A People Dwelling Apart No Longer

A close-up/macro photograph of Middle East from a desktop globe. Adobe RGB color profile.
Israel and Its Neighbors

The morning after the Iran missile attack, my daughter took out the globe that sits in the corner of our living room. Ordinarily, we use this globe to answer the esoteric trivia questions that are published in the Ha’aretz newspaper every Shabbat. This time she was trying to understand from where they had been shooting at us. She had never taken a strong interest in geography or politics before, but she suddenly wanted to look—how far are we from Iran, who are all these people in between us and them? 

Her lack of interest was not surprising. In the spirit of the biblical verse “am l’vadad yishikon,” “A nation that dwells apart,” most Israeli children perceive themselves as living on an island they can only leave by plane or boat. They don’t see themselves as living in a region, in a broad geographical area, the way that a European child might, having driven from France to Germany or taken the train from Vienna to Budapest. American children suffer from a similar blindness—America is everywhere they would ever want to go—but having this sense when you are living in one of the tiniest countries in the world is insane. So, after having been bombarded by rockets from some neighboring countries and hearing that others had shot down those rockets, my daughter was finally ready to confront the fact that we live in a region, one that has enemies but which also has allies as well. 

She asked about why some want to kill us while some actually defended us. I mentioned something about the Sunni – Shia divide and the Abraham Accords, but mostly I talked about peace. Peace, especially on a geopolitical level has almost nothing to do with liking someone or having them like you, I told her. Peace and diplomacy are about finding enough common interests to be able to support and defend each other. This kind of peace is most often self-serving and not at all altruistic. The Jordanians—and even the Americans—did not shoot down weapons targeting Israel because they love Israel. In fact, they are each—for different reasons—incredibly fed up with Israel’s behavior in Gaza and the West Bank. But the Iranian threat is bad for everyone and keeping Iran at bay is in everyone’s interest. Having a strong, functioning Israel contributes to global and regional stability.   

* * * 

When the prophet Bilaam was sent to curse the people of Israel, he was unable to do so. Instead, he blessed them, “How goodly are your tents on oh Jacob,” and he called them “a people that dwells apart, amongst the nations it is not reckoned.” In imagining what Jewish communities looked like throughout history, we often evoke these two verses. Together, they depict strong internal families in communities isolated and alone, surrounded by hostile foes. The notion that we are alone, that we can only rely on ourselves, has been a guiding principle of much of Jewish history. In the Book of Esther, when Haman wants to explain to Achashverosh about Mordechai the Jew, he says, “There is a nation, spread out and separate…” Although our separateness was often imposed upon us by our enemies (for instance, Pharaoh was the first to call the people of Israel a “nation,” “am as a way of othering them), over the millennia this became an integral part of our identity as a people. We cultivated an ethos of self-reliance and mobility. Although there were times when we strove for integration, we often saw saw ourselves as separate and distinct, even when we were welcomed by the people around us. 

For some early Zionists, Zeev Jabotinsky and his Revisionist party in particular, Zionism was an attempt to confront this harsh reality. They argued that Jews could not rely on non-Jews for their physical and economic wellbeing. We will always be alone, they claimed, and the only way for us to survive is with our own state and enough power to defend ourselves, because we cannot rely on anyone else.  

In the past decade or so we have heard this theme repeated as some Israeli politicians, from Naftali Bennett to Bibi Netanyhu, have argued that Israel can no longer rely on its Western allies.,  Some have even suggested new and highly speculative alliances with the likes of Russia and China.  

However, it’s important to remember that other early Zionists, including Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, and Martin Buber, saw the establishment of the state as an opportunity to enter into the family of nations. By agreeing to be held to the universalist standards of nationhood, they claimed, we would gain respect and also make friends, so that we would never again be alone in our struggles.  

I would argue that the past several months, as utterly awful as they have been, have shown that this vision was correct. We are indeed no longer alone. We have friends who have not abandoned us, even when it seemed like they might. Our American allies have continued to give us the support necessary to defend ourselves and on Saturday night, April 13, they, along with our many other allies, shot down missile after missile sent to destroy us by Iran. 

I am trying to imagine what a Jew right living before (or right after) the 1967 Six Day War or and the the 1972 Yom Kippur War would think, if they knew that Jordan had come to our aid at this moment. It would have been unimaginable to them. And yet, Egypt and Jordan are now allies because Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Rabin, each from their own side of the political divide, took cues from shifting geopolitical realities, changed the status quo and took a step toward peace. Decades later, I sat in my shelter in Jerusalem extremely grateful for the decision they made to abandon the notion that Israel is destined to be alone.  

The morning after the attack, I heard several radio personalities talking about miracles and further retaliation, repeating the now utterly tired trope of “We have no one to rely on but ourselves.” The prime minister himself wrote a tweet that read “we shot them down, we stopped them! Together we will win!” Netanyahu’s lack of gratitude and recognition of the role Israel’s allies played was striking. One hears the phrase “together we will win” often since the beginning of the war but there is always a question as to what “we” the speaker is referring to.  Here the implication is that Israel did this all by itself and that the only “we” worth mentioning was the Israelis themselves. I must say, given what we saw the previous night, this position is completely incoherent. 

* * * 

Why is this notion, that perhaps we are not alone, that we do in fact have friends, so threatening to certain elements of Israeli society? Why, even when it slaps us in the face, are some people so unwilling to accept it? 

I think there are three main reasons.  

First, Israel is a militaristic and macho society in many ways. On a certain level, self-defense has always been necessary, but strength and self-reliance have become so much a part of what it means to be Israeli that any sense of needing anyone else, any admission of vulnerability is perceived as weakness. This is true on an individual level – Israelis don’t like to feel weak or to be taken advantage of. However, this also true on a policy level where one-sided military action is perceived by the Israeli public as the “strong” response, whereas diplomacy, which requires an acknowledgement of mutual need, agreement, and communication is perceived as the weaker choice.  

Second, our aloneness is a key part of our vulnerability and sense of justice. Our vulnerability allows us to defend ourselves at all costs, over and over again. If we are lonely victims, this legitimizes doing anything in our power to defend ourselves,  

Third, and relatedly, if we are alone, we cannot be held to universal standards of morality. As I said, early Zionists were thrilled by the idea that the Jews would be welcomed into the family of nations, receiving the same privileges, and being held to the same standards as all those other nations we would like to call our friends. In fact, for some that was the whole idea of Zionism: becoming an organic part of world history, becoming normal. If we are alone, then we are not normal, and we need not hold ourselves to the same standards as everyone else.  

* * * 

127 years after the 1st Zionist Congress, 76 years after the establishment of the democratic State of Israel, we are no longer a nation set apart. We have friends, allies, and defenders. That acceptance isn’t free; those friends also push us to live up to the other half of the bargain that is joining the family of nations: When we decide not to be alone, when we decide to be in community, that means that others will make demands of us, both in order to maintain the community itself and in order to strengthen its foundations. We must hold ourselves to moral standards, and make decisions that lead our society, our dependents, and the region as a whole toward equality, stability, and prosperity.  

About the Author
Rabbi Shoshana Cohen is a senior faculty member and research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where she serves as rabbi and mentor for Israeli and American gap year/mechina students and US rabbinical students studying in Israel. Living in Jerusalem with her family, Shoshana travels frequently as scholar-in-residence in communities around the US as part of Hartman's Courageous Communities project.
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