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Jungle Dispatch: Grandiosity and Insecurity in Yonatan Netanyahu’s letters

I make my way out of my apartment building with Roscoe, my German Shepherd, in tow. It’s 2 in the morning, and the street is empty and still, save for the occasional scurrying of street cats from one garbage bin to another, and the sound of rain pattering against roofs. As a woman, I never had the opportunity to enjoy wandering around at night before Roscoe – even five-minute walks from the bus-stop were liable to be filled with anxiety; lines from true crime documentaries surfacing in my brain, propelling my feet to move faster. Now, I’ve come to love my late-night forays around the neighborhood – with Roscoe by my side, I can go anywhere I please without fear; a beneficiary of “scary dog privilege.” Often, when people see me walking with Roscoe, they cross to the other side of the street – it’s a phenomenon I’m still not used to, and one which makes me feel empowered, yet somewhat ashamed. Roscoe is a shield, yet also a spear – and I both appreciate, and am troubled by, the fear he stokes in others. In this moment, as we make our way to the end of the unlit street, I appreciate it.

While Roscoe stops to sniff, I notice a book lying on a bench a few meters away. We walk over to investigate. The book is damp – a victim of the rain -, and after a moment of hesitation (Does it belong to someone? Has it been left here by mistake?), I decide I should at least save the book from the threat of bad weather, and tuck it under my arm. It’s a book of letters by Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Benyamin Netanyahu, which surprises me, predominantly because I never knew it existed despite studying Israeli history for years, and hoarding all sorts of books about the conflict in my personal library. When Roscoe and I arrive home, I put his leash in the cupboard and sit down to read.

Living in the Jungle

I read all 278 pages of the book in that sitting. It was, in every way, fascinating – and Yonatan’s words haven’t left me since; both challenging, and resonating with, me. The Letters of Yonatan Netanyahu compiles a number of personal letters written by Yonatan Netanyahu over a thirteen-year period, from 1963 to 1976, spanning his teenage years as a student in a Philadelphia high-school, to the Entebbe raid. The majority of Yonatan’s letters were addressed to his parents, while a smaller number were sent to his spouses (his wife, Tuti, and later, his girlfriend of two years, Bruria).

Yonatan pictured on Mt. Hermon during the Yom Kippur War The Yoni Netanyahu Story

Yonatan’s worldview, to put it frankly, was nothing like mine. Yonatan frequently sensed that he lived among the subpar. For example, he identified his American high-school peers as “apes” (May 20, 1963) - a categorization he made on the basis that their lives revolved around sex -, and later described Arab enemies on the battlefield of the Six Day War as “barbarians” (July 31, 1968). Even his own people, the Jewish people, didn’t escape Yonatan’s denunciation.

Yonatan’s evolving relationship with the idea of peace between Israel and the Arab states nourished his ultimate hostile conclusion regarding the Jewish people. Though Yonatan initially expressed a careful optimism regarding the prospect of peace between Israel and its neighbors, he became entirely disillusioned with the idea of peace following the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, at which point he not only relinquished his hope, but spouted a seething condemnation of those Jews who maintained their own. Younger Yonatan wrote: “I hope we will yet reach a time when we will not have to live with the enemy’s sword swinging over our heads” (May 15, 1966). Yet, in a reflection some years later, Yonatan, ragefully, redacted and expanded: “I see with sorrow and great anger how a part of the [Jewish] people still clings to hopes of reaching a peaceful settlement with the Arabs … the self-delusion and self-deception that have always plagued the Jews are at work again … it would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic.” (November 17, 1973). Peace-seeking Jews may have been an inevitable target for Yonatan – perhaps, haunted by the personal humiliation of having once been among them, Yonatan’s internal anger at his previous susceptibility to “idealism” found itself easily redirected onto the remaining idealists: a convert’s zealotry.

         Yonatan’s essentialist denouncement of Jews was transmuted in the eyes, and mouth, of his brother, Bibi, the longest serving Israeli premier. As early as 1997, during his first term as prime minister, Bibi whispered in the ear of a popular rabbi: "The left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” While Yoni angrily condemned the Jewish people for what he perceived to be its innate character flaws – optimistic self-delusion and self-deception which effectively hold the Jewish people forevermore on the potential brink of annihilation – Bibi claimed that these same peace-seeking, hopeful Jews were traitors to the identity, even heritage, of the Jewish people; self-deluding and self-deceiving precisely because they are not Jewish. Still, politically, Bibi seems to share his brother’s deep dismissal of peace prospects; a harmful pipe dream of the ignorant which must be crushed by the wise in order to spare the Jewish people from demise. In 2022, Bibi formed Israel’s most extreme government, propelling Israel to its current predicament in multiple respects.

         To be sure, one need not look far to find elements of the Netanyahus’ sentiment in preceding, and far deeper, Zionist thinkers. Forefather of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, proposed that the Jewish state come to constitute “an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Just shy of three decades later, Ze'ev Jabotinsky advocated an Iron Wall doctrine, vouching for the development of a completely fortified Jewish power in Palestine that would be wholly unamenable to Arab pressure for political compromise. Ehud Barak later introduced a compelling visual for a parallel idea: Israel as “a villa in the jungle” (a conception which Bibi himself referenced admiringly in a February 2016 tour of the Israel-Jordan border) – according to Barak’s ideal, Israel should strive to be a “modern and prosperous villa in the middle of the jungle”; an enduring oasis of progress, resilient to the infinite onslaught of beastly predators.

