The Paranoid Style in Israeli Politics

A demonstrator outside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s residence. 2007.
REUTERS | Yonathan Weitzman

Jeff “is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

Guy Bechor’s recent op-ed “Before We Lose Control” argues stridently for the immediate expulsion of Israel’s African immigrants.  Israel’s immigration woes are unique, Bechor argues, because the primary reason for “the infiltration” is not “to improve the lives of the Africans who came here.”  Rather:

 It turns out that in Israel there are those who want to exploit this to change our country’s demographic balance….A number of associations, NGOs and others have encouraged this African immigration to Israel. They begin by directing the emigration from the countries of origin, preserving it, preventing it from running into obstacles in the Sinai Peninsula, and providing it with a warm home in Israel.

Israel, it seems, has not merely been caught up in the problems of an impoverished, war-torn region, but has in fact fallen prey to a coordinated act of subversion.  For “what is the plan hatched in secret by those organizations of ‘human rights?’ When the numbers reach a quarter of a million or half a million…the organizations will turn to the High Court…demanding that Israel grant residency to these ‘immigrants.’”  This is not just “a war on immigration,” Bechor warns, “but a war over the continuation of the Jewish majority in Israel.”

As strange as Mr. Bechor’s version of the facts is (if these NGOs are indeed smoothing out a path through the Sinai they’re doing a terrible of job it), his version is all the more bizarre in its accounting of how those facts came to be.  His line of reasoning bears comparison with other writers who have found themselves embroiled in “social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds…into political action.” These writers, or paranoids as Richard Hofstadter dubbed them, are people for whom “the central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy…set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.”

In his seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Hofstadter argues that “the distinguishing thing about” paranoids is that they “regard…conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.”  Their interpretation of history, and I would add, Bechor’s interpretation, “is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.”

Thus for Bechor, Israel’s current immigration debacle can indeed be thought of as a “war” in which there is an identifiable enemy to be resisted.  This may explain the rage in his account, one in which there are organizations that “bear direct responsibility for the new plague that has befallen Israel.”

But there is no real enemy here, or at least not the kind of enemy with whom one could wage war.  And indeed Israel’s search for an equitable immigration policy will only be hindered by Bechor’s hunt for an antagonist.

Sudanese refugees are detained by the Israeli army near the border with Egypt. 2007. REUTERS | Yonathan Weitzman

– D. Schwartz

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