Jews and the Challenge of Sovereignty

By Michael B. Oren

Is "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?

Israeli soldiers go into the homes of terror suspects, risking their own lives and often sacrificing them in order to reduce civilian casualties, where another army might simply call in an air strike or an artillery barrage. Is­rael devotes but a single day each year to acknowledging its army—not an armed forces day, or flag day, or veterans’ day—but Yom Hazikaron, Me­morial Day, a day commemorated not with military parades and old men in uniform, but with songs and poems about the horrors of war and the holiness of peace. Here is a country that has been in the throes of a vicious war for more than four years—a war in which Israel has suffered as many casualties, per capita, as the United States in Vietnam—but which has yet to give that war a name.

Israel today faces challenges every bit as existential as those Ben-Gurion confronted in 1948. Terrorists still try to blow themselves up in public places within Israel, and vast forces, many armed with long-range missiles and unconventional weapons, assemble around it. As evidenced recently by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” many of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims would not weep over the disappearance of the Jewish state, nor would they be too selective with respect to the manner in which that elimination would be implemented. Many Western Europeans, meanwhile, are indifferent and even hostile to Israel’s fate. And even in America—in its universities in particular—Israel is increasingly vilified, delegitimized, and branded an anachronism at best, and a fascist regime at worst.
Yet, in spite of the immense forces arrayed against it, Israel has not only stood up to the test of power. Far more than that, it has presented to the world a model of balance between the requirements of justice and moral­ity and the requisites of power. The IDF is generally regarded as one of the strongest and most sophisticated armies in the world, yet it does not use even a fraction of its potential strength against the people who, if they held such power, would hesitate not a moment to direct it at Israel’s destruction. Israel does not evict a people that threatens its existence—and the last cen­tury is rife with such expulsions, especially in the West—but rather offers that people an opportunity to live with it side by side, even offering large parts of its own historical and spiritual homeland.
Israel’s soldiers go into battle armed not only with guns and grenades but with pocket-size, laminated cards containing the IDF code of ethics, which reminds them that it is their solemn duty to make every effort to avoid causing civilian casualties and to use their weapons solely for the pur­poses of self- and national defense. Israelis fight, asking themselves at every stage whether in fact they are doing the right thing, the moral thing, the Jewish thing. Classical Judaism may not provide us with a detailed model of what a Jewish state should look like, but Israel has provided the world with a model of how a state threatened with terror and missiles and the hatred of millions can act justly.
The model is, admittedly, incomplete—a work in progress. We in Israel will continue to debate what acts are and are not permissible for the Jewish state to take in order to assure its survival, and to discuss the requirements of mamlachtiyut.
Our responsibility today is to prove to ourselves, and the world, that the phrase “Jewish state” is not in fact a contradiction in terms. Let us remain cognizant not only of our great achievements—the Nobel Prizes our sci­entists are awarded or the European championships our basketball players win—but also of the weighty responsibilities we bear: the responsibilities of reconciling our heritage with our sovereignty, our strength with our com­passion, and our will to survive with our desire to inspire others.

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 United States. 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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