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Jews and the Challenge of Sovereignty

By Michael B. Oren

Is "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?




Israel had established its independence, but some of the greatest challenges to its sovereignty lay ahead. In 1956, Ben-Gurion demonstrated what he meant by mamlachtiyut by going to war against Egyptian Presi­dent Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Soviet-supplied army. The decision was roundly condemned by most of the world, including by the United States, but Ben-Gurion’s position was that no state, and certainly not the Jewish state, was obliged to sit idly while an army sworn to its destruction massed on its borders.
Ben-Gurion also exercised mamlachtiyut by building what became the greatest physical manifestation of Jewish power ever, the Dimona nuclear facility. Just over a decade after Jews were herded by the millions into Nazi death camps, an independent Jewish state possessed the power enjoyed by only a handful of nations.
Yet, for all its successful displays of mamlachtiyut, Israel sometimes dis­played a frightening inability to understand the rudiments of sovereignty. In May 1967, for example, while Nasser’s troops again gathered on Israel’s border, Israel’s leadership was torn between the generals who wanted to go to war immediately, and the ministers, who insisted on first proving—to the United States, especially—that Israel had done everything possible to avoid bloodshed. The ministers won out, and in June 1967 Israel defeated at least three major Arab armies, almost quadrupling its territorial size.
But the Six Day victory precipitated a different kind of power complex in Israel—an over-reliance on tanks and planes and paratroopers, a fetishiz­ing of the Israel Defense Forces, and the near apotheosis of its generals. The edifice would come crashing down, suddenly, at 2 p.m. on October 6, 1973, when the armies of Egypt and Syria simultaneously attacked Israel, catching it off guard and killing 2,600 of its soldiers. Though the IDF managed to turn the tide and to achieve a stunning victory which would in time pacify Israel’s two most threatening borders, the shock of that initial attack would remain a national nightmare. Come Yom Kippur time every year—and this year was no exception—much of the country engages in a paroxysm of pain and an all-out assault on the very notion of power. Since 1973, virtually every Israeli resort to armed force—the 1976 Entebbe raid and the 1981 at­tack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq are notable exceptions—has been the focus of profound controversy not only in the world, but more keenly, within Israel itself.
The Yom Kippur trauma would give rise to two new, mutually incom­patible movements: First, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), a leftist organiza­tion, recoiled from an over reliance on power and instead sought a mediated solution in which Israeli sovereignty would dissolve into a borderless New Middle East—essentially the old assimilationist vision revisited. Second, Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), championed by parts of the Right and many religious settlers of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, revered power as the panacea for Israel’s security problems. These are the poles between which Israel has been torn for the last thirty years, and the dividing issue is not race or economics, but power.


It goes without saying that this struggle does not occur in a vacuum. Israel is situated in the midst of the Arab world, in the historic Islamic heartland, a region that also has a problem with power, but one that is dia­metrically opposed to Israel’s. Unlike normative Judaism, a product of pow­erlessness, Islam developed during a period when Muslims ruled most of the civilized world. Power is integral to Islam. There is no medieval manual on how to run a Jewish state, but thousands of such texts exist on how to run an Islamic state. Islam, therefore, harbors no misgivings regarding power. It is the tool by which God fulfills his will for the world, and, as such, the at­tainment of power is incumbent on every individual Muslim.
Arab Muslims thus have a problem with a palpably powerful Jewish state, and in recent years they hit upon the ideal solution. Terrorism not only requires little by way of technical sophistication or capital outlays, but by forcing Israel to fight back in densely populated areas, imposing roadblocks and curfews. By drawing international wrath toward Israeli policies, it thrusts to the fore the deepest Jewish ambivalence toward power. Though it patently failed in its goal of destroying Israel’s economy and un­raveling its civil society, terror did succeed in exacerbating the Jewish confu­sion over sovereignty, over mamlachtiyut.
Part of the Israeli population, for example, reacted by building unau­thorized settlements in the territories—essentially subverting the democrat­ic process—while another part tried to negotiate a European-funded peace treaty with Palestinian officials behind the Israeli government’s back. Some Israelis wanted to drive the Palestinians out entirely—an extreme abuse of power—while others advocated the creation of a binational state—the final abdication of power. Both are classic examples of what Ben-Gurion would call a breakdown of mamlachtiyut.