Shielded by Grandiosity – Haunted by Insecurity

In tandem with his frequent degradation of those he felt to be subpar, Yonatan revered his own in-groups, which he deemed to be incomparably exceptional. While a high-school student in the USA, Yonatan’s grandiosity largely revolved around his national identity as an Israeli, which he deemed infinitely superior to being an American. Yonatan wrote at one point that “there’s not a moment [in the USA] ... I wouldn’t trade for my immediate return to Israel” (March 28, 1963), likening every minute in the USA to death itself (April 20, 1963), and later noting: “Now that I’ve lived [in the USA] for a considerable length of time, I can tell you without any hesitation: This is an awful world” (December 20, 1963). Though Yonatan deliberately avoided making friendships with American students, who he believed to be superficial and unintelligent, he derived much pleasure from engaging in hasbara activities with peers, and believed he was unbeatably successful in that endeavor, at one point writing that all who hear him simply fall in love with Israel, as well as with himself (Summer, 1963).

         After joining the army, Yonatan’s sensation of grandiosity largely shifted to center his identity as an IDF soldier. Yonatan idolized the IDF, in which he was a proud commander of elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, and a decorated soldier (awarded Israel’s Medal of Distinguished Service). In Yonatan’s perception, the IDF was both innately righteous, and eternal. He wrote that the IDF is “capable of anything” (October 25, 1966), and that Israel’s military success was existentially destined, or at least, demanded: “If war breaks out, I’m positive we’ll come through it victorious, not only because we are strong enough … but also because we have to win. It’s essential for the very existence of our people” (May 20, 1967). Yonatan later reiterated: “If war breaks out, we will come out on top, both because we are better and because we must win” (May 28, 1967).

         The habitual degrading of others, and a complementary affinity for grandiose self-perception, as displayed by Yonatan, immediately call to mind the phenomenon of narcissism. Narcissists have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance, and hunger for attention and admiration to substantiate their self-assessed elevated status. Underlying this shroud of extreme confidence is pervasive insecurity which renders the narcissist highly sensitive to anything they may deem as criticism, and predisposes them to react with rage and belittle others in order to protect the projected image of their superiority. Castigation and arrogance are the narcissists’ shields from reconciliation with insecurity.

Tracing the objects of Yonatan’s disgust, it is easy to imagine that his subpar-superior worldview served as a mechanism for countering revelations of his own vulnerability. It seems no coincidence that those who may have revealed Yonatan’s vulnerability most severely also became the targets of his fiercest criticism. American high-school peers, among whom he felt alien and homesick, revealed his social and emotional vulnerability – thus, they became “apes” (May 20, 1963). Enemies on the battlefield of the Six Day War revealed his physical and mortal vulnerability – thus, they became “barbarian”(July 31, 1968). Jewish peace-seekers revealed his ideological and existential vulnerability – thus, they became a suicidal disgrace to the Jewish people: “They want to bring about a sacrifice, and they do indeed ... a saddening and irritating lot” (November 17, 1973).

That Yonatan’s seething condemnations and expressions of grandiose self-perception were a balm for haunting sensations of insecurity seems all the more plausible given Yonatan’s repeated rumination on collective and personal helplessness. In distinct instances, Yonatan relayed that “the mood in Israel is as usual … sadness, anger, and helplessness” (July 31, 1968), and that a sensation of old age had settled over him as a result of individual and national “helplessness in the face of a war that has no end” (August 17, 1968). Eerily, this helplessness was best crystallized in Yonatan’s final letter: “I recall the mad, miserable cry in a play I saw long ago: ‘Stop the world, I want to get off!’ But it isn’t possible to stop the mad globe we’re moving on” (June 29, 1976). Indeed, Yonatan could not disembark the mad globe – five days after writing these words, he was killed in action during the Entebbe Raid.

Does Bibi, like Yonatan, draw on narcissism (potentially, in a more severe reading, even social Darwinism): a subpar-superior orientation to other and self as a mode of defense against sensations of insecurity - vulnerability? Bibi certainly paints himself a frequent victim - of left-wing newspapers, targeted corruption charges, and the hordes of protestors long attempting to dethrone him (among others). Are Bibi’s holier-than-thou aversion to peace and its seekers, and his determined attempt to undermine Israeli democracy for what he and his cronies perceive to be “the better,” really tip-of-the-iceberg manifestations of a deeply-ingrained, uncomfortable sensation of helplessness? It’s hard to say, but easy to wonder – especially since I understand the feeling well myself.

Mass protests erupt in Israel after Bibi removes Defense Minister Gallant from his post, March 2023 CNN

I recently discovered that “Roscoe” is a recognized slang term for handgun. I had no idea about this when I chose Roscoe’s name half a year ago – the name simply felt right to me, and maybe for good reason. To me, Roscoe is, at points, a handgun; held tightly to my side, ready to protect me. Of course, the sense of safety I feel with Roscoe is mostly an illusion: Roscoe might fend off one unarmed robber, but stands no chance against a person with a weapon, or against the rockets that once flew overhead as we crouched together in the nearby dog park.

Similarly, the insecurity-grandiosity pipeline Yonatan (and perhaps, Bibi, too) are participants in can’t save them either. Meeting the world, and ourselves, with medicinal grandiosity – soothing our uncomfortable insecurity with the conclusion that all are below us – is deceptive; it takes much from us, and leaves us none the richer. This vantage point certainly moves us farther from peace – as the Netanyahus may desire – but it also moves us farther from our humanity: our authenticity.

Sometimes we need to leave our Roscoes at home – to venture courageously into an unlit street, relying only on ourselves to carry us through. That conclusion feels particularly pertinent now as National Security Minister Ben Gvir continues paving legal fast-tracks and regulation workarounds for Israeli civilians to acquire their own Roscoes (hundreds of thousands already have).

It's high time Israeli leaders cast the crutch of narcissism (and, I, the crutch of scary dog privilege). May we all dare to live in symbiosis with our vulnerability.

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