Understanding Israel today
by considering the history of the Jewish people

by Mark Schoenberg

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If you are looking for hard facts concerning the history of the Jewish people and Israel, you belong here. This essay contains few hard facts, only opinion and conjecture, and represents my own personal attempt to understand better the State of Israel as it exists today.

People of every generation have a tendency to evaluate current events as if the wisdom of the world started the day they were born. Rarely do people explore history back beyond their birth date to see if it might have any relevance to what is occurring currently. When you get to my age, which spans some three generations, you feel that this approach has some shortcomings. The point here is to suggest that in order to understand Israel today, it is worthwhile to consider the last two millennia of Jewish history.

Many of you will be aware that this is not a universally shared belief. Many Israelis in particular feel that Israel's history started in 1948, and, if we need to consider Jewish history prior to 1948, it is only to learn what to avoid at all costs. I am willing to concede that there are aspects of Jewish behavior during the long period of Jewish exile from the Land of Israel that would be better to avoid emulating, but I believe that considering this behavior leads to a better understanding of what is happening today.

Jews clearly have suffered, but also, in a number of cases, greatly excelled in exile. Some believe this great success was due to superior genetics, or to being "People of the Book" and always valuing learning. But I believe the reason that Jews have done so well in exile is nothing particular to Jews. I think it is precisely for the reason that other immigrant groups also have succeeded, trying harder, and having greater motivation, in the face of prejudice and discrimination.

The awarding of so many Nobel Prizes to Israelis, suggests that Jews there also have excelled, but not to the extent of their Jewish brethren in the United States. Unlike the sink-or-swim atmosphere that greeted Jews in America in the early 20th century, Israel was founded in the middle of the 20th century as a socialist cradle-to-grave society. One could argue that given the facts that at it's founding, the majority of Israel's citizens didn't even have a common language, and that so much effort has gone into defense from Arab attacks, that Israelis have done well. While this is true, I believe that Israel's socialist origins have done little to encourage its individual, or even collective achievement. In the area in which the Jews in Israel were most challenged and threatened instead of being babied, namely in matters of defense and war, they excelled greatly. Israeli war-knowledge and accomplishments, as exhibited in the last half of the twentieth century from the Six-Day War to the Entebbe Rescue, are highly-regarded and greatly admired.

In contrast, the area in which I feel Israelis have least succeeded is in the area of self-government; the ability to effectively wield power in order to advocate for the Jewish people and Jewish State. Why is this unfortunately the case? Some think the problem is the word Jewish; anything smacking of the Jewish religion is anathema to them. For others, ignoring religion, even speaking of Jews as a people raises questions of racism. But I don't think these minority views are the answer. I think the answer is much simpler. Jews have had close to 2,000 years experience of living in exile, but less than 60 years experience in having sovereignty over their own land.

Whether the problem of governance is manifested by wielding excessive power against Arabs, as has on sad occasion been documented, or using excessive force against Jews in an effort to be even-handed, the common origin of the problem is that Jews, never previously having had much power to speak of, simply have not yet learned to wield it judiciously on their own behalf. This was one of the themes of noted historian and scholar Rabbi Berel Wein in an article that he published in the Jerusalem Post in January, 2006. It has also been the theme of a number of excellent articles that have appeared in the Israeli English-language journal Azure.

The difficulty Jews have in governing in a way that enhances their well-being does not happen in a vacuum. Unfortunately, the thing most interfering with the Jewish government acting effectively on behalf of it's Jewish citizens, is something so frightening in its scope and magnitude that it is, more often than not, subconsciously denied, rather than considered and dealt with effectively. This one thing, which also is the factor most responsible for the inability to bring peace to the Middle East, is wide-spread, nearly worldwide, anti-Semitism.

Worldwide anti-Semitism is frightening in its proportions. Of those few who recognize it, many are paralyzed by its magnitude. These people generally say that worldwide anti-Semitism is a fact that has to be lived with, and is too wide-spread to be fought. Even more damaging to governance of a Jewish State on behalf of its Jewish citizens are those Jews who are so frightened of wide-spread anti-Semitism that they refuse to acknowledge its existence, and instead take on as their own, precisely those anti-Semitic views that the larger world holds.

It is precisely the magnitude of wide-spread anti-Semitism that makes it such a problem. Since this anti-Semitism has been so long-lasting, it is unlikely to end anytime soon. However, I believe that once a larger majority of Israelis are able to consciously admit that worldwide anti-Semitism is a problem, we will figure out better ways of dealing with it. Many Israelis are aware that Israel does not always seem to do what is in its best interest, but rather than admit to the extreme magnitude of the problem, they, like other people and governments when faced with a large problem, tend to blame the problem on a smaller, more manageable nemesis. This may be Yassir Arafat, or ironically, the government of the US, the one country least anti-Semitic and most sympathetic to Israel.

Clearly, the anti-Semitism that exists today is not of the type where large numbers of Jews are murdered daily, as occurred in the 1940s. What are some of its manifestations and consequences? One manifestation is the inordinate amount of attention paid by people and the media to what goes on in Israel. A more important consequence is the perpetuation of violence in the Middle East. It is clear that the countries of the United Nations, an institution founded to be an instrument of world peace, often vote in their own self-interest, rather than in the interest of peace. However, this does not explain why the United Nations has supported Arab terrorists in camps while they have terrorized Israeli citizens for more than sixty years.

Another manifestation of worldwide anti-Semitism is the lack of parallelism and balance in criticism of Israel. Criticism of Israel often has a kernel of truth to it. But what makes it anti-Semitism, is the failure to put the facts in perspective; to point out that Israel, in dealing with its enemies, follows a higher moral code than virtually any other country, certainly higher than that of its enemies, or even its critics. Applying standards to Israel that are not applied to any other country in the world is anti-Semitism. The old canard, "I am not anti-Jewish, I am simply anti-Israel," just doesn't hold water in light of the evidence.

In summary, I have suggested that three significant factors today influencing Israel negatively are 1) wide-spread worldwide anti-Semitism, 2) lack of Jewish experience in self-government, and 3) harmful concepts left over from Israel's founding as a socialist state. I suggest these, not to imply pessimistically that the Israeli response to these influences is immutable, but to imply optimistically that once these influences are better appreciated, the Israeli response will be improved.

Updated 23 Oct, 2018