Perhaps the most consequential idea of the nineteenth century was the idea of nationalism. Bound together by a language, common history, and identity, a new form of social cohesion beyond the village and beneath the empire, no place was immune to nationality. At the European epicenter it gave rise to formation of the German Empire and the Italian kingdom, the implosion of the Austro-Hungarian patchwork of nationalities and the creation of states centered on national identities. A hemisphere away it meant Japanese unification. Across from Eurasia on the other side of the Pacific in the same century the Civil War forged together an American identity stronger than ever before as constituent states became less powerful, and the movement culminated in the middle of the twentieth century as empires gave way to nation-states the world over.
Just like peoples around the world, many Jews also had an identity that they wanted to see enshrined and protected in a nation-state. There was a problem; the Jews were a people without a land, and this had rendered them highly vulnerable. In Europe alone there were a myriad massacres and pogroms targeted towards the Jewish people. Even in Germany, a civilization to which the Jewish people had contributed mightily, the state committed murder on an industrial scale against the Jews. When the Jewish refugees tried to flee as the darkness of fascism enveloped Europe, most were turned back. Discrimination remained rampant throughout Europe and in some instances as survivors from the Holocaust returned home they were slaughtered. Thus the Jewish people not only had the want for a nation-state, they had an urgent necessity. It is against this backdrop, three years after the Holocaust, that the modern Jewish republic, the State of Israel, was born.
Understanding Israel is impossible without understanding these facts. The Jewish people like virtually all peoples the world over sought a place to call their own. What is perhaps more important is that they had a unique danger from remaining spread thin between several continents. This continues to be a reality in Israel, more than half a century after the Second World War. When one engages in conversation with the Israeli people and talk about their pasts, one discovers that a sizable number are descendants of people that fled Europe as conditions continued to deteriorate following the ascendancy of Hitler, if not descendants of Holocaust survivors themselves. Many others are Russian Jews that emigrated from the successor states to the Soviet Union which demonstrated an incredible amount of discrimination against its own Jewish population. Lately as the specter of anti-Semitism haunts Europe anew there has been a surge of immigration, particularly from France. Even in the United Kingdom where the Jewish people have been reliable allies of the Labour Party, Labour has taken on a distinctly anti-Semitic tone despite official denials. In the United States in some circles Israel is increasingly seen as illegitimate.
The rejection of the Jewish people and Israel is saddening to say the least and deeply tragic. Israel is a nation that is vibrant and has a richness in its culture that can only be achieved when a people spend several thousand years in all parts of the world and come back together to create a state and culture. That has not granted Israel immunity from being depicted very one dimensionally, however. In anti-Israel circles the country continues to be seen as an oppressive and colonizing force. When one speaks to Israeli decision makers, one discovers that Israel makes honest efforts to live peacefully with its neighbors despite the constant threat of violence. There are no perfect nations, but Israel bends over backwards, so to speak, to accommodate Palestinians.
Fences are necessary to keep out would be suicide bombers, but even then they are drawn, redrawn, and agonized over by planners, constructed, and reconstructed to meet the demands of the communities along the border. Impressive amounts of aid is provided to the Palestinian people, even as pipes, sugar, and fertilizers are used to create the missiles designed to kill Israeli civilians. The cycle of war and violence of course begs the question as to why Israel does not seek to achieve a peace agreement for a two-state solution. Unfortunately Israel has, and Israel and the Palestinians came close to achieving a deal during President Clinton’s term in office. It may be impossible to know for certain why Arafat refused to sign the deal with Israel which gave ninety-seven percent of the land demanded, and that speculation can fill volumes of works. But what is not speculation is that for Israel the threat of terrorism is a constant, clear, and present danger.
The mere fact that Israel even considered a two state solution and withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon is an act of generosity. In 1945, the Soviet Union’s response to Russia having been invaded three times in a century and a half was to cobble together a series of satellite states so that major Soviet cities would be a thousand miles away from NATO’s frontlines. Our own nation maintains dominance of the seas and acts preemptively in nations continents away to ensure threats are snuffed out before they can metastasize and threaten us at home. Israel on the other hand is a nation that has had major wars directly threatening its sovereignty at least three times in seventy years with intifadas, terrorist attacks, and limited conflicts sprinkled in between. Unlike the United States whose enemies are on the other side of the world and unlike the former Soviet Union which was able to create a vast buffer that buttressed an already vast military and unlike both countries that could call upon the abundance of their rich natural interiors, Israel is surrounded on its borders by hostile states, is a tiny country of six million Jews that is a mere nine miles at its narrowest point. As if to underscore just how tiny the country is, one can look west from the hills on the Gaza Strip border and see the Mediterranean on the horizon.
Israel does not have the luxury that vast stretches of land offer in the form of a buffer. Israel does not have the luxury of a large population so that only a proportionally small volunteer force is necessary. In Israel, every family knows someone that has fought and died for the country. Because Israel is such a small country and defense is all important, military spending accounts for more than five percent of GDP. Supporting such a large military budget means heavy taxation and requires military aid. Israel is by no means living in the lap of luxury.
All of this underscores the fact that the United States ought to continue supporting this nation. The United States has a moral obligation to support all those that are fighting for the cause of freedom and democracy. Israel has already achieved this, but given how vulnerable this complex, rich, and beautiful culture and nation is, it becomes all the more important that there remains a strong bipartisan support for our greatest ally in the Middle East.
Israel is technically a first world state, but it’s wealth is not exactly material. Its wealth is derived from thousands of years of experience; it was borne from the intersection of ancient Jewish and Middle Eastern traditions, and blended with cultures from throughout the Jewish diaspora. Israel is a state that is simultaneously modern and ancient, where there is more history in one square mile than any other place on Earth. But perhaps most important it is home for over six million people without a home anywhere else in the world, for a people that have always been persecuted and all too often massacred in any other lands they sought to call home.
Israel has been a reliable friend and ally of ours. The least the United States can do is support this small country as it tries to make it in a very bad neighborhood. No, Israel is not perfect. There are no perfect nations. Yet perspective is important. Israel is a country that does whatever possible to minimize civilian casualties, while its enemies seek to wipe the nation off the map. Israel is a model, a beacon of hope in a part of the world where the scourge of religious extremism runs rampant. Perhaps most of all, Israel is a place of safety for millions who in other parts of the world are not always treated with the basic human dignities they deserve. What we can do is help guide Israel as it remains the only nation in the Middle East that is a bastion of freedom and democracy. Israel is the great hope of the Middle East, and that means that Israel is a key to achieving a future of greater peace and prosperity for peoples all over the world.