The last major twist in the Israeli elections of 2019 was the attempt by Binyamin Netanyahu to present his partner in war crimes, Binyamin Gantz, as mentally ill. This came soon after his surrogates’ attempt to paint Gantz as a sex offender fell flat. If you remember Netanyahu’s attempts to paint Rabin as a drunk, back in 1993-1994, this wouldn’t surprise you at all.
What is disturbing about this campaign is how much – from just about any angle – it is about toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity means the idea that the way men are taught to behave in life – they should be silent, strong, always ready for violence, contemptuous of weakness (theirs and others), and avoid expressing feelings or “feminine” interests – is one of the most harmful concepts to society. We are taught at an early age that the world is full of predators, that it is incapable of change, that any sign of weakness will mark you as prey, and therefore you should always look dangerous. When you internalize this pattern of behavior, when what used to be a mask becomes part of you, you become violent if not a predator yourself, and the circle is immortalized. Seen from this angle, feminism frees not just women but men as well: it allows them to break out of the corral they’re forced into.
Last Friday, Israeli journalist Ben Caspit published an article, which said that Gantz – oy vey – consulted a psychologist after his discharge from the Israel Defense Forces, and that he also received psychiatric medicine from her. There’s something basically wrong with this story, inasmuch as Israeli psychologists aren’t allowed to prescribe any medicine, and yet, it was enough to start a major brouhaha.
The pro-corruption camp in Israel (Netanyahu’s Likud Party and others) quickly jumped on the bandwagon: See, Gantz is receiving treatment! And boom, back came all the old stereotypes: If you’re receiving mental care, you’re a dangerous kook who’s on the direct route to become the next Hannibal Lecter. If you see a shrink, you’re weak, effeminate, unstable, dangerous to others. The Israeli media, always preferring its prime minister a killer (one should remember how it deified Ariel Sharon and claimed that his opponent, ‘Amram Mitznah, “lacked killer instinct”), happily pushed Gantz back into the trap of the silent, sealed man.
I don’t know Gantz’s psychological makeup. He was, and remains, one of the least interesting political actors in Israel. But we do have a good approximation of Netanyahu’s makeup: He’s a chronic miser, a paranoid with clear narcissist tendencies. It would be better for him, and all of us, if here were to receive treatment. We already had a prime minister who suffered from acute depression and wasn’t properly treated (Menachem Begin): that didn’t end well.
Unfortunately, Gantz quickly announced that Caspit’s story is false and that he is not, God forbid, under any psychological treatment. Our attitude towards mental injuries is still touched with primordial fear: If a person says he broke his hand, society will treat him with kindness and mercy. Were they to say they’re suffering from depression, the kindness will be blended with fear and revulsion. Gantz, in his response, lent his hand to this fear. My problem with Gantz isn’t that he said that he didn’t receive treatment; it’s that he saw it as a stain upon his honor.
Gantz could have bought his place in the next world quite easily: He could have said that as Chief of Staff, he was under tremendous amounts of stress. That psychological treatment would have helped and aided him in addressing the stress. That elite unit officers are ordered to report to psychologists on a regular basis – including Sayeret Matkal, where Netanyahu served in the 1970s. He could have sat down with Gabi Ashkenazi – a gruff former Chief of Staff, a grunt’s grunt – and spoken about the scars a long active military service invariably leaves you with. But, of course, at that point Likud would have declared them both too effeminate for office: they are too attuned to their feelings, they do not repress.
Gantz could have used the opportunity that, especially as he recognizes the importance of psychological treatment, he would do his best to make certain any citizen could have such treatment. In Netanyahu’s Israel, psychological treatment is a privilege, reserved to the haves. The price is high, and the medical public companies – always on the brink of collapse – are bound in a “reform” meant to limit treatment of the have-nots. All of which is part of Netanyahu to destroy Israeli medical services so he could privatize them – as part of a circular deal, one suspects, at the end of which sits one of his innumerable cousins.
Gantz could have also said a few gentle words about the corral in which he and Netanyahu tread together: The need to act like a gamecock, all puffed up, against Hamas’ Ihya Sinwar, who also has to preen himself as a manly man. And between all of those would-be Rambos are trapped women, children, and men who have no time for all this shit but still have to maintain status, which means they have to act tough and threaten mutually assured destruction. Which pushes us towards the same.
The First World War broke out in the early days of modern psychology. When it was over, Freud would write about the death drive, which pushes people to risk themselves and die: Thanatos versus Eros.
When the war began, some men were on the verge of nervous breakdown. When the Russian Interior Minister had to sign the general mobilization orders – which he understood full well would mean the death of millions and untold destruction – he filled his office with candles and ikons, and sat down among them, trying to find some salvation for the crime he felt was his duty to carry out. The French premier, when he realized that the final talks between his president and the Czar’s ministers were not about avoiding the war but rather about the most expedient way to start, suffered a real nervous breakdown: he collapsed, and spoke incoherently for two days. A list of other generals and ministers suffered similar symptoms.
Then they pulled themselves off the floor, reminded themselves they were men, and they ought to be resolute and silent, and authorized the great and incomprehensible massacre, the manifestation of the death drive on a continental level (“But the old man would not so, but slew his son/and half the seed of Europe, one by one”).
It is time to dismantle the house of toxic masculinity, because it kills us. Literally kills us. We don’t need leaders who walk shirtless by (well-drugged) tigers. We need leaders who who don’t give Thanatos dominion: who are able to listen to their fears, who would be able to acknowledge their own weaknesses and, by doing so, be able to empathize with the weaknesses of others; who would not see human beings as pawns on some game board, but as fellow humans, something terrifyingly fragile and gentle.
In these elections, we should have had the option of someone who does not worship Moloch, who can show us a way out of the maze which we built for ourselves. It’s an ancient maze, possibly prehistoric; its walls appear in our oldest poetry and art; it whispers it always was here and always will be here; but it is us who built it, and we can demolish it.