Shmuly Yanklowitz

5 Reflections on Israel and Jewish power

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

For almost all of the last two millennia, one of the key things that has defined Jews as a people has been that we were a nation without sovereignty, without self-governance, and without even a land of our own to reside in safely.

But, almost 76 years ago, in what some would call a miracle, the Jews were recognized as a real nation and were given their independence and power to self-govern, with the United Nations’ design to turn Mandatory Palestine into a side-by-side Jewish state and Arab state.

Fast forward, after decades of ongoing conflict to the time of this Israel-Gaza war, it’s important to continue to contemplate how we use power.

It has often been the case that Jews were blamed for the worst sins of the time and place in which they found themselves. When the issue was religion, Jews were falsely accused of killing Jesus. When it was about economics, Jews were blamed, by different sides, for both being communists and capitalists. And now, when the main discussion is about race and power, we Jews are accused of abusing our power as white colonialists.

Given the need to pause and reflect amidst the conflict and chaos we’re immersed in, here I offer five modest reflections on how we think about power today.

1. Power is not so simple to assess.

For many observers of the war, the fact that Israel is more militarily powerful than Hamas makes it the aggressor and therefore the one at fault. However, this belief ignores the atrocities of Hamas, who intentionally attacked Israeli civilians, whereas Israel seeks to kill only combatants but is faced with the problem of Hamas embedding itself within the civilian population.

Furthermore, Israel is a tiny state surrounded by countries and armed groups that are hostile toward Israel, such as Iran and Hezbollah. In the context of the region, Israel is by far the more threatened party. Iran has frequently made clear that it seeks Israel’s destruction and its nuclear agenda must be seen in that light, while Hezbollah, stationed on Israel’s northern border, has expressed similar aims. If we zoom out even further, the superpowers of Russia and China are both not aligned with Israel. We should be considering who is the real David and who is the real Goliath here. 

2. American notions of power don’t necessarily translate.

To progressives, holding power often appears to be something to feel guilty about. It’s only righteous to be an underdog and align with the underdog. Combine that with the sin of nationalism and patriotism (two of the greatest evils in progressive thought today), and Zionism doesn’t stand a chance to be heard at all.

Israel does not want to kill Muslims, but rather secure Israel’s citizens, whereas Hamas has said, “We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do this again and again.” In general, all things being equal, it makes sense to be empathetic to weaker parties, and we do indeed ache for the Palestinians that Hamas is oppressing and hiding behind. But, ethically, you should side with who is morally correct and more virtuous, not simply who’s weaker.

3. Power is not inherently bad.

Rather, power is like a technology that can be used for good or evil. It is good, for example, that the allies had more power during World War II, and not Germany and Japan.

Does power necessarily corrupt? We want to reject that view and replace it with a different one. Power gives you responsibility. With power, one can protect people, but doing so responsibly is hard. There was a long prophetic tradition of being skeptical of human rulers because of the way power can lead to abuse. Indeed, the Jewish people, who were powerless for many centuries, have needed to quickly learn the ethics of power of the last 75 years. In recent decades, after Israel had overcome most existential threats, this responsibility meant balancing being strong with showing restraint.  Indeed, the Hebrew Bible itself (Deuteronomy 17:16-17) warns against the abuse of power and puts forth a means to avoid it.

It may appear to some that the IDF is acting indiscriminately in Gaza, but it is actually exhibiting enormous restraint to ensure that Palestinian civilians and Israeli hostages are not hurt, while still fighting to uproot Hamas, as difficult as it is to do battle with an ideology.

4. Israel’s security is not guaranteed.

Power is ephemeral. It comes and goes. In Jewish history, we had two temples and both were destroyed. Once you have power you don’t eternally keep it. It’s always at risk in a hostile world. If Israel doesn’t take the steps necessary to maintain the security of its people, there is no promise of continued safety, and the Holocaust has already made clear that the world would likely largely remain silent if the Jews were to face the possibility of genocide. There is a reason why some with power don’t want to lose it, a desire that is not always wrong.

(Wikimedia Commons)

5. The war over public opinion matters.

Power takes different forms. For example, it can be argued that Palestinians have won the battle for the support of certain corners of academia and the media. American politicians overwhelmingly support Israel now, but they know the voters can turn on them if Israel doesn’t continue to win the hearts and minds of the public. And support is even more fragile around the world, especially in the United Nations. There’s a reason that the most powerful empires in the world eventually fall.

(Wikimedia Commons)

While Jewish political power is fluctuating and complicated, the reason we’ve survived as a people so long has been the power of our will to stay together, the power of our faith in the Jewish story and mission, and the power of resiliency. These are forms of power for which we can never, and ultimately will never, accept criticism.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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