Jews and the Challenge of Sovereignty

By Michael B. Oren

Is "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?

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ver the past few years, as the Israeli army has become the world’s foremost anti-terrorist fighting force, great numbers of American servicemen and servicewomen have come to Israel to learn from our experi­ence and to apply it in America’s own war on terror. It has been my privi­lege to host many of these officers at my home in Jerusalem—people from Oklahoma and Arkansas and other exotic places, individuals with no prior experience in the Middle East. It is always fascinating to hear their impres­sions of the area and their analyses of both the conflicts in the Middle East and the nature of Middle Eastern societies.
Invariably they home in on one characteristic—the refusal of many Arab leaders, whether they be Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis, or Syrians, to take responsibility for their own failures and foibles. Whenever something goes wrong in Arab societies, these Americans observe, it is never these socie­ties’ fault, but instead the fault of the United States or the West or, most commonly, of Israel and the Jews. And this refusal to accept responsibility is the largest single obstacle to America’s efforts to foster democracy in the Middle East—so these officers tell me—because the essence of democracy, of sovereignty and freedom, is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions and decisions.
I listen to them, and I cannot help but agree, but I also cannot help wondering whether Israelis and Jews don’t face similar difficulties in shoul­dering the burdens of statehood. Inevitably, I find myself thinking back to the eve of Israel’s independence, to May 14, 1948, when one man had to grapple with the question of whether the Jews, after generations of power­lessness, could learn to act as sovereigns in their own state—whether they could live up to the challenges of independence.
That man was the leader of the Zionist movement, the soon-to-be prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. On that day, Ben-Gurion sat in his liv­ing room and watched while outside in the street, the Jews of Palestine were dancing. They were dancing because they were about to realize what was one of the most remarkable and inspiring achievements in human history: A people which had been exiled from its homeland two thousand years before, which had endured countless pogroms, expulsions, and persecutions, but which had refused to relinquish its identity—which had, on the contrary, substantially strengthened that identity; a people which only a few years before had been the victim of mankind’s largest single act of mass murder, killing a third of the world’s Jews, that people was returning home as sover­eign citizens in their own independent state.
And so they danced, filling the streets; but Ben-Gurion wasn’t dancing. Instead he sat alone and wrote in his diary about his fears, confiding doubts about the Jews’ ability to withstand the onslaught of the combined Arab armies, and about the world’s willingness to accept a permanent Jewish state. He wondered whether the Zionist vision of a normal state, a state like all others, could be reconciled with a Jewish state that aspired to be a light unto the nations. Most disconcertingly, he questioned whether a people so long accustomed to being the victims of sovereign power could suddenly turn around and judiciously wield it—whether they could, in fact, take responsibility for themselves.
Formerly David Green, Ben-Gurion, like many Zionist leaders of his generation—Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan—had Hebraized his name in order to establish a direct link between the dynamic Zionist present and Israel’s heroic past, skipping over the millennia of Jewish powerless­ness. Yet he knew that such leapfrogging was not really possible. The Jews, Ben-Gurion knew, had problems with power....

This lecture was delivered at the Shalem Center/Birthright Institute conference in Tarrytown, New York, in December 2003.
Michael B. Oren is Israel’s Ambassador to the . He was formerly a Distinguished Fellow at the in Jerusalem, an academic and research institute, and a contributing editor of AZURE.

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