The Cognitive Dissonance at the Heart of Israeli Society

Every country is built upon a foundation myth. These stories or shared histories serve to bind and build societies. Israel’s foundation myth is unique among contemporary states. It propels a form of cognitive dissonance enabling the society to perpetuate one of the most prolonged military occupations in modern history while professing a victim status. The recent celebration of Holocaust Remembrance Day gives us a privileged vantage point into the perpetuation of this cognitive dissonance and the foundation myths of Israeli society.

According to recent polling reported on by the Jerusalem Post, nearly half of Israelis believe another Holocaust is coming. The survey found that younger Israelis and ultra-orthodox were especially concerned about another Holocaust while older generations were notably less concerned. Many noted that Iran’s continued declarations about destroying Israel were a motivator in the concern about another Holocaust.

The survey is telling on several levels. For one, Iran’s claims about Israel, while abhorrent, focus on Israel and say nothing about the Jewish people worldwide. While Israel self-identifies as a Jewish state, millions of Jews living around the world willingly have no connection to Israel nor are Israeli citizens. Criticism and calls for violence against Israel, however harsh and verbose, aren’t the same as Hitler’s professed objective to annihilate the Jewish people wherever they are. Israelis are seemingly unable or unwilling to separate themselves and their nation-state from the rest of global Jewry.

Perhaps even more telling in the concerns of Israelis about another Holocaust are Israel’s political relationships with avowedly antisemitic politicians around the world. From Hungary’s Viktor Orban to elements aligned with Donald Trump, Israel has forged close connections with openly antisemitic politicians worldwide. Under the Trump administration, antisemitism rose to a remarkable degree throughout the United States and the world. Donald Trump, whom Israelis believe was a great friend to their country, even famously referred to protesters attending a deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people.” If Israelis are so concerned about another Holocaust, why wouldn’t they express more outrage and take more severe actions in supporting Jewish communities from Budapest to Pittsburgh? At a minimum, the Israeli government could end its warm relationships with antisemitic politicians worldwide or there should be some evidence of public pressure to reverse the course of these alliances.

This unusual situation speaks to the cognitive dissonance at the core of Israeli society. By cognitive dissonance, I mean the inability to hold conflicting understandings of Israel’s place in the world and behavior to others. Israelis believe they are the victims and are on the verge of destruction while they have an impressive, strong military and administer an occupation of other people. Israelis have always understood their country to be in a perilous state on the verge of destruction. This fear stems from the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, the country’s precarious founding wars, and the long history of antisemitism in Jewish history. It’s one reason why Israel can maintain mandatory conscription for its young men and women and the centrality of the military as an institution in Israeli society. Without constant fear, how else would the military dominate society?

Israel was indeed born into a dangerous existence, but it has grown out of that insecurity. The country boasts one of the strongest militaries in the history of humanity. Without confirming or denying their existence, Israel has an arsenal of nuclear weapons. The government is even forging ahead with normalization agreements with several Arab nations in the Middle East without having to make a single compromise to the Palestinians. This is not to say that Israel doesn’t have serious geopolitical concerns, but the idea that a second Holocaust is immediate doesn’t correspond with the facts on the ground.

This is where cognitive dissonance comes into full view. Israelis believe they face unprecedented antisemitism while their government cozies up to militant antisemites. They think they are facing destruction despite having one of the most powerful militaries ever assembled. This boils down to a society that has convinced itself that it is the victim to such a degree that it can’t see when it is the aggressor. I referred to the continued military occupation of Palestinian land. The ultimate manifestation of the fear complex that defines Israeli society is that it enables its young people to maintain the dominance over Palestinians.

This idea is present but slightly different in Israel’s public relations campaigns worldwide. Undoubtedly, the Jewish people suffered one of history’s greatest tragedies during the Holocaust. If the self-identified Jewish state is on the verge of another Holocaust, the international community can’t focus on the occupation of Palestine. The use and abuse of the Holocaust in this manner have been going on since the founding of the country.

Holding competing beliefs and narratives isn’t unusual in the foundation myths of modern nation-states. Still, the Israeli version excels in rationalizing a victim mentality to justify aggressive actions against Palestinians. Every year, Israel remembers those that perished in the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on preventing the suffering of all people going forward, the country uses this event to propel its victim mentality to justify the aggression of its military and relationships with antisemites worldwide.

Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets.