On Being Self-Sufficient

You can talk for a long time about what we learned from the Holocaust, but there is one proposition that stands out as important to the Jewish people today:

In response to an existential threat, we cannot depend on other nations for help. Nor can we simply place our fate in the hands of God. Survival depends on our actions in the temporal sphere.

During the Holocaust, even the most enlightened liberal nations turned away ships full of Jewish refugees. American and British bombers flew past Auschwitz in 1944 to bomb a chemical plant 6 km away. The US did not even fill limited immigration quotas from Germany and German-occupied countries immediately before the war. The British issued the MacDonald White Paper in 1939, when it was more than clear that the Jews had no future in Europe, shutting the door to Mandatory Palestine tight; and even after the end of the war fought tooth and nail to prevent the immigration of Jewish refugees there.

Hundreds of Jewish communities in Europe were destroyed by the Nazis. Haredi (both Hasidic and Mitnagdic) communities were not saved by their piety, and sometimes religious leaders even prevented their people from receiving assistance when it was still possible for them to be saved.

Today the State of Israel is the home of about half the world’s Jews, and for some time has been the intellectual and spiritual center of Jewish life. It is geographically highly vulnerable, surrounded by enemies (even Egypt and Jordan, which have signed “peace treaties” are not reliable), and threatened by Iran and its proxies by conventional and (soon, if not already) nuclear weapons. One would expect that if anyone had learned the lessons of the Holocaust, it would be the Jewish state; but sometimes its behavior seems to indicate otherwise.

In particular, it has adopted a strategy of dependence on the United States, very troubling at a time when America is beleaguered by enemies that are more dangerous than the Americans themselves seem prepared to admit, when it is impossible to ignore the twin specters of social and economic instability there, when antisemitism in the general population is growing, and when a large proportion of American elites have turned against Israel.

The recent panic in Israel when $1 billion in funding for the Iron Dome program was held up (even if only for a few days) by a group of anti-Israel members of the US Congress should stand as a warning. Iron Dome itself – or rather, the way it is employed – is an example of a strategic error caused by the addiction to US help.

Iron Dome is a technological marvel, but it is being used to delay the need for Israel to confront her enemies. By protecting population centers from rocket attack, it allows the Israeli leadership to refrain from acting in more than a very limited way against Hamas and Hezbollah, which are continuously adding to and improving their offensive ability. What was once a threat only to areas close to the borders has now become a threat to the entire country; and the introduction of precision-guided rockets promises to become an existential danger.

The use of Iron Dome undoubtedly saved civilian lives in Israel. It also saved the lives of Arabs in Gaza, who would have been subjected to heavy bombardment to suppress the rocket fire that Iron Dome intercepted. Without Iron Dome, there would probably have been ground invasions to end the threat from mobile and hidden launchers, as well as those protected by human shields. But after each inconclusive round with Hamas, it came back stronger: more rockets, more powerful warheads, longer ranges, and better strategies. There have only been a few incidents of rocket fire from Hezbollah in Lebanon since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, but Israel’s policy of restraint allowed them to build up their stockpile to several times larger than prior to that war. Although Israel has acted to intercept shipments of precision-guidance systems to Hezbollah from Iran, nobody really knows to what extent they have succeeded in upgrading their “dumb” rockets into “smart” ones.

The result of all this is that if – when – all-out war does come, perhaps if Hamas succeeds in overwhelming Iron Dome by massive simultaneous bombardment, or if the number of precision-guided weapons it has makes it practical to attack multiple key infrastructure locations at once, or if some unexpected event triggers it, then the resulting carnage on both sides will certainly be greater than it would have been if Israel had adopted an offensive, rather than defensive, posture earlier.

The use of Iron Dome to protect population centers is economically unsustainable without dependence on massive American aid. Each time Iron Dome is fired to intercept a projectile from Gaza or Lebanon, at least two Tamir interceptors are launched, at a cost of $40,000 each. The projectiles that they destroy may be Gaza-built rockets that cost a few hundred dollars to build, or even mortar shells that may cost less than $50! As I understand it, much of the $1 billion special allocation that was delayed was intended to replenish stocks of interceptor rockets.

A better use for Iron Dome would be to protect key infrastructure like power plants, gas platforms, and military bases. More traditional – and forceful – military means should be used to deter attacks against the civilian population.

This is just one way in which dependence on the US has determined Israel’s defense strategy. There are others. One of them is the weakening of Israel’s home-grown defense industry. Most of the American aid has to be spent on American weapons, which needless to say are extremely expensive. In 2016, Barack Obama’s administration negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the ten years beginning in 2019. At the start, some 26% of the aid could be used to purchase arms outside of the US, which generally meant that they would be made in Israel. But the new MOU includes a clause that gradually phases out this amount, until it reaches zero in 2028. This will greatly affect Israel’s decisions about what type of weapons to deploy. For example, manned aircraft like the fabulously expensive F-35 can be obtained with aid money, while relatively inexpensive Israeli-manufactured drones cannot.

And of course – this should be obvious – for every dollar of aid that we accept, we give up a bit of freedom of action. The Americans expect to be paid back, perhaps in concessions to the Palestinian Arabs, or by tolerance of Iranian nuclear ambitions. I argued in 2016 and 2019 that despite the cost, American military aid should be totally phased out, as soon as is practical. We had a brief respite from American pressure during the Trump Administration, but we can expect it to resume soon.

Survival in a hostile world depends on self-sufficiency, in basic needs like food, water, and fuel, as well as technology and weapons. Israel is doing well in the areas of water and fuel, but recently, the new government has announced financial “reforms” that will increase the amount of imported food products. I have been surprised by the amount of imported products in the markets here already. Food is imported from Turkey, China, the European Union, and other places that someday might not be happy supplying Israel. It is true that food is excessively expensive here, but it isn’t clear that increasing imports will have much effect. On the other hand, it will definitely hurt Israeli farmers, and accelerate the one-way shift of land usage away from agriculture. Agricultural self-sufficiency has a price, but it is well worth paying.

The Jews of Europe on the eve of WWII were precisely the opposite of self-sufficient. The national authorities that they depended on to protect them either were powerless or cooperated with their murderers. Other nations didn’t want anything to do with them. They were alone, and they could not sustain or protect themselves. Now there is a Jewish state, and the responsibility for the Jewish people falls on that state. Its leaders should heed the lessons of the past.

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