Middle East

Part 3: Israel’s Psyche in the Face of Iranian Threats

How Israel’s collective historical experience will force action against Iran.


This article will examine the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Iranian conflict.  It also can be used as valuable background to examine the wider conflict in the region.  Israel’s history as a nation conceived out of European persecution and born after the Holocaust looms large in its collective psyche.  Iran knows this and has been exacerbating the fray through inflammatory statements.  Instead of de-escalating, it has poured the salt of threats combined with a nuclear program into old Israeli wounds and now risks provoking a regional war.

Iran’s Rhetoric

Iran’s regime is highly rhetorical.  This rhetoric stems from its lineage as the inheritors of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979: verbal flare and inflammatory bombast has been the mainstay of the Iranian regime from the very beginning.  Inflammatory speech tends to increase around the anniversary of the Revolution and in the face of perceived outside threats.  Since Ahmadinejad’s assumption of the Presidency in 2005 the dialogue emanating from Iran has become markedly more caustic.

Most notably, the regime has uttered threats to “wipe Israel off the map.”  This translation has been the subject of wide debate in the outside world because of the term’s vernacular usage in Farsi.  Despite the debate one can hardly say that the regime could not have anticipated how it would be taken in the West.  As well, other ominous rhetoric has emerged including the repeated use of the term “Zionist entity,” rather than “Israel,” the use of the terms “stinking corpse”, “cancer that must be cut”, “a germ” and continual allegations of a “global Zionist conspiracy.”  Finally, in a calculated effort to offend the regime sponsored an international conference to review the science of the Holocaust and invited cartoonists to make light of the Holocaust in the wake of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark.

Israeli psychology

Israel became a nation shortly after the trauma of the Holocaust.  The collective experience of Jews in the Second World War (and for 1900 years before) as a persecuted minority of minorities cannot be ignored.  The memory of constant tribulations has loomed large in the collective psyche from the very day Israel became the homeland for the world’s dispossessed Jews.  Israel also was forced to fight from the very hours it came into existence: it was attacked by its neighbours shortly after declaring independence.  Israel has continued to face threats large and small ever since.

Iran’s rhetoric is particularly caustic because the memory of the Holocaust is so recent.  The mass extermination of 6 million members of a tiny community did not take place in the abstract of ancient history, rather it took place in modern times; it was mechanical, efficient and systematic.  Many people still have memories of it actually happening– Kristallnacht, the Einsatzgruppen, and the Warsaw Ghetto have not yet passed from the memory of those still alive.  Treblinka and Auschwitz, Belzec and Majdanek are real places in modern nation states.  The memory of the Holocaust is real and present, it cannot simply be ignored by people today as just another historical event.


Given the cogency of the Holocaust in the collective memory of the Israeli people its government cannot simply sit on its hands when faced with perceived existential threats.  When rhetoric is combined with actual steps to acquire weapons of mass destruction Israeli leadership must respond.

Some may contend that Iran simply spouts empty rhetoric; however, this ignores the important psychological background to the conflict and cannot excuse the behaviour of Iran’s regime.  Even if Iran does not mean to carry out its threats, its actions are highly callous and insensitive to the tragic history of the Jewish people. It is highly irresponsible if it risks sparking a regional war all for the sake of empty rhetoric.  However, in the event that Iran’s leadership actually intends to carry out its threats the case can easily be made for overwhelming global action to stop it.