Leaving the shadow of the Diaspora

Today at 10 AM I went up to the roof of my apartment building to listen to the siren commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. At times like this I usually think about my great aunts and uncles who were murdered by the Nazis, most of them in a very personal way, hunted down and shot – because like me, my wife, my children and grandchildren, they were Jews.

But today I had something else on my mind. The Holocaust was a large scale industrial pogrom, but it wasn’t the first or last pogrom. The humiliation, oppression, and ultimate murder of the Jews of Europe in the first half of the 20th century is very present to the descendants of those who survived it, but Jews were victimized almost everywhere and in almost any era: in Europe, in the Middle East (until the Muslims finally succeeded in getting rid of them), in Africa. While there were few if any “pogroms” in North America, there have been anti-Jewish riots and lynchings.

Jewish history for the past 2000 years or so has been a story of Jews moving around in search of a place where they could live in relative safety and make a living for themselves. Sometimes, when conditions were good for more than a short time, we read about a “golden age,” like Spain around 900-1000 CE or the USA from the end of WWII to the present. At some other not-so-golden times and places Jews were stripped of their possessions, expelled from communities and even whole countries, forcibly converted or murdered. Almost everywhere there were legal or social strictures placed on Jews that disadvantaged them relative to the Christian or Muslim majorities in whose midst they lived.

Like any cohesive social group, the Jewish people changed and evolved culturally as a result of their experience. Strategies for survival were developed, and ones that worked were reinforced. “Jewish” ways of coping with adverse social and political situations came into being. These strategies were based on being a despised minority that was relatively powerless compared to the majority and to the ruling regime.

One strategy that did not work was direct violent resistance to the oppressors. The non-Jewish majority was far more numerous and the regime had a monopoly on weapons. When violent resistance did occur, like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it was more a last-ditch response to an impossible situation, a desire to go down fighting, not a strategy that was expected to extricate the Jews from their predicament.

Another, more practical strategy was to make alliances – with important elements in the regime if possible, or with other oppressed minorities. There were tactical approaches, like paying ransom to release captives or bribing officials, that often were successful in the short run. But there were problems: rulers change unpredictably; and often the powerful classes and other minorities alike shared the disdain for Jews that characterized the masses. Where there were wealthy Jews, they were often seen as a resource that could be squeezed for money when needed. Ultimately, there is never enough money to pay off a blackmailer.

Some conceived Zionism as a way to break out of this permanent insecurity. A state with a Jewish majority and a Jewish government wouldn’t have pogroms, they saw. The police and the army would be on our side. There wouldn’t be discriminatory laws against Jews. We wouldn’t need to obsequiously crawl to some prince or emir that hates us and pretend to love him in return in order to stay alive.

Once there was a sovereign Jewish state, the best tactics to ensure survival would change. We still need allies, but there are better ways to release captives held by our enemies than paying ransom. A sovereign state can have an army to defend it; it would no longer be necessary to beg or buy sufferance from those who hate us.

Unfortunately, despite the success of the Zionist movement in establishing a sovereign Jewish state, there are Jews in Israel who haven’t gotten the message. They have remained wedded to attitudes, strategies and tactics that are appropriate for a diasporic minority but not helpful, even dangerous, when adopted by a state that wants to preserve sovereignty.

Politician Naftali Bennett used the slogan “don’t apologize” in his last campaign. He released a remarkably funny – but effective – video in which a “nebbish” (played by Bennett in a false beard) apologizes for things that are not his fault. Watch it here:


Exaggerated? Not much. A sovereign state does not need to apologize for defending itself, or for building homes for its people in land which belongs to it, according to its reasonable interpretation of international law.

Despite the fact that he is often called “hard-line” or “right-wing,” PM Netanyahu is still sometimes afflicted with diasporic thinking. He is not embarrassed to say that he is trying to reach an agreement with the Trump Administration about building in Judea and Samaria. Now while the US may be unhappy with Israel’s policy in this area, as a sovereign state there is only one position for Israel to take: how we build on our land is our business and nobody else’s.

And there is the way Israeli negotiating positions toward the PLO/PA have shifted more and more toward the Palestinians since Oslo, despite the fact that our “partners” have made no significant concessions during the last two decades, and have indeed hardened their positions in many areas. Instead of using our considerable strength to pressure our enemies – a possibility that did not exist in the Diaspora – we prefer to try to buy their good will. But all we get in return for our generosity and restraint is contempt.

Consider our relations with Hamas in Gaza. While they build rockets and dig tunnels to attack us, we supply electricity to run the machinery that helps them do it. There have even been suggestions from the IDF and government ministers that Israel should help Hamas build a seaport and an airport, in return for a promise of peace.

It is often said that one of the most important lessons of the Holocaust is that when your enemies threaten to kill you, you should take them seriously. The PLO and Hamas certainly fit this description, and yet we have consistently tried to solve the problem they pose by offering to buy their tolerance.

In a few days we’ll mark 69 years since the founding of the State of Israel. We’ve made an incredible amount of progress demographically, economically, militarily, scientifically and socially. But we haven’t seemed to be able to get out from under the shadow of our prior Diaspora existence. Maybe we should try to do that in time for our 70th anniversary!

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2 Responses to Leaving the shadow of the Diaspora

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    There is no doubt much truth in the point made here i.e. We are apologetic in Israel often for those things we are not responsible for. We are often too considerate of outside considerations, and this has led to erosion in certain of our positions.
    What is also important to note is that we never get credit or sympathy for such attitudes but are blamed anyway. Witness the withdrawal from Gaza and the great wave of understanding of Israel which lasted a few seconds if that.
    I too find it impossible to understand how we can supply water and electricity to those trying to kill us.This to my mind is shameful and cowardly.
    On the other hand, if there is another hand in relation to this, it is important to note that we or perhaps a growing minority of us are afflicted with a kind of self- righteousness which leads to automatic condemnation of all the rest.
    We have a lot of friends in the world , and to have a friend one must be a friend. I do not believe taking into consideration the considerations of an American administration which supports us in so many ways, is simply being cowardly or masochistic. I too do know that placing certain limitations on building in certain very heavily populated areas of Judea and Samaria can be conceived in our own natural interests. Again I would point out Ben- Gurion’s famous demand for a maximum of land with a minimum of Arabs. I know very well that the Palestinian Arabs do not aim at a state in a part of the land of Israel alongside Israel. I know they have rejected this more than once, even on terms I think the majority of Israelis would reject. But having a Jewish country in which over thirty percent not to speak of forty – five percent of the population is not Jewish is not in our best interests. So I would not think in any way as traitorous or weak and cowardly those like the present Israeli Defense Minister who believe that it is better for us not to rule over densely populated areas so long as those areas are not hostile to us. And to somehow if we somehow could give up those areas even if it means not having control over the whole of the historical land of Israel.

    • Shalom,

      You are reading more into this than I have written. I did not say we ought to immediately annex all of Judea and Samaria. I said that I believe that under international law we have the right to build anywhere there, and that allowing anyone, no matter how friendly, to tell us where we can and cannot build is to give up some of our sovereignty.

      We might well end up ceding some of the land at some point. But that doesn’t mean that we have to get permission from foreign countries to build in ours.

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