Israel and its National Identity


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A Note on National Character

By Saul Goldman

Recently, Israel Harel commented upon the abandonment of two Palestinian informers who assisted Israeli intelligence. They were executed by a PLO firing squad. But abandonment is not new to us: Israel has abandoned its own: a Druze border partrolman was left to bleed to death at Joesph's tomb, four IDF soldiers were kidnapped and Israel deserted the South Lebanese Army that fought side by side with the IDF against Hizbollah. Faithfulness or loyalty is the character trait that, as everyone understands, creates the bonds between man and God as well as those bonds among men that assure the very foundation of civilized life.

Faithfulness was the instrumentality of the ancient covenant between Israel and God that appeared to endure even after the Roman catastrophe and a two millenial exile. Even at a wedding celebration, the groom breaks the glass whose shards declared, "if I forget you, O Jerusalem!" Lately, however, perhaps under the influence of a charismatic American president (who never understood faithfulness), loyalty has been supplanted by expediency. Today, the Jewish people negotiate over the very core of their identity.

Judaism, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught his students, is a study in the holiness of time. Our seasons are sacred. There are no holy things, no artifacts, no sacred bones. But, there is holy space. That place where our topographical voyage ended and our spiritual journey began, Israel, constitutes this sacred space. Hence, the diagnostic significance of these negotiations over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. The very fact that we can talk of dividing Jerusalem seems to point to a serious disorder of thinking. Man, as Ernest Cassirer stated, is a symbolic creature. Jerusalem has always been the symbol of our redemption, of our national renaissance and of our healing and wholeness after the tragedy of exile. Our willingness to give it up, to make believe that we can share it, is a symptom of our national disorder. Denial and magical thinking are the mechanisms with which individuals retreat from reality. We listen to Arab propaganda about Jerusalem and come away saying to ourselves that it belongs to them. We listen to their propaganda about the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, and believe that we are guilty of ethnic cleansing because we asserted our moral right to a Jewish state. For decades we have sought peace and now we accept the Arab rhetoric which makes us believe that just because Jews have chosen to live in places that are sacred in our history, we are the cause of war.

We have much to learn from the Arabs about the power of repeated lies and about the energy that comes from belief, about persistence and about dedication to a cause. They declared that Jerusalem must belong to them from the very start of Oslo, but we never really listened to what they said. They spoke of a return of refugees, but we did not hear. Instead, we projected our own ideas about compromise upon a national ethos that thinks only of submission. We, of course, are shocked and in despair. And it is out of this despair that we rush to sign a treaty of capitulation because despair or depression distorts reality and leads to suicide.

Paradoxically, we are at the worst of times and the best of times. We have succeeded over the last 100 years in transforming our history. Hebrew is now a living language. Airliners cross the globe bearing the Star of David. Universities have renewed Jerusalem's place in the world as a source of illumination and inspiration in science and the humanities. Dispersed Jews have been reunited and a new high tech economy replaces the "milk and honey" economy of early Israel. Israelis have seated themselves in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the New York stock exchange. In summary, we have traversed the world in our wanderings and still managed to find our way home. Yet, we are in the worst of times. The IDF has lost its deterrent power. Because we no longer believe in ourselves, the United States no longer believes in us and a US president establishes a new policy dividing Jerusalem. Emigration still far surpasses immigration to Israel and we stand upon the brink of self-destruction. When we look, we see that this was not brought about because Syria defeated us in war, but because we no longer have moral courage. The years of wandering and of constantly relocating have discounted our sense of self and our place in the world.

We have no home because we do not really want a home. Maybe this is because we have become so accustomed to being boarders in someone else's home.

There is something sad as well as cynical in saying that the Land of Israel is also home to Palestinians. A homeland is more than an address; it is where we composed our greatest thoughts, wrote our laws and forged our visions. The land gave us our identity and our name and despite our exile we never changed our name. To compare a history of 3500 years with a hundred year record of Arabs in the Land of Israel is to trivialize everything all good men stand for when they speak of heritage and character. Israel is our land precisely because our absense from it never negated it! While Arabs sat there, it neither transformed them nor did they transform the land. But from our very first step upon that land we made it holy and upon our return we made it blossom.

Honesty demands disclosure. Our enemy is not Hussein or Arafat, our enemy is a loss of character and a crisis of nerve. Jews are a people that have proven themselves immortal. We have survived Nebuchadnezzar and Haman, Hitler and Stalin. But we cannot survive our own antinomian impulses. In the psychic or moral economy of humankind, there is a balance between impulse (the rabbis called 'yetzer') and values that are mitzvot. Living according to these values builds character and when our values become confused our character becomes impaired. So we might ask, what, indeed, is the paramount value? Are we so brutalized by our history, that even the "promise" of peace mesmerizes us? Are we ready to exchange the symbolic core of our identity for a piece of paper? Have we forgotten the psalmist's warning against trusting in princes? These are hard questions that can only be answered by a long introspective look at ourselves.

