Donniel Hartman

Israel and the new Middle East math

In the post-Gaza War environment, Israelis and Jews around the world are increasingly awakening to a new logic that we experience as unfair, morally corrupt, and for some, nothing short of anti-Semitic. This dark equation, while taking multiple forms and nuances, may be summarized in the following manner: Israel = ISIS.

Our frustration increases exponentially when we try to disprove the equation, and find that our arguments fall on deaf ears. We want to shake the proponents of this New Math: “Don’t you understand? We don’t murder innocents. Or we try our best not to. If we do, it’s not our fault. We want peace, but they don’t. We want peace, but it’s not in our hands.”

But they do not understand, and our arguments seem as nothing more than feeble attempts and self-serving rationalizations in order to avoid taking responsibility for who we are and what we do.

How ought we respond to this reality? For some, it is our duty to protest loudly and vociferously. While we may not be able to convince the proponents of the New Math, we must speak out against it, name it as evil, and when appropriate, expose it for the anti-Semitism it at times represents.

I understand and support this outcry, but am not satisfied by it. As Jews, we are part of a tradition which has never stopped at the point of putting blame on others and instead has always asked itself what it could learn and what it must change.

I am frustrated, because if ever there was a time when the case for Israel was clearer, when Israel should be seen as part of the solution and not the problem, that time is now. The religious, ethnic, tribal/national wars tearing apart Middle Eastern nation-states give lie to the fantasy that multinational states are the hope of the future.

They give lie to the belief that the Jewish people would be safe in the Middle East under any rule but our own. They give lie to the belief that peace and coexistence is the natural state of affairs here, and if we would only fully embrace them, they would become a reality.

I am frustrated, because a particular and evil manifestation of Islam is threatening us and our neighbors, yet it has not given birth to new cooperation and partnerships amongst Jews and Muslims who are not only endangered by it but who reject it as a representation of a life with God.

I am frustrated, because we are not seen as a moral beacon and ally, and instead as the chief promulgator of oppression and discrimination. If not now, if at a time when hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Christians, and others are being wantonly slaughtered, oppressed, and terrorized, if not now, then when? Are we always going to be a nation that stands alone? Is that our destiny? Or is some of our destiny in our own hands?

Let’s turn now to the New Math equation increasingly prevalent in Israeli society and which is dominating the discourse of our political leadership:

  • ISIS = a destabilized Arab world and a radicalization of Islam.
  • Hamas = ISIS.
  • Hamas rules in Gaza.
  • Hamas will rule in Judea and Samaria.
  • We cannot leave Judea and Samaria.

The linchpin of this argument is that a destabilized and radicalized Arab world confirms the narrative that the failure of progress with the Palestinians is not our fault. Since the Second Intifada, we have been arguing that we have nobody to talk to, and now, finally, the truth of our claim is clear for all to see.

For many years, Israeli society was split over the question of whether holding on to Judea and Samaria was a security imperative or a manifestation of Jewish law to maintain control over the Holy Land. With the Oslo Accords, Israeli society en masse adopted the first option, with a large majority willing to cede Israel’s control for the sake of peace.

The settler movement, finding itself in the minority, shifted its external argumentation and began to speak in security terms, rather than in religious ones. The rise of ISIS has been a boon for the settler movement, for as security concerns have risen, they have found themselves not merely a position of significant power in the current government, but also in the mainstream of Israeli political opinion.

Truth be told, it is difficult to sustain any more an argument which claims that settlements are the obstacle to peace. There seems to be little political opposition to settlement expansion, for what difference do settlements make if territorial compromise is no longer feasible in a world where ISIS is a player?

However, it is not difficult to sustain an argument that perpetual settlement expansion alienates our friends, as well as Palestinian or Arab supporters of peace, and emboldens those who argue that Israel only wants to engage in a peace process to give it more time to expand its hold on the land. And while withdrawal from Judea and Samaria might not be prudent at this time, settlement expansion does little more than undermine Israel’s integrity and credibility as a country in search of peace.

Harboring the fantasy that now it will be clear to everyone that we were right all along is deemed as more important than actually helping ourselves. This grows out of a deep pessimism that we cannot change the reality in which we live, and that the only victory to be achieved is when others come to realize our plight.

But if that is the logic we are applying, we will fail at this math. It is time that we recognize that we will never win the title of greatest victim. We are simply too powerful, and whether or not withdrawal from Judea and Samaria is feasible at this time, we are still occupying and oppressing another people.

If we want people to identify with us, it will not emanate out of them seeing our side, but rather because our side embodies values worthy of identification. People will be on our side when our words and policies mourn radicalization, and instead of embracing the status quo, reflect a constant aspiration to move beyond it.

A powerful State of Israel will not be able to build a coalition around its victimhood, nor by instructing the world as to the errors of its ways. It can build a coalition and solidify the base of its friends when it uses its strength to protect itself, embodies vision and hope, and constantly searches for ways to fulfill our moral responsibilities.

Unlike ISIS, our values prohibit the taking of life unless it is necessary for self-defense. Unlike ISIS, our values teach us to treat all human beings regardless of national identity, religion, race, or gender, with compassion, dignity, and equality. Unlike ISIS, we have no expansionist aspirations, and truly yearn to live with our neighbors in peace.

There are some who do not and will not believe the above. There are many who do. It is time for us to change the equation and to implement both new language and new policies if we are to shape a New Math in the Middle East.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of 'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion' from Itself. Together with Yossi Klein Halevi and Elana Stein Hain, he co-hosts the 'For Heaven’s Sake' podcast. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an MA in political philosophy from New York University, an MA in religion from Temple University, and rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.