TO BANISH THE “LEVANTINE DUNGHILL” FROM WITHIN: TOWARD A CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING OF ISRAELI ANTI-IRAN PHOBIAS

By Haggai Ram, International Journal of Middle East Studies 40 (2008), 249–268.

Held since 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual event traditionally dedicated to the eternal themes of love, peace, and harmony. Yet Israelis asked to pick a song for the 2007 contest in Helsinki paid little heed to these themes. Instead, they settled for “Push the Button,” a controversial number by an Israeli punk group called Teapacks; the song is generally understood as a description of life under the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran with its “crazy rulers.” Meanwhile, an Israeli fashion house (Dan Cassidy) commissioned a series of photos at a construction site in southern Tel Aviv that showed a topless model lying in a pit. The project was designed as a warning against the “holocaust” that would follow Iran’s possible nuclear attack on Israel; the pit, as the project’s creative director explained, represented “the mass grave of complacent Tel Aviv residents.”

These are merely two vivid expressions of the acute Iranophobia that has taken hold of the Israeli public sphere in recent years. With some notable exceptions, this phobia has been disseminated by leading Israeli scholars, journalists, and politicians who argue that, should Iran be allowed access to weapons of mass destruction, the “nuclear ayatollahs” will quickly turn them against Israel so as to achieve their apocalyptic ambitions. “With a country the size and shape of Israel . . . probably four or five hits will suffice. No more Israel,” predicts historian Benny Morris. He adds, “A million or more Israelis . . . will die immediately. Millions will be seriously irradiated. No Iranian will see or touch an Israeli. It will be quite impersonal.” The Israeli public has taken these doomsday scenarios seriously: a recent poll found that 71 percent of Israelis believe that the United States should launch a “preemptive” strike against Iran if diplomatic efforts fail to halt Tehran’s nuclear program.

Needless to say, there are many good reasons why the Jewish state should be apprehensive of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the course of just one year—2006—Israel fought a war with the Iranian-backed Hizbullah on its northern border; saw the election of Hamas, another Iranian-backed organization, in the Palestinian territories; and watched the growing influence of Iran in Iraq. All the while Iran has kept up its Israel-threatening rhetoric (and Israel has reciprocated in kind) and is suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons capability with contempt for international opposition. As a result, “a rising tide of anxiety at the Iranian threat is afflicting Israelis at all levels.” Nonetheless, there is something utterly irrational and exceedingly disproportionate in Israeli understandings of the Iranian threat—even if that threat is, in certain respects, very real.

In this article I inquire into the roots of Israeli perceptions of the Iranian threat. To do so, I relocate analysis from the realm of political–strategic issues, with which previous scholarship on Israel and Iran has been preoccupied, to the realm of culture. Following works that read metropolitan and colonial cultures together, or contrapuntally, I emphasize the collapse of boundaries between Israel and Iran and view one history (Iranian) as both the condition and the effect of the other history (Israeli). By doing so, I demonstrate that Israeli perceptions of the Iranian threat have been connected to domestic constructs of identity and politics and fashioned on the basis of what Israelis believed to be the (dis)ordering of their society at home.

In the first section of the article I analyze various Israeli texts on Iran under the old monarchical regime, which appeared after the fall of the Shah in the 1979 revolution. These retrospective texts were often created by Israelis who had spent extended periods of time in the Shah’s realm, either as state emissaries or as private entrepreneurs. Although I am aware that these texts cannot provide transparent access to the monarchical past— for, as Edward Said has noted, “there is no just way in which the past can be quarantined from the present”—they are likely to redirect attention to the kind of commonsense world that bonded Israel and Iran in the prerevolutionary era. This commonsense world was in keeping with the two states’ perceptions of themselves as outsiders in the Arab Middle East, as well as their desire to integrate their respective (Jewish and Iranian) populations into the Christian West. In addition, these retrospective texts show that the Jewish state’s unqualified support for the Shah regime’s oppressive modernity was firmly embedded in various colonial gestures, including the “bourgeois European evaluation of ‘unprogressive’ and ‘fanatical’ Islam that is required to be directly controlled for reasons of empire.” As I argue, these aspects of Israeli–Iranian relations before the revolution at once complemented and outweighed many of the other (political, strategic, and economic) issues upon which the two states agreed.

In the second section of the article I demonstrate that Israel’s perceptions of (and anxieties about) the Iranian threat cannot be sufficiently understood unless we keep in mind these conceptual mainstays of the Israeli–Iranian alliance before the revolution. While Israeli readings of monarchical Iran worked to reinforce self-images of the Jewish state as “the West,” the revolution and its aftermath equally worked to underline the precarious nature of these self-images. While the revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran showed the Shah regime to be “not even the replica of Europe, but its caricature,” to borrow from Franz Fanon’s scathing critique of postcolonial ruling juntas, they also brought to the fore the tensions, ambiguities, and contradictions in the process of demarcating and safeguarding Israeli society’s Western character. Even if some of Israel’s concerns with the Islamic republic may be justified, the anti-Iran phobias issuing from its public sphere should be examined within the context of heightened anxieties lest Iran’s post-1979 realities turn out to be the Jewish state’s dark future. In other words, manifestations of anti-Iran phobias in the Israeli public sphere are related not only to the emergence of a hostile Islamist regime in Iran, but also to the current and future direction of secular Zionism.

The rest of this article can be found in IJMES.