By Harrison Goldstein
Israeli scholar Dr. Orit Rozin analyzed the events leading up to the 1956 Suez Crisis from a unique perspective while giving a presentation in H.J. Patterson Hall Tuesday afternoon.
Rozin, a professor of Jewish History at the University of Tel Aviv, presented an essay with an accompanying Powerpoint to a room of about 20 people ranging from undergraduate and graduate students to middle-aged and older adults.
The presentation, titled “From Fear to Solidarity and Elation,” was a narrative about how the Israeli public came together to form stronger bonds and improve morale when relations with Egypt were very tense and dangerous following Egypt’s arms deal with Czechoslovakia.
Rozin’s argument was that while the initial mental state for many Israelis was fear, the circumstances and governmental leadership helped to mobilize the public in contributing toward the Israeli cause. This mobilization manifested itself in many ways, including monetary and other donations and digging trenches along the frontier of Jewish settlements, among other things.
That sense of urgency and purpose helped to quell the public’s fear and bring optimism, Rozin said.
“While preparing for war, modern states, including the young Israeli nation-state in the making, fortify not only their military and civil defenses but also the nation’s mental and emotional defenses,” Rozin said. “Fear was turned into readiness, and the bond between members of the larger community, the national community, was forged.”
So how did the Israeli government prepare the public’s mental state to be ready for war? Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion pleaded with the Israeli people to contribute to the Israeli cause in any way they could, whether in the form of physical donations or time and effort to help with projects such as the fortification of the frontier around Israeli settlements.
Donations were a particularly effective method for the improvement of the public’s mental state, Ben-Gurion said. First, they bring the practical benefit of the donation. Second, they are a performative act—the public aspect of giving to the fund was important because it had a sweeping, infectious, and even competitive public effect that could also motivate donations from overseas. Finally, the practice confirmed the social identification of its participants and evoked a wave of positive emotions among the citizenry.
“The Israeli case graphically illustrates that work on behalf of others, giving money or things or engaging in volunteer work, is rich with existential meaning as it spiritually empowers the giver,” Rozin said.
While Rozin was confident in her theory that the government did a good job of setting the public’s mental state correctly, not everyone in the audience agreed with her. One man accused the Israeli government of using propaganda to deceive the public.
Rozin responded by defending the government’s actions.
“Good leadership helps you manage your emotions in times of crisis,” Rozin said. “It’s not propaganda to try to reduce fear. To me, it’s only propaganda if it’s a lie. [The government] didn’t tell the whole truth, but they didn’t lie.”
To solidify this concept, Rozin brought up the example of the “duck and cover” campaign during the Cold War. People were instructed to get low to the ground and cover their head and neck areas in the event of a nuclear attack. However, Rozin said some people believe that the method is more psychological than practical – it keeps the threat of nuclear attacks in the back of people’s minds, while simultaneously convincing them that something can be done to defend against a nuclear attack.
Rozin argues that this is not propaganda, as it is not necessarily a lie and improves the public psyche.
“I found it interesting the way that [Rozin] talks about leadership and the way that you can mobilize people for good in a lot of ways,” said government and politics Ph.D. candidate Sean Rao. “I was surprised about how negative the first commenters were, because it seems that whatever you think of the policies, they’re trying to pull people together.”
Paul Scham, a professor and the executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at this university, was enlightened by the unique point of view that Rozin presented.
“She didn’t look at what historians usually focus on, which is the political development, the international situation,” Scham said. “She mentioned those, but she looks at both how the government managed that and how people responded to it. That was something that I think I certainly haven’t seen it focused on, either for this war or for others.”