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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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