In the biblical narrative of Genesis 32, Jacob adopts a three-pronged approach to avert a violent conflict with Esau: he prays to God, attempts to appease Esau with significant gifts, and tactically divides his camp. This division ensured that if one part was attacked, the other would have an opportunity to flee and live. That’s basically the diaspora strategy of survival: fidelity to faith, befriend and accommodate the enemy leadership, and finally, geographic dispersion, so if one community is destroyed, others would survive.
This method sustained the Jewish people through 1900 years of stateless wandering. But once you have power, the old paradigm of accommodation is thrown out the window. In war, paradox must be embraced. Those with power and the will to use it, are less likely to be targeted. Those with power and the willingness to wield it are less likely to be targeted. The Roman adage “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (If you want peace, prepare for war) encapsulates this idea. On the other hand, a focus on disarmament and de-escalation can, paradoxically, invite aggression. Unfortunately, despite 75 years of statehood, Jews struggle to grasp the basic multidimensional paradoxes inherent in conflict.
For example, Hamas lost the war on October 7. Why? Because Hamas’ attack was too successful. Had the operation been easily repulsed, the IDF would have conducted the standard 3-4 weeks of reprisals; then life in the Strip would return to normal. Similarly, the Japanese lost WWII because its attack on Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming operational and tactical success. Had most of the Kamikazes failed to find Hawaii, the United States would have never entered the war or have had cause to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima with nuclear weapons.
For Jewish history buffs, there is famous episode, involving Nachmanides (Ramban), where the standard diaspora strategy of accommodation was flagrantly ignored with the expected results. His resounding victory in the dispute against Pablo Cristiani in 1263 cost him dearly. Despite pleas from the Jewish community in Barcelona to moderate his stance or performance, Ramban not only persisted but also published an account of his triumph in Hebrew and Latin. This bold move provoked the ire of the Dominican friars, leading to Ramban’s flight from Spain and subsequent aggressive censorship of Talmudic texts. In this case, victory in debate equated to loss in the broader context of Jewish existence in exile, underscoring that accommodation often served Jewish communities better under foreign rule.
This strategy, however, has carried over into contemporary times, influencing both the Israeli state and Jewish communities abroad. The result is such that Israel, a regional superpower with immense economic and martial muscle, is treated and handled like a political lightweight. Why? Because diaspora reflexes continue to govern decision-making.
A few examples. In the first days of war, Israel evacuated the north, essentially ceding territory to Hizbullah without them having to conquer with “boots on the ground.” Surely, Jews have deep-rooted inclination towards preserving life (Pikuach Nefesh), and evacuating civilians from a conflict zone is both instinctual and quite logical. But there were immediate strategic costs. Hizbullah can fire indiscriminately at any target within several kilometers of the border with little fear of hitting pregnant women or school children, the sort of barbarous event that would compel a massive retaliatory bombardment. Considering Israel’s mood, the outcome would be a far greater disaster for Lebanon than the prior 2006 engagement. Such are the paradoxes of war: a willingness to risk civilian casualties may deter civilian attacks. Wittingly or not, Israel failed to exploit the maximal deterrent value of its military. Instead, the country signals an obvious willingness to suffer daily low-intensity attacks from Iran’s Lebanese proxy.
Israeli officials persistently engage in a form of Western-oriented public diplomacy, Hasbarah, which can be seen as the epitome of an accommodating and exculpatory attitude common among the diaspora. This approach involves insistently proclaiming that “the IDF is the most moral army in the world” and that “the IDF doesn’t target women and children.” Such mantra-like repetition, however, might be counterproductive. It inadvertently incentivizes adversaries to employ human shields, under the (correct) assumption that the IDF will endeavor to avoid civilian areas. This tactic inevitably corners the IDF into difficult operational decisions, where avoiding civilian casualties while targeting terrorists becomes increasingly challenging. The effectiveness of this method for groups like Hamas is apparent, given its continued use and the consequent increase in collateral civilian casualties.
Moreover, each civilian casualty, especially women and children, unwittingly aids Hamas’s information warfare, or what the Arabs aptly term “Da’wāʾ.” Further, Israel’s pronounced need to constantly justify its military actions on moral grounds has, at the level of public relations, somewhat paradoxically made it responsible for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Such voluble concern for Gaza’s civilians is then expected to be reflected in action. The recent accusations of genocide against Israel in the International Court of Justice, an arm of the United Nations, represents just the latest iteration of this self-imposed predicament.
Judging by the demeanor of Israeli officialdom, a significant number of its spokespersons and politicians seem to exhibit what could be characterized as a “diaspora complex.” This manifests as an almost glowing yearning for acceptance and admiration, coupled with a seemingly instinctual craving for validation from non-Jewish communities. One wonders why it is deemed essential for every foreign Prime Minister, President, and even BBC correspondents to vocally acknowledge Jewish suffering, the Jewish right to exist, and the Jewish State’s right to self-defense.
Israel is engaged in ongoing conflict and possesses a military might surpassing that of France and the UK combined. Yet, there exists a distinct dichotomy between being a power and being perceived as one. Israel has all the necessary attributes to be regarded as a formidable entity on the global stage. However, this perception is contingent on a collective shift in the Jewish psyche. The narrative needs to evolve from seeing ourselves as the proverbial grasshoppers to recognizing and embracing our potential and stature as giants. This change in self-perception is vital for Israel to assert its rightful role on the world stage, not merely as a nation of strength, but as an influential and powerful force.