Perhaps nowhere in the world is the idea of security as pervasive as in Israel, and in fact its meaning is sometimes used interchangeably with the word survival. Not only in discussions of the highest political echelons and military establishment is security the number one national priority, but in every living-room the subject is discussed among families and friends.
There are those who will claim that the preoccupation with security is a mark of 2,000 years of exile and therefore a hold over of ghetto thinking and not appropriate to a modern independent state. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but when looking objectively at the current situation in the Middle East and put in the perspective of a long history marked by a constant succession of wars, exiles, crusades, blood libels, pogroms, and finally the holocaust, it is absurd to relate an obsession regarding security and survival as a mere figment of the collective Jewish imagination.
The question of Israel’s survival in strategic terms usually entails highly detailed discussions of military balances and equipment, political alliances and strategic superiority. Close watch is kept on troop movements, arms deals, nuclear development, Arab summits and United Nations resolutions. All of these factors are important in themselves and when put together form the basis of political and military decision making.
Any true analysis of the question of Israel’s survival which limits itself to narrow political and military facts and ignores the broader question of how have the Jewish people managed against all odds and historical precedent to not only remain intact, but to rebuild its homeland after a 2,000 year exile, would in fact come up with a very partial and even misleading conclusion. Our future is based not only on the present, but also on the past, and any attempt to dislocate the sudden appearance in 1948 of an independent Jewish State from a historical continuum of 4,000 years will not be able to understand the emergence of Israel in our day, nor the key to its survival in the future.
Therefore, in order to understand the issue of Israel’s survival today, we must grapple with the miraculous endurance of the Jews and find the underlying elements and reasons for this stubborn persistence. At the risk of being overly general I think two broad trends or attitudes can be found in the Jewish response to the problem of security and survival.
The first is manifest when Israel is in their own land or fighting for the right to enter the land. This response is usually demonstrated as a zealous fight against any power which would rule over it. We see this in ancient Israel when the greatest powers of the time, whether Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome, had to fight constantly to keep Israel under its possession. This quest for independence and freedom was an obsession which fought against all logical odds and in many cases defeated empires dwarfing its size. We can see this even today when comparing the size of Israel to the Arab and Moslem worlds, both geographically and demographically.
The second response is manifest when Israel is in exile, and is revealed in a more passive, non-resistance to the forces around it. From this experience came the image of the wandering Jew, travelling from place to place, receiving the goodness or the wrath of the nations with no apparent ability to alter or shape its fate. Yet below this seeming passivity was a steel like determination to survive as a people and to preserve its religion, culture and traditions. The greater the pressure and intimidation, the more tenaciously the Jewish people clung to their beliefs.
At first glance these two tendencies appear to be completely contradictory, but in fact they compliment each other. Besides revealing an uncanny ability to react according to the situation, they are deep manifestations of a unified perception of reality inherent to Judaism. For us heaven and earth, good and evil, exile and redemption, and all other dualities of life are all manifestations of One God. Life is meant to be a testing ground, where spiritual and physical reality unite. The soul and the body dwell together not as rivals, but as a great learning process as to how to bring peace to apparent opposites.
The great fight for freedom when in the exile was superficially sublimated, yet its struggle was just as strong and determined. Through strong communities and inner meaning the Jew lived in two worlds; one of his own making and one imposed upon him.
Of course, there are countless examples of passivity while Jews lived in Israel and many acts of resistance and rebellion in the exile, but these were the exception. Nevertheless, there was and still is a constant interplay and debate between these two tendencies.
To locate the origin of this stubborn insistence to endure as a people we must significantly go back to Abraham, the first Jew, and there we will find the source in the covenant between God and the Jewish People. “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and the seed that will come from you through the generations as an everlasting covenant to be a God to you and the seed after you. And I will give to you and the seed after you the land in which you dwell, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7-8). The concept of an everlasting bond between God and the people and the land of Israel is repeated to Isaac and Jacob, reaffirmed at Mt. Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given and reiterated over and over again by the prophets.
