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‘I Shoot Them with Words’: An Analysis of Political Hate-Letters

  • Benny Temkin and Niza Yanay

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This article focuses on a peculiar behavioural manifestation of political hatred. Hate-letters received by an Israeli political party are analysed in order to probe the dynamics involved in the communication of political hatred. The act of writing and mailing hostile letters is characterized as a particular form of political participation and interpreted as part of the social struggle over the boundaries and definition of the collective. The text of the letters is examined to uncover the main themes and mechanisms that are involved in the expression of political hatred.

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1 See Milbrath, L. W., ‘Conceptual Problems of Political Participation’, in Larson, C. V. and Washburn, P. C., eds, Power, Participation and Ideology: Readings in the Sociology of American Political Life (New York: Longman, 1969).

2 For good examples of both approaches see Gurr, T. R., Handbook of Political Conflict: Theory and Research (New York: The Free Press, 1981).

3 Based on our conversations with the staff we are convinced that the letters that were kept are representative of the rest. Furthermore, since we began our research, all the aggressive missives that are received by the party have been delivered to us, and the general picture we had about the letters has not changed.

4 Our conclusions were confirmed by the independent investigation of an Israeli newspaper which after finding out about our research, did a comprehensive follow-up on the story. They called their report: ‘They shoot only at the CRM’. See Kol Hair (Jerusalem), 13 02 1987.

5 In Hebrew it is possible to identify the sex of the speaker or writer by his/her use of adjectives and nouns.

6 A number of people in Israel have suggested to us that perhaps the majority of the writers are ultra-Orthodox (extreme anti-Zionist or non-Zionist religious Jews), and that the corpus we are analysing simply constitutes an additional example of the well-known practice of hate-letter writing in those circles. That explanation however does not hold. Most of the letters express intensely nationalistic and Zionist sentiments. This suggests that those writers we could identify as religiously inclined, belong to the ‘modern’ national-religious camp and not to the ultra-Orthodox.

7 See Brenner, M., ed., Social Method and Social Life (New York: Academic Press, 1981). Also Filstead, W. J., ed., Qualitative Methodology (Chicago: Markham Publications, 1970).

8 Elder, C. D. and Cobb, R. W., The Political Uses of Symbols (New York: Longman, 1983).

9 The fact that, in Israel, writing letters to elected officials is not a particularly frequent form of political participation (see Wolsfeld, G., The Politics of Cynicism: Participation and Protest in Isreal (New York: State University Press, forthcoming), reinforces the impression that the authors of the hate-letters are highly interested in political issues and, perhaps, that they engage in diverse kinds of political activity in addition to the mailing of hate-letters.

10 Labov, W., ‘Rules for Ritual Insults’, in Sudnov, D., ed., Studies in Social Interaction (New York: The Free Press, 1972). See also Ayoub, M. and Barnett, S. A., ‘Ritualized Verbal Insults’, Journal of American Folklore, 78 (1965), 336–44.

11 Kol-Hair (Jerusalem), 13 02 1987.

12 See Ricoeur, P., ‘The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text’, Social Research, 38 (1971), 529–62.

13 See Austin, J. L., How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), and Ray, B., ‘Performative Utterances in African Rituals’, History of Religions, 13 (1973), 1635.

14 It is significant that CRM leaders were rather reticent about allowing us to use the hate-letters for this study. They feared that publicly acknowledging their large number and their content would generate additional waves of aggressive mail and create an impression of marginality and vulnerability of the party among the general public. Also important to note is that CRM leaders have been subject to physical assault a number of times in the last few years, and are frequently the target of aggressive heckling and verbal aggression.

15 For example, in street demonstrations by ultra-orthodox Jews the epithet Nazi is frequently used against the police forces. Also, as was reported to us by a direct witness, a radical leftist demonstrator who was arrested because he called a policeman a Nazi, explained to the judge that he was searching for the strongest possible insult he could think of in order to protest against the use of excessive force by the police. Moreover, demonstrators against the Jewish Defence League (the party of Meir Kahane) usually label that party and its leader as Nazi.

16 Kimmerling, B., ‘Between the Primordial and the Civil Definitions of the Collective Identity: Eretz Israel or the State of Israel?’ in Cohen, Erik, Lissak, Moshe and Almagor, Uri, eds, Comparative Social Dynamics: Essays in Honor of S. N. Eisenstadt (Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1985).

17 Images of political and sexual aggression in the letters are intertwined in ways that can be fully understood only within a comprehensive socio-psychological explanatory framework. Our ability, however, to account for the recurrent association of aggressive sexual and political references in the text is limited, because of the inconclusive character of the literature dealing with the sources of aggressive behaviour, and because of the unavailability of specific psychological information about the writers as individuals. Still, the text and emotional tone of the letters are consistent with some of the findings of the by-now classic The Authoritarian Personality. Like the ‘anti-democratic’ individuals described by Adorno and his colleagues (see Adorno, T. et al. , The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper and Row, 1950)), our writers manifest destructiveness and cynicism, dogmatism and stereotyped thinking, authoritarian aggression, projectivity and an exaggerated concern with sexual ‘goings on’. This of course does not prove that the writers are ‘authoritarians’, or that they would score high in the F or E scales.

Since it is difficult to believe that the profusive use of sexual, anal and oral images has no ego-de-fensive meaning, it seems worthwhile to explore further the psychological implications of hate-letter writing. Such a task is beyond the scope of this article.

18 It is interesting to note that the modern Israeli-Jewish Left likes to call itself the ‘rational’ or the ‘sane’ camp (hamachane hashafui) in implied opposition to the presumably atavistic and emotional right wing. The pragmatic ethos of the Israeli new left is not particularly conducive to unrestrained acts of emotional catharsis. Public demonstrations of Peace Now for example, are known to be totally devoid of spontaneous emotional outbursts.

19 See Shamir, M. and Sullivan, John L., ‘Political Tolerance in Israel’, Megamot, 29 (1985), 145–69 (Hebrew).

20 The same holds for the Progressive List for Peace, which is also perceived as an Arab party. Its prominent Jewish members, who were well known for their dovish activism in the past (when they belonged to declaredly Zionist parties) continue to receive some personal hate-mail of similar character to the one received by the CRM. An additional Leftist-Zionist party, Mapam, receives very few hate-letters simply because it has not been in the public eye long and prominently enough since it became part of the Labour Alignment until 1984. Moreover, it is not perceived as anti-religious and pro-Palestinian to the same extent as the CRM; and it is not led by a woman.

* Department of Political Science, Tel Aviv University; Department of Sociology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We would like to thank Anat Dori from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for her assistance in the research, and Moshik Temkin for his helpful comments on an earlier version. Yanay (formerly Ben-Ner) wishes to acknowledge the financial support of the Lady Davis Foundation. Given the subject of our study, some of the material included is inevitably offensive.

‘I Shoot Them with Words’: An Analysis of Political Hate-Letters

  • Benny Temkin and Niza Yanay

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