Mamlachtiyut, in fact, was what drew me to Israel in the first place. I grew up just about the only Jewish kid on the block, and the al­most daily trouncing I took from the neighborhood gang taught me a great deal about power and the hazards of lacking it.
But what really convinced me was a coin. I was a fanatical numismatic, collecting coins from around the world. I was especially keen on ancient Jewish coins of the Second Temple period. One day—I must have been about nine—a distant cousin of mine from Israel gave me a coin that was an exact replica of a Second Temple coin, only it wasn’t ancient. It was shiny and clean and the letters emblazoned on it were identical to those I was just then learning in Hebrew school. Though not a particularly precocious nine-year-old, I knew that modern coins came from existing countries and Hebrew from Jews and quickly completed the syllogism: There was a Jewish state. From that epiphanous moment on, I was hooked.
There followed the Six Day War—the only event in history in which Jews have been powerful and appreciated for it. I was fascinated by the notion of Jews taking responsibility for themselves as Jews—for their taxes and their sewers and their lampposts. My Zionism was less Herzlian than Schwartzian—as in the beat generation poet Delmore Schwartz. If Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream,” then Schwartz said (as the title of his 1937 short story put it), “In dreams begin responsibilities.” I wanted the responsibility.
So I moved to Israel, became a citizen, and joined the army. I put on those red paratrooper boots the first time and was overwhelmed by the reali­zation that I was a member of the first Jewish fighting force in 2,000 years, a Jew from New Jersey lucky enough to live at a time when I could serve a sovereign Jewish state.
What a privilege—and what a responsibility. Its weight became appar­ent to me fighting in Lebanon and in the territories. It also became clear later, when I had removed those boots and, a civilian again, was working for the government at a time when its prime minister was, in a despicable misuse of power and an egregious failure of mamlachtiyut, assassinated.
Today, as an Israeli, I must confront questions that derive from having power. I had to decide, for instance, whether to support the construction of a fence which may provide greater security against terrorist attacks, but which evokes the very ghetto walls that Zionism aspired to topple. During the last two years, when two of my children were serving in the IDF—one of whom was wounded in action fighting against Hamas in Hebron—I had to decide whether to favor a pullout of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities and perhaps give a jump-start to peace, or whether, by doing so, I’d be giv­ing encouragement to terror, jeopardizing my third child, who took a bus to and from school every day in Jerusalem. Last August, when I, together with a group of Israeli officers, broke into a synagogue in a Jewish settlement in Gaza and confronted a hundred men, women, and children lying on the floor, wailing and screaming out to God, I had to decide whether evicting these people from that synagogue and from their homes would strengthen the Israeli state or shatter the Israeli people. There was no escaping that deci­sion; the responsibility was mine.


An American journalist once asked me to react to a charge made by a settler leader to the effect that the problem with the IDF is that it is a Western army, and not a biblical army, capable of exacting eye-for-an-eye revenge. The problem with the IDF, I replied, is that it is not Western enough. I said that the Palestinians should thank Allah daily that they are grappling with roadblocks and curfews, and not, say, with the American or French armies, which would have pulverized their cities long ago. The problem with the IDF, I said, is that it is too Jewish.
I remembered that when Lebanese Christian militiamen, sent by De­fense Minister Ariel Sharon into the refugee camps of Beirut, killed 800 Palestinians, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest Sharon’s action. But in 2002, when President Bush sent the Northern Alli­ance into Taliban villages in Afghanistan, killing many thousands, scarcely an American voice rose in protest. I recalled that when U.S. forces believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding in a certain neighborhood in Baghdad, U.S. planes flattened the neighborhood, but that when the IDF learned that the entire leadership of Hamas was in a single building in Gaza, it chose a bomb too small to eliminate them for fear of harming nearby civilians.


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