Sunday, September 30, 2007

A very exceptional trap

Is the Jewish people capable of defending itself properly? This may seem an absurd question to ask when Israel has created a formidably armed society in an explicit renunciation of the powerlessness of the Jewish diaspora.
But with Israel under internal and external pressure over its decision to designate Gaza a ‘hostile entity’ and the prospect that it may cut off its fuel and electricity, we might ponder the absurdity of it not doing so.
After all, Israel is under continuous rocket bombardment from Gaza. What other people is expected to provide its enemies with the means to continue to perpetrate their murderous attacks? What other people, moreover, expects itself to make such provision?
Such reflections are brought into focus by Jews and Power, a new book by Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. In this subtle and learned reflection on the political effect of exile and dispersion on the Jews, Wisse argues that their very success in adapting to the societies where they settled has also been a source of profound weakness.
They believed that exile from the land of Israel was punishment for turning away from God. Far from fighting their enemies, therefore, the Jews concentrated on reaching an accommodation with their diaspora hosts which would allow them better to obey God’s laws. Their redemption would not come from defeating their persecutors. It was God who would do that — but only if the Jews mended their own behaviour.
With their focus shifting inwards towards their spiritual failings, the Jews accordingly became less pre-occupied with the culpability of their enemies and instead dwelt upon the blame they attached to themselves.
Wisse provides three modern examples of this ‘moral solipsism’. In 1939, a Jewish mother in Warsaw rescued her little son from two bullying German soldiers. ‘Come inside the courtyard and za a mentsh,’ she said, telling the child in Yiddish to become ‘what a human being ought to be’.
The same tendency — to see the real danger in themselves rather than their persecutors — was on display in Golda Meir’s famous reproach to Anwar Sadat that, while she could forgive the Egyptian army for killing Israeli soldiers, she could never forgive Sadat for forcing her young soldiers to kill young Egyptians.
Wisse’s third example was Israel’s rush to sign the Oslo accords — with an enemy which, presented with the Jews’ yearning to forgive it so that they would never have to attack it, took the opportunity it was thus offered to attack the Jews with redoubled ferocity.
Such a suicidal politics of accommodation also makes the Jews vulnerable to internal treachery — as we can see from today’s Jewish Israel-bashers who succumb, in Wisse’s words, to ‘the corrupting temptations of powerlessness’ by seeking personal advantage at the expense of their own community.
Conniving at the obnoxious canard of illegitimate global Jewish power, they claim that Israel’s military actions prove that power has corrupted Jewish values by turning Jews from victims into oppressors.
As Wisse points out, this is entirely contrary to the facts. Tiny Israel’s power to defend itself against millions of Arab and Muslim enemies is hugely constrained not only by international pressure but by its own disinclination to fight those from whom it seeks acceptance instead. Jews are patently no more inclined to subdue the Arabs than they were the nations of the diaspora in which they lived.
The Jews are trapped on the proverbial horns of a dilemma. Effective self-defence means they must be allowed to behave like any other people under attack. But the Jews are not like any other people. Jewish moral exceptionalism entails a veneration of human life and concern to protect the innocents, even among the most cruel of enemies. Hence the basic humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.
But at the same time, the Jews have a moral obligation to defend their own people. Failing to defend themselves so that their own innocents are abandoned to death and destruction and Jewish peoplehood put at risk of extinction is a negation of Jewish ethics.
This is why the ‘asymmetrical warfare’ of Palestinianism is such a threat to Israel. Attack by the armies of neighbouring states poses such a direct existential threat to Israel there are few qualms about self-defence. But fashioning a wretched people into a weapon of war plays upon the weakness caused by Jewish exceptionalism and ‘moral solipsism’, so that the Jews feel guilty about the welfare of their attackers even as the rockets rain down on them from Gaza.
The Arabs know this, and play the Jews like fish on a line. There is no easy resolution of this dilemma; but Ruth Wisse’s book helps us understand the exquisite awfulness of the trap.

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