The End of Israel?
Tisha'a be'Av, the Ninth day of Av, 2009. Today we mark 1,939 years since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by mourning and fasting, but also, from noon onwards, with acts of construction such as fixing something around the house. It's hot, we haven't had a sip of water since yesterday, but we're puttering about with a hammer looking for something to fix. Mourning, in Jewish tradition, is as much about looking forward as backward.
There's a growing constituency for the idea that Israel's time is limited. Between 1949 and the early 1970s, Israel's right to exist was openly denied by most of the Arab world, but largely unquestioned elsewhere. Then the narrative changed, and for the next quarter century the growing consensus in the West and in Israel itself was that the existential threat had passed, and if only Israel would accept the Palestinians alongside it, peace would flourish. The Green Line of 1967: if only Israel would retreat to it!
Since summer 2000 this narrative has been steadily losing ground. Most Israelis and their elected leaders have accepted the fundamental thesis if not all its details, but the Palestinians have made clear their claims begin with 1948, not 1967.
So Israel's enemies and harsh critics are dropping the pretence of seeking partition; they are ever more openly striving for an abolition of Zionism. The Jews should have no separate state of their own, say the enemies; the Jews may end up with no state of their own, say the unconfident friends, and all call for Israeli actions which may bring this about.
Here are three random examples, all from the past 24 hours. First, the rabid antisemites at the Guardian's Comment is Free, ranting about the urgent need for a world without Israel. Second, Andrew Sullivan, muddled thinker but very popular blogger, telling A.Jay Adler he can't see Israel reaching its 60th anniversary (which happened back in 2008, but no matter). Finally, Jeffrey Goldberg, journalist and blogger at The Atlantic and a staunch supporter of Israel, fearing that wrong Israeli policies might cause it not to survive. The antisemites hope for Israel's end, Sullivan is beginning to wonder, and Goldberg is beginning to fear; they all agree it's possible.
Is it? How?
*****There are some seven and a half million people in Israel. 20% are Arabs or Arabic-speaking Druze, with a slowing birthrate. A few percent are Christian non-Arabs, most but not all from the former Soviet Union; culturally they are part of the Hebrew-speaking Jewish society. The rest are Jews; their birthrate is slowly rising, even the non-religious among them. The Jewish community in Israel is the world's largest; at some point soon they will become the majority of the world's Jews, though this will not immediately be obvious because the rest of the Jews are not easy to define nor count. The number of Jews in Israel is roughly the same as the number of Jews murdered during the Shoah. That would be one way to end Israel: by violence.
In December 2001 Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, often touted in the media as a moderate among the Iranian leaders, said in a public speech that Muslims should not fear from a nuclear confrontation with Israel: Israel is small and can be destroyed, the Muslim world is large, and can't. (Translated by MEMRI, but also posted on the website of the Iran Press Service). Of course, such a nuclear conflagration would also kill millions of others – Palestinians, Iranians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians, but some people are willing to pay a steep price to rid the world of Jews. History proves that, just as it proves that when people repeatedly announce their intention to rid the world of Jews, they may actually mean it.
I cannot say how near the Iranians are to being able to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons, nor how many of their leaders agree with Rafsanjani, but a nuclear war could indeed end Israel; moreover, it could be launched by a very small number of people. Should a group of Israel's haters have the nuclear ability, they would not need to hold a national referendum. A few hundred willing technicians and a handful of committed mass murderers would suffice. So it must be prevented.
Sometimes I wonder if perhaps Israel shouldn't warn, that if the day ever comes when the last of her people in some nuclear submarine realize that all is lost, their orders will be to shoot off their remaining missiles at Berlin, London, Paris and Moscow. Simply to focus minds on the cost of having a world without Israel to the nations whose forefathers often gleefully persecuted Jews.
Nuclear Armageddon is logically possible; personally I have decided to live as if it's not going to happen. Elected leaders and a small number of specialists must spend their lives bearing the burden of preparing for the worst; the rest of us can't be expected to do so while living normal lives.
Interestingly, the haters of Israel yearning for its destruction don't believe in the nuclear danger. Should Israel ever take pre-emptive military action the Guardian and its ilk will shrilly denounce Israel for its paranoia; I expect the Andrew Sullivans to join them. There's a tension at the heart of the anti-Israeli discourse, which postulates that Israel should or may go down for its crimes against the Palestinians, while denying the existence of any real danger to it from anyone else. This is the Western corollary of the tension common among many Muslims of denying the Holocaust while regretting that Hitler didn't complete the job.
