I don’t want to be one of those writers who keeps writing long past the point at which he should have stopped. This piece will be my last regular blog. It may be the outline for a book. In any event, it summarizes the issues that have occupied me in recent months.
Psychology, strength, and deterrence
Human psychology is not as simple as it may look. There is a dark corner, sometimes more than a corner, of the human soul in which kindness is contemptible, and brutality is respected. Human sensibility is a product of evolution, and evolution teaches people (and other animals) that it is best to be on the stronger side, the winning side. Hamas employed this principle when it kidnapped an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and then produced propaganda showing him entirely dependent on his captors, weak and without agency. They didn’t need to torture him – just present him, an Israeli soldier, as a weakling.
Especially in the Middle East, where the ascendant ethos is that of nomadic peoples, honor is a key element determining how a person or a tribe or a nation will be treated. Honor comes from defending what is yours without compromise, whether that be land, property, or – even in this supposedly enlightened age – the personal honor of women. The tribe that allows its land to be encroached upon, its property to be stolen, its murder victims unavenged, its religion and history mocked, and its women defiled, loses its honor. And without honor, a people is a target. It is like having a sign on your back: take whatever you want from this creature.
All these and more are done to Jewish Israel every day by her Arab Muslim enemies. It is not accidental. Crime is often jihad. The Arabs believe we have stolen their honor and they are taking it back, attacking our holy sites, stealing our cars (today’s camels), fighting for possession of our capital, colonizing Area C and the Negev, burning our fields and forests, and of course murdering Jews whenever possible.
Israel’s enemies have failed to defeat her, so far, in direct military confrontation. But they have succeeded in gnawing away at her honor.
Deterrence has two components: the power to defeat the enemy and the will to use that power. Israel clearly has the power to depopulate Gaza and to destroy Iran as a functioning nation. Israel’s enemies still have a degree of fear of her military capabilities. But as her honor disappears, they begin to doubt that she has the strength of will to use them, because the very definition of a people without honor is one that allows itself to be preyed upon.
The motivations of countries
Countries are sometimes analogized to people. It’s said that there are “friendly” countries and “unfriendly ones.” Moral concepts are applied to them: countries are said to be “good” or “evil.” This is a mistake (what philosophers call a category mistake), in this case a form of anthropomorphic fallacy. The idea of friendship and systems of morality developed in an evolutionary way from the interactions of people in human societies. But countries aren’t human beings, and the world stage on which they interact is not a human society. Of course countries have leaders, and moral concepts can be applied to them. There can be morally good or evil leaders. But morality is not relevant to the effectiveness of leaders, as leaders.
Countries act (or should act) in accordance with the true interests of their people. It’s the job of their leadership to see to it that they do. That is the content of the contract between the people and their government. Effective leaders align the policies of their countries with the interests of the people. Ineffective ones do not; and really rotten ones pursue their own personal interests and those of their friends, at the expense of their people. I believe that the government of Israel is ineffective.
Offense or defense?
Israel has developed an official military doctrine that calls for her army to take the initiative, and because of Israel’s limited strategic depth, to act preemptively, and to take the fight to the enemies’ territory. But in recent years it seems that her actual strategy has been precisely the opposite. Instead of preemption, she has allowed her enemies to attack, and only then responded. Since the disaster at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, her ground troops have only rarely entered enemy territory, and even then did not seek to penetrate to the enemy’s headquarters and destroy it. She has developed elaborate defensive systems at great cost, such as the anti-missile systems Iron Dome and David’s Sling, as well as powerful laser weapons capable of countering multiple forms of attack, including mortar fire, low-trajectory rockets, and drones. She has invested huge sums of money in barriers on the borders of Gaza, Lebanon, and Egypt, and even on the non-border with Judea and Samaria.
This strategy has been comfortable for Israel’s governments, which prefer not to take the risks inherent in more proactive policies, which include casualties among our soldiers and condemnation and possible sanctions from European nations and the Biden Administration. But there are several important problems with this policy. One is that it is only temporarily effective. Improvements in defensive weapons are met with improved methods of attack. Israel’s enemies are never conclusively defeated, so after every punishment they come back stronger, with new ideas and capabilities. As is often said, they can afford to lose wars, rebuild, and try again, while Israel can’t afford to lose even once. The case of Hezbollah is particularly problematic, where the lack of a preemptive response to the buildup in Lebanon has allowed a merely dangerous situation to expand into an existential threat.
But of equal importance is the psychological factor: we are forced to hunker down in our ghetto, behind our walls, domes, and lasers, while our enemies throw death-dealing weapons at us. It becomes customary, and then even acceptable to try to kill Jews; after all, they only succeed a few percent of the time, so why worry? What is being missed here is the loss of honor inherent in letting one’s enemies shoot without an equivalent response, and the encouragement to our enemies to keep trying.
