who are worthy of the task.” I am a Jewish mother, and I know that neither my son, nor my daughter, nor any of us, are under the care of leaders who are worthy of their task.
Lieberman’s and Netanyahu’s political machinations have made it very clear that the only kind of security they really care about is the kind that will guarantee their political survival and the stability of their coalition. To this end, they are willing to manipulate and abuse the political system, pander to marginal voters, and even undermine the position of the same military that they claim to value.
During the negotiations before joining Netanyahu’s coalition, Lieberman insisted that convicted terrorists be given the death penalty. Lieberman must know that the death penalty is already on the books but is never used (except for Adolf Eichmann). Lieberman also knows, of course, that the death penalty is hardly a deterrent to a terrorist who is willing to die in order to kill others. And he must have known from the beginning that he would have to capitulate (which he did), since almost all of Israel’s attorneys general have opposed any such legislation.
So why did he insist? Because to join the government, he is willing to fearmonger and make a great show of his so-called strength and resolution against the enemy. It’s easy to generate support through intimidation and appeal to our lowest instincts, to encourage us, as he did, to “cut off the head” of a disloyal Arab citizen or “take a lesson from Putin” about how to deal with terrorism. After all, he probably wagers, if the coarse swagger doesn’t lead to public support, at least it might lead to public paralysis.
But political manipulations aren’t all that make me feel insecure. I feel insecure because I don’t think that Lieberman or Netanyahu understand what a sense of security means. To them, security is solely about the military, protecting the country from outside threats, territory and sovereignty. Military security means military strength, winning, vanquishing the enemy, showing no compassion.
But according to a survey conducted by the Knesset Research and Information Center, that isn’t all that Israelis mean when they talk about security. Military security is only one form of security. Israelis, like most people, also care about human, inclusive security—the rhythms of our daily lives, the values of our society, the quality of our environments, the safety of our public spaces.
The survey was commissioned by MK Aida Touma-Suleiman (from the Joint List), chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. Based on an innovative scale to measure human security in its broadest terms, the survey was designed with input from Israel’s leading feminist organizations.
Overall, 63 percent of the nearly 1,000 respondents—men and women, Jews and Arabs—did indeed say that they fear that they, or a family member of theirs, may be hurt in a terrorist attack. But 70 percent of women and 60 percent of men also said that they feel economically insecure, and have had to cut back on their daily living expenses.
Israeli citizens do not believe that their human rights are secure, either: 61 percent of women and 57 percent of men report that they have felt personally discriminated against due to the lack of equal rights in our society. 50 percent of the women and 45 percent of the men are worried about the quality of their environment.
And most concerning of all: More than half said they feel that state institutions, including the police, the social security administration, the ministry of the interior and other institutions that govern our civic lives negatively affect their sense of personal security. Some 20 percent of the women and 24 percent of the men do not feel secure enough to report crimes to the police.
Israelis feel insecure from the outside and from the inside. But instead of grappling with the social, political, ethical and moral issues that this survey, and dozens more like it, raise, our political leaders spout empty slogans about military security.
The only security they offer is absence of conflict. But that is limited and limiting. If that is all that security means, then every threat from the outside—even teenagers wielding knives—can be magnified and defined as an existential threat to the existence of the state. If that’s the equation, then force is the only variable in place. As peace agreements in long-troubled regions like Belfast have proven, conditioning a political breakthrough on a cessation of terrorism will only encourage terrorism, and destroying your enemy isn’t the only way to resolve, or even manage, a conflict.
Real security is inextricably intertwined with dignity, with the opportunity for self-fulfillment and a collective sense of purpose and hope—for ourselves and for others. Security has to be about peace—from the outside and from within.
But on both sides of the conflict, on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, the men in power have the power to define what security is supposed to mean.
And I am frightened.