Short of nuclear war, is there any danger to Israel's existence?
But of course, say those who fear it or yearn for it. Their favorite scenario is that someday America will turn its back on Israel, and Israel will cave in. There are other scenarios, in which British academics and politically enthusiastic activists manage to set in movement a boycott that devastates Israel's economy and brings it to its knees, but without the active encouragement of America it's hard to see how this might work.
For such a scenario a number of things must happen.
First, a significant proportion of American society must greatly sour on Israel. Disliking a particular Israeli leader or policy won't be enough to make them enact anti-Israeli legislation. For that masses of Americans must decide Israel is uniquely evil, to the extent they'd be willing to take highly unusual measures. Since Israel isn't uniquely evil, and actually is far better than many players on the international stage, this means someone will have to inculcate in masses of Americans a dislike of Israel that is irrational – in effect, they'll need to inculcate antisemitism in a society which is largely free of it. If you assume there's a reason America is the first large Western society to cure itself of the malaise of Jew Hatred, this means that reason must be turned back.
For all my affinity to America, I don’t live there and can't say such a thing could never happen. I doubt it, but perhaps I'm naïve. It's certainly a likely scenario in Europe, indeed, it's already happening – though of course, no large European society was ever really free of Jew Hatred.
For the sake of the argument, let's assume America participates in placing sanctions against Israel, demanding Israeli measures Israel otherwise refuses to take – i.e not dismantle settlements, for which an Israeli majority could easily be found, but accept half a million descendants of Palestinian refugees, say, or dismantle the homes of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem. That sort of thing. Would international sanctions against Israel succeed, on an issue a majority of Israelis regard as existential?
Sanctions, as a general rule, don't work. The world economy is too porous. People, companies and states will always be found to circumvent them for profit. Lots of European companies are past masters at the deception, but the Chinese don't even pretend. Furthermore, while it's just conceivable that America might roll back its history and re-acquire the taste for Jew Hatred, the Chinese and Indians never had the taste to begin with. The sole example of successful sanctions I'm aware of, against South Africa, never made a dent until the world was suddenly unipolar, in the early 1990s. It's less unipolar now than then, which is why the various sanction schemes now running aren't making much difference.
What if, improbable as it seems, there were to be universal sanctions against Israel, on a matter Israel felt it couldn't compromise on. What then?
I know I wouldn't cave in. I've gone to war, three weeks after my wedding, hoping to be back but knowing I might not. I went anyway, and some of my friends indeed didn't return. I've lived through a period where busses and supermarkets were life threatening environments. I've sent my children off to war – that was probably the hardest. Why would anyone expect me to give in on something essential faced merely with, what, economic hardship? So far as I can tell, I'm no different than most people around me. We would love to have peace with our neighbors, we have absolutely no joy from our war with them, but we're not going to relinquish the essentials we've acquired at tremendous cost these past few generations.
****It's Tisha beAv. The fast will be over in a few hours, and we'll go back to our normal routines. For today, however, we're mourning the time, two millennia ago, when our forefathers were crushed by the mightiest military power in the world. Bad things can happen to Jews, and do, with consistent regularity. Sanguinity, as in "we've got a vibrant society here, nothing can ever beat us" is not warranted by history. We actually often do get beaten, and perhaps will again. Yet it's late afternoon of Tisha Be'Av, and I suppose I should take out my tools and find something around the house that needs fixing. After all, the generation of Jews who were pulverized by the Romans were also the greatest generation of Jews ever, along with their children and grandchildren. They were the ones who got up from the rubble and re-defined their world so as to get along without the Temple; they created the Mishna; they lay the foundations for the ability to survive millennia of homelessness and disenfranchisement. Why, they even managed to launch a second, even more furious revolt against the Romans. And then they got out from under Hadrian's genocide and kept on going, until the Roman Empire was long since gone, and its successor, and its…
I'm sorry – no, I'm not sorry at all – but whoever is planning our near demise doesn't get it. We're not here because the Colonialists sent us and forgot to take us back. We're not here as revenge for the Shoah the Europeans enabled the Germans to commit on us. We're not here on the sufferance of the Americans. We're here because we've decided to be here. Short of divine plans, which I don't pretend to be able to explain, our decisions are the most important part of the story, as they always have been.
Jerusalem, July 30, 2009