IDF patrol near Gaza border
Photo: Reuters

Israel’s siege mentality

Op-ed: Some leaders cultivate ‘Masada syndrome,’ but adopting it will only hurt Israel

Following the War of Independence we cultivated the perception that it was a war of “a few against many.” Abba Eban later characterized the 1967 boundaries as the “Auschwitz borders.” Ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Elazar Shach compared our situation to “one sheep amid 70 wolves.” In Passover, we sing that in each generation we face someone who tries to exterminate us.


Israel therefore persists with an ongoing narrative defined by political scientists, headed by Tel Aviv University’s Daniel Bar-Tal, as “Masada Syndrome” or “siege mentality.” This is a syndrome typical of states where most residents believe they face an existential threat.


This syndrome is highly developed around here and is shared by states like Iran, Myanmar, South Africa for some decades, the communist Albania and others.


This syndrome of feeling existential danger is often supported by facts, with the state in question being boycotted on the international stage and being defined as a “pariah state.” This combination of siege mentality coupled with international ostracism is dangerous, as it may prompt such state to adopt adventurous foreign policy as “it has nothing to lose.”


The fact that the leaders of such states like to highlight their country’s ostracism and cultivate the siege mentality and associated narratives is disturbing. There are cases where leaders go as far as promoting the siege perception when the State needs to advance national missions; at those times it is worthwhile to point to external difficulties, rally the public around the flag and make demands that would facilitate the mission’s completion.


Changing our tune

Meanwhile, some leaders hold these perceptions as part of their ideology, and hence may make a mountain of a molehill, with every international event being portrayed as an existential threat even if that’s not the case. Other leaders adopt the Masada Syndrome when they experience domestic difficulties and economic or social problems that are hard to cope with.


Under such circumstances, the leadership has trouble adopting a sober policy, taking moderate decisions, and compromising in the face of complex global developments. Such leadership also tends to initiate actions without planning or considering them, possibly leading to further deterioration and so on and so forth.


In Israel’s history there have been ups and downs in our siege perception, premised partly on historical developments and geopolitical facts – for example, the well-known dictum that “Israel is so small that there is no room to write its name on the map.” However, even if this syndrome is supported by global ostracism, turning this worldview into an ideology is not justified and there is no reason to act in a way that only worsens the situation.


At this time we are facing several occurrences, not all in our control, which may minimize our room for maneuvering in the international theater. These events also reinforce the siege mentality.


The “Arab Spring” is creating a different, foggy Middle East, and fans of the Masada Syndrome find it convenient to present it as a hostile development.


Our relations with Turkey and Prime Minister Erdogan’s approach are a perfect fit for those who adopt the siege perception. When such feelings reign supreme it is difficult to concede, compromise or apologize, and instead one may adopt a policy of revenge and further escalate the situation.


On a final note we have “September.” In a few days, the United Nations will debate the issue of a Palestinian state. As we always did in the past, we shall again point to the “automatic” hostile majority at the UN. Yet all those who espouse this way of thinking should keep in mind that it may not be too late to change the tune. It is possible to change the policy towards the Palestinians or Turkey, and then we shall no longer feel or be like “one sheep amid 70 wolves.”


Dr. Chanan Naveh heads Sapir Academic College’s School of Communication



פרסום ראשון: 09.14.11, 23:46
 new comment
This will delete your current comment