No Fear, No Trembling
Israel, Death and the Meaning of Anxiety

A Dialectical Lyric

By Louis Rene Beres

Fear of death, the ultimate source of anxiety, is essential to human survival. This is true not only for individuals, but also for states. Without such fear, states will exhibit an incapacity to confront nonbeing that can hasten their disappearance. So it is today with the State of Israel.

Israel suffers acutely from insufficient existential dread. Refusing to tremble before the growing prospect of collective disintegration - a forseeable prospect connected with both genocide and war - this state is now unable to take the necessary steps toward collective survival. What is more, because death is the one fact of life which is not relative but absolute, Israel's blithe unawareness of its national mortality deprives its still living days of essential absoluteness and growth.

For states, just as for individuals, confronting death can give the most positive reality to life itself. In this respect, a cultivated awareness of nonbeing is central to each state's pattern of potentialities as well as to its very existence. When a state chooses to block off such an awareness, a choice currently made by the State of Israel, it loses, possibly forever, the altogether critical benefits of "anxiety."

There is, of course, a distinctly ironic resonance to this argument. Anxiety, after all, is generally taken as a negative, as a liability that cripples rather than enhances life. But anxiety is not something we "have." It is something we (states and individuals) "are." It is true, to be sure, that anxiety, at the onset of psychosis, can lead individuals to experience literally the threat of self-dissolution, but this is, by definition, not a problem for states.

Anxiety stems from the awareness that existence can actually be destroyed, that one can actually become nothing. An ontological characteristic, it has been commonly called Angst, a word related to anguish (which comes from the Latin angustus, "narrow," which in turn comes from angere, "to choke.") Herein lies the relevant idea of birth trauma as the prototype of all anxiety, as "pain in narrows" through the "choking" straits of birth. Kierkegaard identified anxiety as "the dizziness of freedom," adding: "Anxiety is the reality of freedom as a potentiality before this freedom has materialized."

This brings us back to Israel. Both individuals and states may surrender freedom in the hope of ridding themselves of an unbearable anxiety. Regarding states, such surrender can lead to a rampant and delirious collectivism which stamps out all political opposition. It can also lead to a national self-delusion which augments enemy power and hastens catastrophic war. For the Jewish State, a lack of pertinent anxiety, of the positive aspect of Angst, has already led its people to what is likely an irreversible rendezvous with extinction.

Such a curious analysis, naturally, will appear foolish and beside the point to mainstream thinkers. In Israel, the professional strategists and learned professors will certainly be disdainful. How, after all, could Israel possibly be aided by anxiety? Why bother with such nonsense? Doesn't Israel have the Bomb as well as remarkably large numbers of video games, computers and cellular phones?

Why worry? Why have Angst?

But the mainstream thinkers do not really think. That is a large part of the security problem for Israel. Thinking is the soundless dialogue that takes place in our own heads, and what is happening in most Israeli heads these days is merely monologue. There is, in these heads, no productive dialectic, only a silent and meaningless soliloquy.

Truth may often emerge only through paradox, and Israeli imaginations of collective mortality - ontological imaginations generated by a common national anxiety - are integral to survival as a state. To encourage such productive imaginations, Israelis need look much more closely at the inevitable consequences of their sorely misnamed "peace process," and at the corresponding nuclearization of enemy states, especially Iran, Iraq and Egypt (yes, Egypt is very much an enemy state). Taken together, these features of the "New Middle East" threaten the State of Israel with a human disaster of possibly unparalleled dimensions.

Nowhere is it written that Israel is forever, or that presumptions of collective immortality are purposeful to Israel's security. Stepping into imaginations of death in order to prevent annihilation, Israel must quickly discover, in the immanent abyss of nonbeing, the course of direction toward life. Drawing upon the anxiety of death's immanence in the life of every nation, the People of Israel could nurture the Angst that is now antecedent to national endurance.

Israel cannot afford to be "liberated" from existential anxiety. It must, instead, feel that the Third Temple Commonwealth is problematic, that collective extinction represents the end point of the same continuum that contains collective vitality, and that preservation as a state cannot be detached from reasonable intimations of disappearance. Left uncontrolled, anguish can become an unbearable hindrance, but disregarded entirely, it can become the source of unalterable despair.

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and writes broadly about international relations and international law.

 HOME  Maccabean  comments