This promise by God to be wed to the Jewish people forever and the everlasting inheritance of the land is in fact the source of the miraculous continuation of the Jews and their constant return to Israel. One’s willingness to love and act faithfully to another is in direct proportion to the amount of trust one has in the commitment between them. In the case of Israel, because our faith in God and His promise is so strong and there is an awareness that God wants the Jewish nation to fulfill a specific holy task of bringing specific spiritual, moral and social truths to the world, the amount of sacrifice, love, and devotion is infinite in potential.
The existential question of survival for the Jewish people is not just a natural instinct, but is connected to the fulfillment of a Godly purpose. Therefore both fighting with the sword and fighting though unarmed moral conviction have their root in the same covenant and are in essence two sides of one coin. With this basic premise we can now review quickly Jewish history, picking out certain events to see how these two attitudes ebbed and flowed according to the realities of dispersion and independence.
In Abraham’s life we can see both these ideas expressed. When in Israel he fought, against incredible odds, a war against the four kings to free his nephew Lot and yet when he went to Egypt he feared for his life so much that he asked his wife to say she was his sister so he would not be killed out of jealousy. Though Isaac never left Israel he also represented both these ideas. The same Isaac who was passively willing to let his father sacrifice him on an alter for some higher purpose, pursued a tenacious battle to re-dig the wells his father had dug and the Philistines had blocked up again. Jacob fled Israel in fear of Esau after receiving Isaac’s blessing which was supposedly meant for Esau.
For twenty years he lived and worked for Lavan who constantly tricked and short changed him. Only after hearing God’s voice telling him to return to Israel did he manage to break free, and in one of the most powerful stories in the Bible he fights with an angel on the night before reentering the land and facing Esau. This fight earned him the name Israel, “for you have contended with God and man and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).
It is very significant that only after this great spiritual and physical struggle could he reenter the land. This pattern is repeated after the Jews are redeemed by God after spending two hundred and ten years in Egypt as slaves. Only after they spiritually struggled and physically fought a number of wars during the forty years in the desert did they merit to enter the land. From the time Joshua lead the people into the land, the Jews fought valiantly, and at times desperately, to maintain an independent national entity.
After the destruction of the first Temple, the Jews went into exile to Babylon for seventy years, but again returned to Israel to rebuild the Second Temple. Two significant occurrences took place during this period. The first was one of the few examples of large scale armed resistance in the exile, as told in the book of Esther and celebrated on Purim, a holiday combining elements of prayer, fasting, faith and valiant self-defense.
The second was that only a small percentage of the Jews of Babylon returned to Israel to rebuild the Temple and this actually begins a split which has reappeared in our time; that of an independent Jewish state in its land and the continuation of the dispersion of Jews around the world. At times this reality leads to great unity among the Jewish people and at other times to great disharmony, especially over a basic understanding of the purpose and strategy for Jewish survival.
The war against the Greeks in 165 B.C.E., celebrated in the holiday of Chanukah, was lead by Mathathias and his sons who challenged the Greek world for the sake of preserving the right to live as Jews in their land. Again we see an active response to the attempt to subjugate the Jewish people in their land. The Maccabees, the Jewish fighting force, managed to defeat the Greek armies and to recapture the Temple.
When the time came to rededicate the desecrated Temple only one small jar of oil with the stamp of the high priest could be found to relight the menorah. A miracle occurred and it burned for eight days until more oil could be brought. The small cruse of oil represents the light of spirituality and the struggle for freedom within the darkness of oppression and hedonism. Despite the many miracles of the wars against the Greeks, the main symbol of Chanukah is the miracle of the light and all it represents.
Today a chanukiah sits on top of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, symbolizing the similarities between our struggle today and that of the Maccabees against the Greeks. The message is very clear – it is the spirit that motivates the quest for freedom and this is what lights the way.
The last chapter of Jewish history before the long exile involved the active revolt against the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple, the famous siege of Massada and the last desperate rebellion of Bar Kochba. One of the most important events in all Jewish history took place right before the destruction of the Temple. The siege of Jerusalem was in its third year and a fierce debate broke out among the Jews. There were those who wanted to fight till the very end and those who saw the futility of the struggle and feared that the whole Jewish people would be swept away in the inevitable destruction.
The basis of the disagreement was (and still is): when does resistance and zealousness bring redemption and when does it actually bring the opposite of the desired results; and when is the reliance in faith and passivity a wise decision in the long run and when does it weaken the people until destruction is assured either through lack of defenses or through assimilation.