The same has been true – although here the situation is improving – of our response to terrorism. Until recently, when rules of engagement were changed, deadly force was rarely used against those throwing firebombs, or dropping rocks from buildings (or the Temple Mount), or throwing them from moving cars. These are all instances of attempted murder with deadly weapons and should be treated as such. When terrorists do survive their murderous attempts, their imprisonment constitutes a mild punishment, and they receive generous salaries from the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately, the government has chosen to allow the PA to continue paying terrorists, even absurdly loaning it money to compensate for legally mandated deductions from tax receipts due to the PA.
It has been suggested that Israel return to the strategy of reprisals for terrorism, as was carried out by the famous Unit 101. It is very unlikely that today’s Israeli government would do such a thing.
The proper response to antisemitism – both the large-scale antizionism of the UN and other institutions, as well as the everyday form that that is exploding throughout the diaspora – requires consideration of the principles discussed in the first section of this article. Insofar as Jews and Jewish communities are perceived as weak and as victims, they will be victimized. Personal and communal self-defense will not only deter antisemitic acts, but will act to change the image of the Jew from that of an acceptable victim to that of a person deserving of respect.
This can be very difficult in the diaspora, where Jews are a small minority, and the legal and social structures are unfriendly to the idea of armed self-defense. One can note that leaders of the Jewish Defense League, Meir Kahane and Irv Rubin, were murdered (Rubin’s death was officially labeled a suicide in prison, like that of Jeffery Epstein).
Indeed, a powerful argument for Zionism is the difficulty for a small minority in a hostile diaspora environment to effectively defend itself. Although a Jew in New York City may not be able to carry a firearm, countries – even the Jew Among Nations – can be armed to protect themselves and their people.
Much of the response to antisemitism has traditionally been Holocaust education, which often has precisely the opposite effect from what is desired. The Jews are presented as weak, unable to defend themselves, begging the nations to protect them or take them in. The Nazis – although condemned as evil – are presented as strong and competent. Normal people exposed to this, while horrified by Nazi brutality and pitying the Jewish victims, are nevertheless, in the darker corners of their brains, feeling contempt for the victims, who “allowed” themselves to be murdered. There is also a feeling of satisfaction that they are not among them, which leads to an identification with the victimizers.
Antisemites simply enjoy hearing about the Jews getting what they believe they deserve, find support for their beliefs – Hitler wouldn’t have done what he did without a reason, would he? – and get ideas for the best way to finish his work.
The best educational response to the Holocaust is not to try to evoke pity and tears, but to teach the history of the founding of the state of Israel, and how the barely surviving remnants of the European Jewish people defeated their enemies against great odds, so as to ensure that there would never be another Holocaust.
The Jewish problem
The Jewish people established a sovereign entity in 1948 for the first time since the short-lived Hasmonean dynasty of 142-63 BCE (or perhaps the even shorter-lived Bar Kochva state from 132-135 CE). During most of Jewish history, they lived in various lands under the domination of rulers who varied greatly in the degree of tolerance shown to their Jewish subjects. Always a minority, they suffered from the whims of the local populace, and they generally had to entreat the rulers or princes to defend them when necessary. Often this required the payment of ransom or protection money. When rulers tired of them, the Jews were expelled from the province, often violently, or just murdered.
The lessons they learned from this existence were not suitable for a free people in a sovereign state. In the period leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel, and in the war and difficult times that followed, they had to be unlearned. The Jewish people needed to relearn how to fight, and how to govern themselves. After the state came into existence they had to learn how to negotiate as a sovereign state with other such states, and not as a weak minority with a far more powerful ruler. And they had to learn how to rule a state that had in it a large and somewhat hostile minority, a minority that shared its nationality with the external enemies of the state.
Some of these new lessons were learned well, and some not so well. We’re too willing to try to solve our problems by paying ransom: to Hamas, to the PA, and to our own Arab minority. And where a primarily defensive strategy is appropriate for a small minority in a hostile environment, a sovereign state like ours should adopt a more proactive, preemptive approach to overcoming our enemies.
Another problem that comes from our history is what Kenneth Levin called the “Oslo Syndrome:” our own internalization of antisemitic ideas, which leads us to try to stop attacks against us by becoming “better” people, by those same antisemitic standards. So we accept the Palestinian complaint that we are oppressors and make dangerous concessions to them; and then we beat ourselves up even further when they respond with more violence. Jewish Oslo syndrome sufferers obsess about what they see as the moral weakness, even as the evil nature, of the state that is the homeland of the Jewish people, and are found among the most vicious and mendacious anti-Zionists. One feels that no other group has quite as great a percentage of internal antagonists than the Jewish people. Is there an Arab version of the Ha’aretz newspaper or of its columnist Gideon Levy? I doubt it.
