Geoffrey Kemp and Shai Feldman to discuss Israel’s existential fears

At 3:30 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, Geoffrey C. Kemp will host part one of this year’s Middle East Updates. Kemp has been hosting these updates annually since 1993, and this week will look at the existential fears of the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Instead of talking, as we invariably do, about the contemporary problems in the Middle East, whether it’s Iran, Syria or Yemen, we (will) try to talk about fear as an existential issue in the most basic sense — from the perspective of an Israeli and a Palestinian,” Kemp said.

Joining Kemp this week will be Shai Feldman, Judith and Sidney Swartz Director at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, and Ghaith al-Omari, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


This afternoon, Kemp and Feldman will discuss the depths of Israelis’ fears in the Middle East, looking at the history of Israel and why the Iran nuclear issue is so important. Tuesday, Kemp and al-Omari will then explore the Palestinian existential fears, particularly in relation to the creation of the state of Israel, and on Wednesday both Feldman and al-Omari will join Kemp to discuss the current Arab-Israeli conflict and talk politics and policy.

“The idea (today) is to go back into history to talk about not only the history of Israel, but the history of European Jewry — and indeed world Jewry— and the traumas that this group of people have faced for thousands of years,”1 said Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Center for National Interest.

He plans to discuss, with Feldman, events in Russia and Europe during the 19th and 20th century, in particular how they culminated in the Holocaust. The two will also analyze the early days of the state of Israel, as well as the precarious nature of Israel’s position as an outnumbered entity.

“That will be quite enough to give people a sense as to why Israelis still worry about being exterminated by … nuclear weapons from anyone else,” Kemp said.

For Feldman, there are many different aspects and different kinds of fears to consider when discussing the nature of fear in the Middle East.

In the early years of the state of Israel, Feldman believes people were more directly affected by the images and lessons of the Holocaust.

“Six million people were butchered, which comprised such a large portion of the Jewish community in Europe — practically entire communities were totally destroyed,” Feldman said. “The possibility of some kind of a replay of the Holocaust, I think that was very dominant in the first two or three decades of Israel’s history.”

According to Feldman, the psychological effects of the Holocaust could be seen 20 years later on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as Israelis feared the invasion of Arab armies would result in a replay of the Holocaust.

“This wasn’t about losing the war — this was about equating losing a war with mass extermination,” Feldman said.


Although Feldman believes that today Israel is more confident in its position as a robust nation, he said remnants of this fear are still relevant — and can be considered an underlying reason for why the possibility of Iran possessing nuclear weapons was so threatening.

“The fear of extermination (has) not, as far as Israel’s concerned … gone away, but of course it’s very different from … the extent to which people felt there was a real danger of being exterminated … 50 years ago,” Feldman said, “(although) there is no better means of mass destruction than a nuclear weapon.”

Despite Israelis seeing their country as stronger than it ever has been, Feldman said the threat of terrorism has shifted Israeli fears from big concerns, such as mass extinction, to smaller-scale fears for personal safety and security.

“The nature of fear has changed, but the relevance of fear is there; it’s not changed,” Feldman said.

Fears for personal safety, in particular the fear of terrorism, now occupy Israeli minds, and Feldman believes this is largely a result of the climate of the broader Middle East environment and the role modern media plays. Since 2003, four countries in the Middle East — Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya — have deteriorated into some form of civil war.

“That means that Israelis — and Palestinians — are operating in the region which produces very, very vivid television images of things that would be natural to fear,” Feldman said. “People have been killing each other (at) unbelievable rates and … this carnage looks very differently in the Middle East than it looks (in America). Every single day for the last … five or six years … you see the most horrid pictures on television about what people can do to one another.”

Feldman said he doesn’t believe this problem and these fears are going to go away anytime soon.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the terrorism is going to go away,” Feldman said. “That means that fear of terrorism will not go away, and that means that concerns for personal safety and security are going to continue to (be) paramount.”

  1. Aug. 7, 2017: This quote has been updated to reflect the speaker’s word choice.
Tags : Geoffrey C. KempMiddle EastShai FeldmanThe Nature of FearWeek Seven
Meaghan Wilby

The author Meaghan Wilby

Meaghan Wilby covers the Lincoln Series in Applied Ethics as well as special lectures and programs, and works with the Chautauqua Foundation to cover development activities. Originally from New Zealand, she recently graduated from Allegheny College with a B.A. in English. She played four years of varsity basketball at Allegheny and was an editor for The Campus newspaper for two years. She can be reached at