It is clear that there is no set rule and only great wisdom can guide the decisions according to the circumstances. Over-zealousness at the time of the Romans lead to a disaster, whereas at the time of the Maccabees it was necessary to save the day. Though faith in God and the righteousness of our cause are indispensable to uphold the spirit of the people, it is only positive as long as it does not lead to such over reliance and passiveness that it actually prevents us from doing our part to bring about our own salvation, or conversely, cause us to act blindly against reason and objective reality.
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, one of the leading Sages of the time, decided that with continued revolt soon all would be lost. In a daring plan he managed to sneak out of Jerusalem to talk to the Roman general Vespasian, who was on the verge of victory. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai greeted him as Caesar, to which Vespasian responded: ” I can have you killed for two reasons, for calling me Caesar; for I am not, and if I am why didn’t you come sooner”( Gittin 56:a/b). At that very moment a messenger came with the news that the Caesar had died and Vespasian had been appointed Caesar. In great amazement he gave Yohanan Ben Zakkai three requests.
Instead of begging for Jerusalem, which he knew Vespacian could not agree to, he asked for Yavne – a small relatively out of the way place for scholars to gather and continue the study of Torah. With prophetic insight he saw the exile approaching and knew that Torah law, the community and inner strength and conviction would now replace armed conflict as the only way to preserve the Jewish tradition and people. In Yavne the process began of preparing for the long hard journey whose only guide would be the Torah and the only light the faith in God.
At this point we could pose a perplexing question. Was the mass suicide that took place at Massada, in order not to fall into the hand of the Romans, the ultimate in resistance or the ultimate in passivity, or perhaps both. All the elements of action and faith, zealousness and despair, free will and fate, hover over this event, which has become a symbol of the enigma of Jewish faith, history and survival.
For the next nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people wandered the earth, at times welcomed, but mostly pursued, occasionally appreciated, but nearly always despised. With terror or accusation hiding around every corner the Jews managed to make an enormous mark on civilization which is only now being recognized. The belief in the covenant and the ultimate redemption gave people the strength to endure the unendurable.
Seemingly passive and without strength, we actually grew in inner dimensions beyond all expectation. As the Jews went deeper and deeper into themselves, their Torah and their way of life were the only anchor in the sea of persecution. From country to country, tragedy to tragedy, we survived until the late 1770’s and the period of the Emancipation, which swept through all of Europe, breaking down the traditional ghetto walls between Jews and the world.
For the first time in nearly 1,700 years new alternatives presented themselves and many new trends of thought evolved, whose ramifications are still felt today. All types of plans of action arose as how to best survive as a people in a world going through revolutionary changes, with the opportunities for the first time of choosing which world to live in, Jewish or Gentile, or both.
Some weary of the yoke of being Jewish tried to assimilate into the various nation-states evolving. Others rejected any compromise and stubbornly clung to the tried path. In between these poles evolved many attempts to have a bit of both worlds – to be Jewish and still modern, a loyal citizen, without denying a special interest in the Jewish tradition, enlightened and yet traditional, universal and yet clinging to being somehow different.
Except for the assimilationists all the other ways shared at least the desire to maintain somewhat of a Jewish identity, even if not in totally religious terms. It was Theodore Herzel, shaken by the implications of the 1894 Dryfus trial in Paris, who stated that all the different attempts to maintain Jewish identity were bound to fail in a radically changing world, still basically anti-Semitic.
In the long run, the unnatural exile would have to end and the Jews, to survive, would have to recreate a national entity. His vision soon became the banner of Zionism and the 2,000 year dream of a return to Zion became harnessed into a political movement whose purpose was the redemption of the nation in the land of Israel. Many rallied to the call, but others rejected this solution for varying reasons. Many felt that this sort of action would call into question the loyalty of Jews to their present nation-state – those who would choose not to come to Israel – and therefore actually increasing anti-Semitism. Others argued that the dream of a return to Zion must be a God initiated event rooted in a Torah state, not a secular, nationalist political movement.
