On Tisha B’Av: Israel’s mission as Guardian of the Jews

The following is a revised version of an essay I wrote which was published in the journal of the South African Board of Deputies, Jewish Affairs

“People resent the Jews for having emerged from their immemorial weakness and fearlessly resorted to force.  They thereby betrayed the mission that history had assigned to them – being a people…that did not get tangled up in the obtuse narrowness of the nation-state.” – Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt

It is now Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout their history on the same date on the Hebrew calendar – the ninth day of the month of Av.

Tisha B’Av primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, but on this day we also reflect on the many other tragedies which occurred on this date, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Like many in Jerusalem, I intend to spend some time on this day at the Kotel participating in what represents a public bereavement for the many victims of our collective calamities.  Typically, however, in addition to such mourning, I can’t help but reflect on this painful annual recollection of suffering and catastrophe in the context of the Jewish community’s often ambivalent relationship with power.  Such ruminations are only heightened by my new citizenship in the state of Israel, a nation often forced to exercise power in order to prevent additional tragedies from befalling the Jewish people.

Jewish worshippers pray at the Kotel (The Western Wall) as they mark Tisha B’Av

Indeed, Israel’s rebirth can be seen as a direct response to these calamitous events – an attempt to turn history around and act instead of being acted upon. Whether defending itself in war, or aiding/rescuing endangered Jewish communities around the world, the Jewish collective has had at its disposal for the past 64 years – and for the first time in over 2000 years – a state apparatus with the means (logistically, politically, diplomatically, and militarily) to protect its people’s interests, just as other communities represented by nation-states have had through the ages.

However, with this organized exercise of strength comes a price, a unique moral burden that many Jews seem unwilling or unable to bear – as any exertion of power, or control over your own fate, inevitably carries with it a the loss of innocence often projected upon people perceived to be victims and lacking in moral agency.

Israeli military power (exercised against terrorism and small-scale regional threats, and in actual wars against state actors, and its territorial repercussions), and the relative success and political power of Jewish communities in the West – as well as the influence of a political culture which selectively eschews particularistic moral sympathies which fall on the wrong side of the arbitrary post-colonial divide – seems to instil in many Jews a loss of identification with their community. 

This chasm often finds expression in the need to identify in a way uniquely separate from such seemingly crude “ethnocentric” expressions of political and military power. Many Jews today find it more ethically comforting to identify with non-Jewish “progressive” causes than with their own community – which carries with it the necessity of physically defending a nation (one representing a very particular identity) in all the complexities and compromises that are invariably associated with even the most progressive national enterprises.

Before the birth of the modern Jewish state, German-Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, in his pre-Holocaust book ‘The Star of Redemption’ expressed his belief that a return to Israel would embroil the Jews into a worldly history they should shun. He viewed Judaism as a supra-historical entity, whose importance lies in the fact that it is not political but presents a spiritual ideal only.  He saw the creation of a nation-state as a blow to the Jewish ideal of an apolitical spiritual life.

From the recent revival of Mussar (and other similar movements which aspire to furthering individual Jewish ethical and spiritual development) to the progressive mantra of “Tikkun Olam” (which views seeking “social justice” and performing acts of individual charity as the greatest expressions of Jewish devotion), this recurring Jewish tendency to pay greater attention to their own moral performance and good deeds than to the nitty-gritty, everyday, necessities of collective survival is an inclination that writer Ruth Wisse characterizes as “moral solipsism.”

While personal spiritual improvement is indeed admirable, and the desire to tend to the needs of “the other” (by, feeding the hungry or protecting the environment) is certainly a noble impulse, it can also represent a political pathos – a moral escapism rooted in a blindness to the undeniable political lessons of Jewish history.

Wisse, in her book, Jews and Power, argues that, historically, Jews, in displaying the resilience necessary to survive in exile, and not burdened by the weight of a military, believed they could pursue their mission as a “light unto the nations” on a purely moral plane. She demonstrates how, in fact, perpetual political weakness increased Jews’ vulnerability to scapegoating and violence, as it unwittingly goaded power-seeking nations to cast them as perpetual targets.

Throughout their pre-state history, Jews inhabited a potentially precarious position, ever exposed to the whims of rulers and the resentment of the populace. Their trust in God as the absolute arbiter of history allowed them to endure unimaginable indignities, turning inward to concentrate on their own moral excellence.  Wisse concludes that “Jews who endured the powerlessness of exile were in danger of mistaking it for a requirement of Jewish life or, worse, for a Jewish ideal.”

Indeed some Jews I have known express their disapproval of Israel, or the Jewish community at large, by lamenting this newly acquired capacity to exercise political and military power by exclaiming that (with a tone that almost approaches longing) “Jews have always been the underdog.”  Such Jews, in fetishizing weakness, fail to see the role that such powerlessness has played in the suffering that has befallen their community through the ages.

Yes, with national sovereignty there is a price that has to be paid in terms of responsibility for the occasional infliction of human suffering (even if unintentional) that invariably occurs as the result of even the most responsible and judicious use of national power. But in the lives of individual adults, as in the lives of nations, rarely is there the luxury of making choices that will allow one to live a life of puerile innocence, nor one which offers decisions which will result in perfect justice for all concerned.

Rather, with every serious decision in front of her, Israel must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of various possible acts and try to make the decision that will likely result in the most positive outcome, while also taking into account how such actions will affect the safety and well-being of future generations of Israelis, and the broader Jewish community, as well.

Israel has a profound responsibility in carrying out the arduous, thankless – but, ethically necessary – task of collective self-defense (A national Zionist vision which Theodore Herzl referred to as “The Guardian of the Jews”).  For Israel, in an era replete with concrete military threats by state and non-state actors – as well as less quantifiable, but no less dangerous, delegitimization campaigns by loosely connected political networks – an unapologetic and fiercely determined self-defense is an ethical imperative.

Protecting yourself, your family, your community, and your nation from potential harm should never be misconstrued as inconsistent with the highest Jewish ethical aspirations – an idea the broader Jewish community would be wise to take seriously while lamenting the suffering of so many throughout our history on Tisha B’Av.

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