The Palestinian Arabs
The Palestinian Arabs are not considered a serious threat by our military establishment, but in my opinion they are the greatest threat facing the state today. Our external enemies can be defeated militarily – even Iran will be, if it doesn’t collapse on its own – but the Arabs living between the river and the sea present a challenge that is much more difficult. They are intertwined with us physically, but in their minds they are committed to the Palestinian Narrative, a story in which the Jews have stolen their land and their honor, which can only be redeemed violently. Those that are pious believe in addition that there is a religious imperative to return the land to Muslim sovereignty. Of course many of them are not committed to violence themselves, and many – especially the Arab citizens of Israel – believe that their economic and social interests are, at least currently, served by the state of Israel, and would strongly resist an attempt to place them under the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.
Nevertheless, virtually all of them (exceptions include some Christian Arabs) – including the Arab doctors and nurses in our hospitals that we depend on for our lives, as well as the construction workers that build our homes – believe that the Jews are temporary usurpers here, and support the struggle to remove us and establish an Arab state in place of Israel. This belief is essential to Palestinian culture, whose only specifically Palestinian (as opposed to Arab) components are those that arose in opposition to the Jewish state.
That this is true of our Arab citizens can be confirmed by the content of the remarks made by the Arab members of Israel’s Knesset, the writings of Arab Israeli intellectuals, and the violent anti-Jewish riots in Israeli towns with mixed Jewish-Arab populations that took place last May.
The residents of Judea/Samaria and Gaza are even more forthright, demonstrating their point of view with mass celebrations whenever there is a deadly terrorist attack in Israel, as happened three times in recent weeks.
The Palestinian Narrative and Islam, in that order, are the greatest obstacles preventing coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel. Unfortunately there is no easy way to counteract these ideological-religious entities, which appear to be getting stronger with time. Therefore, the possibility of coexistence is decreasing.
Israel and the USA
The US is going through a very difficult period, in which economic injuries caused by globalization, mechanization, and huge debts, have combined with social upheavals to create a period of instability unlike anything that I experienced in my lifetime. The social problems were exacerbated by external hostile actors that manipulated social media to promote extremism of both the Right and the Left. The icing on the cake has been the election of a senile president along with an incompetent vice-president, leading to a situation in which one feels that the country is going to hell in a self-propelled handbasket.
Whatever else can be said of the Biden Administration, policy-making positions that affect relations with Israel have been filled with people who are either outright opponents of the Jewish state (Malley) or naïve about the realities of the region (Blinken, Nides). So far Biden’s people have avoided the kind of clash that characterized the Obama Administration, but that may be just because they are afraid to shake Israel’s coalition so hard that Bibi Netanyahu, Obama’s bête noire, returns to power.
Israel has always held to the concept that she and she alone could be responsible for her defense. No one came to the aid of the Jews during the Holocaust, and we could not assume that other nations would be there for the Jewish state in her hour of need, either. But despite this, we’ve allowed ourselves to become massively dependent on the US for military hardware that can’t easily be replaced from other sources. Our own military industries have been weakened as a result. Although we proudly say that no American soldier will ever fight for us, what’s the difference if we can’t fight without continued American logistical support?
The fact that the younger demographic of the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly anti-Israel – and the aged leadership will soon be gone – is not encouraging. Combined with the instability, which appears to be getting worse, it should be obvious to everyone in Israel that continued dependence on the US is a bad thing.
Unless something unexpected happens to the Iranian regime, a war between Israel, Iran, and Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and perhaps Yemen, appears inevitable. This will be a very difficult war with a great deal of damage to the home fronts of all participants. I expect also that Hamas will take part, and possibly elements from the Palestinian Authority. It’s also likely that there will be major disturbances by the Arab citizens of Israel, in the primarily Arab and mixed towns.
Israel can defeat Iran. But her continued existence will depend on what she does about the Arabs between the river and the sea.
If it is your decision that it is time for you to stop writing, I respect your decision. I have greatly appreciated having read every column you’ve written for some good number of years.
I don’t think that you’re, “done”. However, you know much more than I do about that.
I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for having dispensed, so generously and kindly, your treasure trove of knowledge and insight.
I’ll write from time to time, if I feel that I have something important and original to say. Just not regularly.
Thank you for your very kind words.
You have surpassed even your high standard with this article. Brilliant!!
I could not agree more with your all your comments.
I shall sorely miss your regular commentaries, which I have always looked forward to reading (and commented upon from time to time).
All the best and stay safe.
I shall miss reading your insightful and well written articles about keeping our Jewish State alive and well. Despite our differing opinions on the war in Ukraine, I agree with almost every word you’ve stated regarding Israel and her enemies within and outside. I certainly hope that you will continue to enlighten us with your words from time to time. You have the gift of writing, please don’t waste it!
Best Regards and Behatslacha!
Chag Pesach Sameach,
Your articles are consistently brilliant, wide-ranging, articulate, and convincing. I hope you will publish everything you have written in some form. However, a few of your judgments about the U.S. veer radically off from your usual standards of excellence. President Biden may be seriously, even dangerously misguided about Israel and the Middle East, but calling him “senile,” evinces worrisome ignorance about what he has been doing and continues trying to do for common Americans. Read this for example:
Best regards and