If a nation could be analyzed like an individual, I would argue that Israel suffers from a national post traumatic stress disorder, much like the combat related syndrome that affects some soldiers during battle. After centuries of persecution, our national soul has been twisted. In a concatenation of mental processes we have identified ourselves with the aggressor to use Bettleheim's term. We proclaim our "occupation" of Judea and Samaria to be immoral and teach our young that our soldiers are villians. Simultaneously, when an Israeli is murdered we react as if it were a pogrom. That is we remain passive. Once it was thought that Jews could be murdered with impunity and today it appears that the Government of Israel has made such confusion their policy.

When broken hearted mothers demand that the IDF withdraw from Lebanon, we should hear and sympathize their grief. But bereaved mothers are not competent to make foreign policy. When University professors and poets speak of social justice for the Palestinians, we should be proud that they hear the call of Isaiah. But, maturity and common sense dictates that such idealism cannot be implemented by one side only. If we cannot hold the Arabs to the same standards of behavior that guide us, then we patronize them. We engage in a kind of moral racism with the implication that only Jews are capable of civilized behavior. This attitude is, indeed, subtle. Many of these people on the so-called left argue that we should be held to a higher standard (i.e. we are not like the goyim). It is that kind of moral "superiority" that often served as a compensatory cover for our low self esteem during our ghetto years. In not agreeing to stoop to the behavior of the goyim, we transformed our victimization into martyrdom; we called it "kiddush ha-shem." One would have thought that Zionism had cured us of this ghetto neurosis and that the murder of a Jew or the lynching of two IDF reservists would evoke a storm. One would have believed that the very same people who concluded a covenant with Adonai Zavaot would sweep through the streets of Ramallah understanding that the actual raison d^etre of Israel is "never again". In reality, however, we know that neurotic behavior is hard to alter and its symptoms often become residual.

Factually, the price of independence is blood and politically, the nature of independence is self-determination. Hence, it is we who decide who we are and what will be the topographical boundaries that delineate our sacred space. Within this sacred space the national renaissance of the Jews would begin and would flourish. Yet, it is this very same sacred space which has incubated the old fears and the ghetto mentality. I remember, as a reservist during the first Intifada, that many soldiers were afraid to open fire because they would be punished. The rules of engagement were so complicated that the time involved would fare poorly in those situations in which there were only the quick and the dead. And so a yeshiva student in Hebron was murdered while an IDF sentry watched. The soldier's reaction " I was afarid to shoot, because there would be an investigation and I wanted to go home and not to prison."

Our foreign policy is simple. Every morning the Foreign Ministry begins the day with the question: 'what will the goyim say?' It filters through to our Armed Forces so that soldiers run from stone throwing Arabs. Yet, while Israelis may think that their "restraint" is admirable, it merely confirms what Islam teaches about the yahud. Effective communication, we are taught involves all levels from verbal to symbolic and non-verbal. What are we saying to the Arabs when we are so willing to compromise our integrity over Jerusalem? What are we telling Arabs when Jews are murdered and in response we destroy empty buildings? Indeed, what are we telling ourselves about self-esteem? But then, again, low self -esteem is still another sign of a disturbed personality.

Perhaps, it will be good that Barak is defeated; not because Sharon will lead us to peace, but because we need a time- out. We need to come to terms with the reality in which we live. Men like Peres and Rabin are fine people. They cannot be faulted for trying to give us hope. But the hopes of tired old men, as precious as they may be, cannot be a foundation for national security. One reality that must never be denied is the imminence of war as a constant in a volatile Middle East. But fear of war, like fear of death, is a reality in which we must live.

A nation that would determine its course based upon the fear of war, would cripple itself just as an individual would, if he lived according to his fear of death. Wars, as Henry Steele Commager explained, are a part of the diplomatic and international landscape. War is aggression on a very large scale and aggression is endemic to the human condition. When Cato retired from the government of Rome, he warned the Senate that a Rome that was afarid of war would be drawn into war. As we see during this latest round of hostilities, it was our constant fear of violence that permitted such violence. Only by restoring the IDF's deterrent power will this violence cease. And the last bit of delusional thinking is that Israel's power lies in its advanced technology such as its missiles, tanks and aircraft. The fact is that this equipment was sidetracked in the intifada style of warfare. Power is not determined by the quantity of artillery shells or the number of tanks. The Palestinians already understand that. Violence, Hannah Arendt tells us, errupts when power fails. Neither is real power that which comes out of the barrel of a gun as Mao would have us believe. Real power is established when we as people arise, for power is a function of character. Long before Barak was prime minister or even a soldier, Zechariah (4:6) understood wherein lies our strength. Let us hope that before it is too late we can find ourselves and our courage.


from the Febuary 2001 Edition Jewish Magazine

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