Ian Joseph

Dying for an Ideal

“The brave men die in war. It takes great luck or judgment not to be killed. Once, at least, the head has to bow and the knee has to bend to danger. The soldiers who march back under the triumphal arches are death’s deserters.” – Jean Giraudoux

 “War is a place where the young kill one another without knowing or hating each other, because of the decision of old people who know and hate each other, without killing each other.” – Erich Hartmann

“In war, you win or lose, live or die, and the difference is just an eyelash.” – Douglas MacArthur

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left” – Bertrand Russell

“We gather at this sacred place, at this solemn moment, to remember, to honor – honor the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of women and men who have given their lives to this nation, each one, literally … a link in the chain of honor stretching back to our founding days, each one bound by common commitment; not to a place, not to a person, not to a president, but to an idea unlike any idea in human history: the idea of the United States of America. Today, we bear witness to the price they paid.” – Joseph Biden, Memorial Day 2024

Throughout recorded history, men and some women have fought and died for many reasons. Foremost among them are the motivations either to conquer, attain new territory, or to defend what they have. In Israel, soldiers have fought and died to defend or create the idea of the state of Israel. The idea of a Jewish nation having sovereignty over a piece of land it can call its own. A place where the Jewish people can form a majority to govern itself as a Jewish state. The only place that Jews can aspire to do so in modern times.

The idea of a modern Jewish state was initially popularized by Herzl at the first Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1897. Not coincidentally, at the same time European colonialism was at its peak and the creation of the modern nation-state was a commonly accepted idea in geopolitics. At the time there were less than 80 countries worldwide as compared to 195 countries today. For example, Italy was unified as a country in 1870, Germany was unified in 1871, and the UK was created in 1707. The idea of self-governing, modern nation-states, bound together and united by a common language, culture, and religion is a relatively new invention of the last few hundred years. So too is the idea of universal suffrage and democracy, with the first modern instance of the creation of the United States of America in 1776 which limited the vote to free men and denied the vote to slaves and women.

Israel came into modern existence because historical and political conditions favored it and because Zionist diplomacy successfully navigated the international relations challenges that it encountered. It successfully maintained its precarious existence through military activism in the War of Independence and even went further in expanding its territory and ensuring a decisive Jewish majority in the areas it controlled at the end of the War of Independence.

Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence stated that “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of shrines and holy places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” While the Declaration of of Independence did state that “…a constitution to be drawn up by by a constituent assembly not later than the first day of October, 1948…”, this never happened.

Historians have proposed multiple theories as to why Israel has never formally written and adopted a constitution. The fact is that there is no Constitution that enshrines democratic values, protection of minorities, and definitions of the rights of citizens. Some attempts have been made to create the basis of a constitution with the creation and passing of Basic Laws, but these are open to political interference and abuse since only a bare parliamentary majority is needed to create, pass, amend, or cancel a Basic Law.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence is a non-binding document that was never enshrined in legislation or any body of law. But it does give some pointers as to the nature of the future Jewish state as envisioned by its founders. Conspicuously absent from the Declaration of Independence is the definition of who is a citizen, any mention of democracy, and the borders of the state.

Israel’s wars of 1948, 1967, 1973, and to a limited extent 1956 can be viewed as wars of salvation and survival where soldiers were motivated to fight and die for the survival of the Jewish state. This was a period when Israel was viewed as the underdog, David fighting a Goliath for its survival, to preserve the idea of the Jewish state and the vision it represented. This all changed post-1973 when Israel’s wars, actions, and policies morphed from survival into conquest, occupation, and annexation.

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In the USA, officers take the following oath: “I, …., do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Enlisted soldiers take a similar oath.

In Israel, all soldiers take the following oath: “I swear and obligate myself on my word of honor to remain loyal to the State of Israel, its laws, and its legitimate administration and to devote all of my strength, and even to sacrifice my life, in the defence of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.”

The differences are striking. On the one hand, soldiers swear to defend an ideal, the constitution, on the other hand, soldiers swear loyalty and to defend territory.

When we ask young men and women to fight, and possibly lose their lives, we are obligated to present to them a vision of what it is they are fighting for. During the thick of battle is not the time to be asking why we fight. During the thick of battle one fights for your comrades in arms and to stay alive.  In the current war with Hamas, and maybe with Hezbollah, top of the list for the soldiers is the conviction they’re doing something really, really important. They’re hopefully preventing Hamas’ ability ever to repeat its attack and deter Hezbollah from attempting a similar exercise. They’re defending their country, their communities, their family, wives and children. They’re hoping to free hostages. However, after the dust settles and the fighters return home, we had better have a good answer to the question, “What were we fighting for?”. 

In today’s Israel, the vision of the Jewish state is complicated but has moved far away from the peaceful, liberal, secular, democratic state envisioned by many of its founders. Instead, we find a state that invariably resorts to force of arms to settle disagreements with and impose its will on the Palestinians. Post-1967 it has become a state that conquers, occupies, annexes, and seeks to impose its will on the Palestinians through the implementation, especially in the West Bank, of an apartheid-like system. The world has reacted with revulsion and condemnation in seeking to hold Israel to account for its actions by recognizing a Palestinian state, ever-increasing isolation of Israeli academics, calls for boycotts, and student protests on university campuses.

The state of Israel has become a quasi-theocracy preaching its brand of Jewish ethnonationalism which at its extremes is expressed as Jewish supremacy over non-Jews, seeking to relegate them to second-class status while attempting to encourage them to emigrate. The demographic projections, for Israel’s Jewish population, over the next few decades are not very encouraging. The Haredi ultra-Orthodox sector is projected to rise from the current 13.3%  to one-third, 33% of Israel’s population by 2050. On the other hand, as of 2020, fully two-thirds of those immigrating to Israel under Israel’s law of return, are not Jewish according to Israel’s orthodox rabbis. Furthermore, if Israel continues to control all the territory between the Jordan River and the Meditteranean, it will continue to be a case of a Jewish ethnonationalistic minority imposing its will on the Palestinian/Arab majority. As of June 2024, there are about 7.5 million Jews versus 7.6 million non-Jews in all the territories controlled by Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. A decidedly non-Jewish majority in what is the Jewish state.’

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What kind of state has Israel become and how does this compare to the vision of the founders? What will the nature of the Jewish state be if it continues to veer towards a theocracy, with Jewish supremacists hellbent on imposing their will on the state to maintain Jewish rule in the West Bank at all costs? What then is the nature of the vision of the state that we will ask young men and women to be prepared to fight for, and if necessary make the ultimate sacrifice, by laying down their lives for?

About the Author
Born and educated in South Africa, a graduate of Jewish day school and Habonm Dror, Ian Joseph served in the IDF as an officer in combat units, and currently resides in North Carolina and Cyprus. Ian holds an MBA from Shulich School of Business in Toronto, is certified as a Master Instructor by the American Sailing Association and is currently retired from IBM. Among other pursuits Ian edits a weekly newsletter of Israeli news items, teaches sailing around the world and certifies sailing instructors.