Columns

The Jewish question

After an exhausting 53 years of war, the question is: would it really matter if Israel ceased to exist as a Jewish state?

Barbara Amiel February 26 2001
Columns

The Jewish question

After an exhausting 53 years of war, the question is: would it really matter if Israel ceased to exist as a Jewish state?

Barbara Amiel February 26 2001

The Jewish question

Columns

Barbara Amiel

After an exhausting 53 years of war, the question is: would it really matter if Israel ceased to exist as a Jewish state?

Does it matter if the Jews, as a people, continue to exist? This was the sort of question I played with at university over cups of bad coffee. Were the Jews a race, a religion, a culture, a tribe? Whatever we were, we were living a good life in Canada in those heady 1960s. The state of Israel was seen as a heroic little country. Nothing essential since then has changed: in Israel, the good still far outweighs the mistakes it has made. But the Zeitgeist changed and Israel went out of fashion.

The world reaction to Ariel Sharons election as prime minister has energized the rage against Israel. According to The Toronto Star, he is Sharon “the Bulldozer.” “Is Ariel Sharon Israels Milosevic?” ran a headline in the Los Angeles Times. “Sharon ... offering nothing but the mailed fist in response to Palestinians,” wrote Jeffrey Simpson in The Globe and Mail. In print and on television, the Israeli army are the thugs, while the murderous terrorists of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah are described mildly as a “Palestinian militia,” which “tends to be more militant than the Palestinian leadership” (Toronto Star).

Israelis themselves are exhausted. The country has been in a war that started seconds after the British mandate expired at midnight on May 14, 1948. If the Arabs had accepted the decision of the world as expressed in the 1947 UN partition vote, they would have a Palestinian state. This war of 53 years has been interspersed with armed truces, but it has never ceased. It is predicated on one simple fact: the rejection by the Arab world of a Jewish state in the Middle East. You can argue whether or not this is justified—and I have some sympathy for the arguments of the Arabs—but the fact of their non-acceptance is undeniable. Once you face up to this reality, one can see the futility of attempting to judge individual acts. Was it right or wise for the Israelis to kill an Arafat bodyguard and high-ranking security officer? In war, it is futile to try to judge individual acts either from a practical or moral standpoint. The world judges the warring parties differendy according to the spirit of the times. There was a time, perhaps wrongly, when every Palestinian act was considered terrorist and similar Israeli acts were never condemned. That lasted until the end of the 1960s. Now, the climate is such that only the Israelis are judged.

Arab rejectionism is more dangerous than ever because it is closer than ever to succeeding. Morale in Israel is low. Emigration is easier—sometimes New York City feels like Tel Aviv. Computers make it feasible for labour to be mobile—you can as easily do your job in Cincinnati as in Ramat Gan and not worry about bombs. The Arabs are many, the Israelis are few. As they have said, we can outwait you and we will prevail.

Meanwhile, Israel blundered in its treatment of Israeli Arabs, many of whom are Christian. They were given inferior municipal services, and worse, they watched the Israelis abandon their Lebanese Christian allies. Islam is on an upswing throughout the world. At the same time, Jews themselves lack the essential character traits for survival. We can be excellent soldiers or tough commandos. We may even have the odd sadist or death squad. But we don’t revel in it. We cannot contemplate extermination and population transfers as the price for the survival of Judaism. It is not in the Jewish temperament.

What many Jews do want is the idealistic dream of a multicultural state in which Jews and Arabs live happily in one land under a flag flying the crescent and Star of David. Nice if you could get it. Large numbers of left-wing Jews both inside and outside Israel actually believe you can. If, deep down, some understand that within one hour of the crescent going up on the Jewish flag, Israel as a Jewish state would end and any observant Jews that remained would be second-class citizens in an Islamic state, they either don’t care or are in denial.

Would it really matter if Israel ceased to exist as a Jewish state? For its achievements to date, it deserves to exist. But in the past 55 years since the end of the Second World War, the necessity of a Jewish homeland seems to have progressively diminished. Overt anti-Semitism has been all but vanquished in the world and now, paradoxically, it is only in Israel that Jews are under threat of extermination. Still, our situation hasn’t fundamentally changed. Notwithstanding liberalism and the fact that we can live peacefully virtually anywhere, the same forces that turned Germany into Nazi Germany still exist in the world—and any people such as the Jews who are neither assimilated to the point of total disappearance nor have a country of their own would forever be at the mercy of any virus that takes hold. We may live for the next five generations peacefully without Israel. After all, about five generations of Jews lived from the time of the Hapsburg’s Joseph II until the end of the Weimar Republic without difficulty. But the moment may come when we need both the refuge and the strength that a state of our own provides.

Without Israel, Jews would have to assimilate, convert and disappear, or bear the heavy burden of some new set of myths such as our supposed role as persecutors of the brave victorious Palestinian people. Losers get no hearing. Israel’s supporters outside the country cannot make the decision to carry on the terrible struggle necessary to maintain Israel. Only Israelis can decide. But all Jews, even the anti-Israel Jewish journalists in the West, may yet bear the brunt of their decision.