On Passover we sing Vehi Sheamda in a tune that belies its meaning: “This promise has stood us and our parents in good stead. For not only has one enemy stood over us to annihilate us. But in every generation enemies have stood over us to annihilate us. Yet the Holy One keeps the promise to save us from their hands.”
The world is once again convulsing with hatred of the Jews. Israel is fighting an enemy whose stated mission is to destroy us. Synagogues are desecrated in France. Throughout Europe people once again riot against the Jewish state. The distinction that some pretend exists is no more. There is no difference between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism. (Loving criticism of Israel does not of course make the critic anti-Israel.)
Amos Oz, a leading Israeli novelist, writes: “To be a Jew means to feel that wherever a Jew is persecuted for being a Jew—that means you.”
While I remain grateful that the majority of Americans continue to support Israel in its current struggle I can offer no other explanation for the untold multitudes who clamor against its right to self defense than antisemitism. A nation is not only allowed but also morally obligated to privilege the lives of its own citizens over the lives of those who live outside its borders most especially those who rise up against them to do them harm. While Israel can do a better job in minimizing civilian deaths, if only because it can always do a better job, it should be said that it goes to extraordinary lengths to minimize these deaths. I remain deeply saddened by the deaths of so many hundreds in Gaza, most especially the 150 children caught up in this war.
Yet what choice does Israel have? Why does the world become so agitated when Jews defend themselves? The world, and for that matter a fare number of Jews, are more comfortable seeing Jews as victims. In victimhood, as in martyrdom (if only in its ancient form and clearly not as we see with our own eyes, its modern desecration), there is a high mindedness. Values are not compromised. Morals are not tested. Death is preferred over even the slightest diminishment of one moral or a single value.
But what of life?
Where are the protests against the slaughter of nearly 150,000 people in Syria’s civil war? Where is our government’s indignation over the deaths of over 2,000 civilians by our own hands in our continued drone war against terrorist targets? Why are there so many protests when Jews rise up to defend Jewish lives and choose their own lives over the lives of others, most especially their self-proclaimed enemies?
Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, had it wrong. The creation of the State of Israel did not solve the problem of antisemitism. Israel instead represents the return of Jews to history. Our fate is not in the hands of others. Our lives are not dependent on the whims of rulers. They rest in our hands. That is my Zionism, a vision where we continue to wrest history from the hands of others and place it in our own, a dream where we continue to build a Jewish cultural center in our ancient land.
Modern history has taught us that nations make imperfect choices, that choosing life sometimes necessitates difficult and painful decisions. History is messy and uneven. To be its actor means that the moral certainty of being history’s victim is lost.
We discover as well that the world is comfortable with the Jew as victim but becomes uneasy when the Jew exercises power. When the Jew fights back we hear again the shrill screams of an agitated world.
I am destined to live with these agitations.
I prefer life.
The struggle continues.
Even in our own generation.
“These were the marches of the Israelites who started from the land of Egypt, troop by troop…” (Numbers 33:1)