With the Nazi rise to power in 1933 and Jews beginning to return to Israel, the two trends of which we have been speaking reached a certain historical climax. On one hand, we have in the holocaust, the ultimate consequence of passivity in the exile, leading to Jews by the millions being led like sheep into the gas chambers, while on the other hand, in Israel, the ancient flame of freedom began to burn again in the pre-state, self-defense units of the Haganah and the open revolt in the emerging Irgun underground.
What took place in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943 was a watershed event, a rejection of passivity in the exile, in the face of an evil which dwarfed all previous attempts to destroy the Jews. The echo of Massada, the zealousness of the Maccabees, the fire of martyrdom and the holiness of sanctifying God’s name rose up from the flames of the ghetto, rekindling a spirit of defiance and freedom leading ultimately to the fledgling State of Israel fighting against all odds to arise victorious in the 1948 War of Independence.
For an entire month in 1967, Israel waited while the Arabs tightened their noose. In the face of pledges to destroy Israel the world stood by silently. When faced with the choice of what to do, it was clear that realities had changed and the way of survival which somehow worked in the exile no longer applied to an independent Jewish State. The surprise pre-emptive attack on June 6, 1967 against the Arabs join the battles of Joshua, David, Deborah, Gideon, and Judah Macabee, and have few equals in modern military history.
This new found pride in military might which reached new heights after the Six Day War became for many a replacement for the spiritual strength that had carried us through almost every conceivable trial. This false self assurance on the force of arms came in for a shock during the Yom Kipper war and even further in the war in Lebanon, where the limits of military might became painfully clear. There is no doubt that there is a real crisis of confidence and identity in Israel today and among the Jewish people world wide. This crisis is far more important to Israel’s long term security than the parallel crisis in the economy or the fight against terrorism. As long as Moses kept his hands upraised toward heaven, Israel prevailed over its enemy Amalek, but as soon as he became tired physically, and more importantly spiritually, and let down his arms, then Amalek would prevail (Exodus 17:8-16). This war against Amalek has and will continue until the Messiah comes.
From the beginning of the return to Zion at the end of the last century through the early 1970’s Israel’s hands were raised high. From the Yom Kipper War until today the signs are everywhere that we have let our hands down. The truths and dreams which flamed up in the hearts and minds of the Jewish nation and climaxed in the unification of Jerusalem in 1967 have grown dim and hazy. There is no greater danger to our survival than this loss of faith.
It is no coincidence that there is a dangerous lack of water in Israel caused by many years of lack of rain. It is written in the Bible and quoted twice daily in the Shema prayer that if we obey the word of God, there will be rain in its season and sustenance for everyone, but if we turn away from God, then the rains will not come and eventually we will be driven out of the land (Deuteronomy 11:13-21). The implications in relation to Jewish history are too awesome to be ignored. In fact, there is an even greater drought afflicting Israel, as was predicted by the prophet Amos: “Behold , days are coming says the Lord God, when I will send a famine in the land, not a famine for bread, nor a thirst for water, but to hear the word of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).
Today more than ever, Israel must attempt to combine the two attitudes toward survival which were developed in reaction to the circumstances of our history. It is clear that the Jewish people, if they are to survive, must fight to defend their right to a homeland, no longer serving as the world’s scapegoat for virtually every problem. After the holocaust there is simply no alternative. Yet this fight cannot replace the strength of the spirit and preservation of our traditions which is the true secret of our survival.
Prayer without action in the end becomes sterile and futile, whereas action without a strong foundation of faith and purpose becomes haphazard and pointless. There is tremendous potential in the Jewish state today to combine faith in God and the actions needed in order to a create a modern, secure and righteous Jewish society. The force of arms and the rule of justice and mercy do not have to preclude each other.
When mapping out the path for the future, Israel must come to terms with its ultimate mission and purpose. We have continued to endure against all historical odds, for that is God’s will. In a world so desperate for peace and meaning, Israel could offer a unique synthesis of space age technology and ancient spiritual truths. The challenge is to build and to believe, to be self-sufficient and to simultaneously reach out to the world, to be confident and strong and yet generous and humble.
Proud of our past and hopeful for the future, Israel must exert all its efforts to unite faith and action with the purpose of building a world of peace and understanding. Then and only then will we accomplish the task given to us so long ago to be a “light unto the nations.”