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A Sisyphean fate for Israel (part 2)


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By Louis René Beres

Today, Israel’s leadership, continuing to more or less disregard the nation’s special history, still acts in ways that are neither tragic nor heroic. Unwilling to accept the almost certain future of protracted war and terror, one deluded prime minister after another has sought to deny Israel’s special situation in the world. Hence, he or she has always been ready to embrace, unwittingly, then-currently-fashionable codifications of collective suicide.

In Washington, President Barack Obama is consciously shaping these particular codifications, not with any ill will, we may hope, but rather with all of the usual diplomatic substitutions of rhetoric for an authentic intellectual understanding. For this president, still sustained by an utterly cliched “wisdom,” peace in the Middle East is just another routine challenge for an assumed universal reasonableness and clever presidential speechwriting.

Human freedom is an ongoing theme in Judaism, but this sacred freedom can never countenance a “right” of collective disintegration. Individually and nationally, there is always a binding Jewish obligation to choose life. Faced with the “blessing and the curse,” both the solitary Jew, and the ingathered Jewish state, must always come down in favor of the former.

Today, Israel, after Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement,” Ehud Olmert’s “realignment,” Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes for “Palestinian demilitarization,” and U.S. President Barack Obama’s “New Middle East,” may await, at best, a tragic fate. At worst, resembling the stark and minimalist poetics of Samuel Beckett, Israel’s ultimate fate could be preposterous.

True tragedy contains calamity, but it must also reveal greatness in trying to overcome misfortune.

For the most part, Jews have always accepted the obligation to ward off disaster as best they can.

For the most part, Jews generally do understand that we humans have “free will.” Saadia Gaon included freedom of the will among the most central teachings of Judaism, and Maimonides affirmed that all human beings must stand alone in the world “to know what is good and what is evil, with none to prevent him from either doing good or evil.”

For Israel, free will must always be oriented toward life, to the blessing, not to the curse. Israel’s binding charge must always be to strive in the obligatory direction of individual and collective self-preservation, by using intelligence, and by exercising disciplined acts of national will. In those circumstances where such striving would still be consciously rejected, the outcome, however catastrophic, can never rise to the dignifying level of tragedy.

The ancient vision of authentically “High Tragedy” has its origins in Fifth Century BCE Athens. Here, there is always clarity on one overriding point: The victim is one whom “the gods kill for their sport, as wanton boys do flies.” This wantonness, this caprice, is precisely what makes tragedy unendurable.

With “disengagement,” with “realignment,” with “Palestinian demilitarization,” with both Oslo, and the Road Map, Israel’s corollary misfortunes remain largely self-inflicted. The continuing drama of a Middle East Peace Process is, at best, a surreal page torn from Ionesco, or even from Kafka. Here, there is nary a hint of tragedy; not even a satisfyingly cathartic element that might have been drawn from Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. At worst, and this is the more plausible characterization, Israel’s unhappy fate has been ripped directly from the utterly demeaning pages of irony and farce.

Under former Prime Minister Olmert, Israel acted and lived a peculiarly portentous form of comedy, an unabashedly high-budget/low drama that relied on concocted contrivances of plot, and on humiliatingly low levels of credibility. At the end, in Gaza, Olmert acted correctly with Operation Cast Lead, but it was a limited tactical rather than strategic reaction, and was intended only to reverse his own earlier and by then, irremediable errors.

In farce, matters generally end badly but for a last-minute rescue called deus ex machina. But, no “god in the machine” will rescue Israel. To recall a more specifically Jewish commentary, one may consult the words of Rabbi Yania: “A man should never put himself in a place of danger, and say that a miracle will save him, lest there be no miracle….” (Talmud, Sota 32a and Codes; Yoreh De’ah 116). Of course, it may be that Israel’s prime ministers never did actually expect a miracle, but then, we must also inquire, upon what precise manner of reasoning did so many Israeli leaders base their flagrantly vacant policies of land for nothing?

In Judaism, there can never be any justification for deliberate self-endangerment. In classical Greek tragedy, there can never be any deus ex machina. In true tragedy, the human spirit remains noble in the face of an inescapable death, but if there is anything at all tragic about Israel’s self-propelled descent, it lies only in the original Greek meaning of the word: “goat song.” For Israelis, this particular theatrical resemblance to paganism should be disturbingly hideous, as it comes from the dithyrambs sung by goatskin-clad worshippers of Dionysus.

Aristotle understood, in his Poetics, that true tragedy must always elicit pity and fear, but not pathos. Pathos is, always, unheroic suffering. The great Greek philosopher had identified tragedy with “good” characters, who suffer because they commit some grave error (hamartia) unknowingly.

Whether a policy is named Oslo or Road Map, or some altogether new name about to be contrived in Washington or Jerusalem, makes no difference. The sordid promise of peace with a persistently genocidal adversary is always a delusion. To be sure, protracted war and terror hardly seem a tolerable or enviable policy outcome, but even this difficult fate remains better for Israel than the undiminished Arab/Islamist plan for a second Final Solution. Protracted war and terror are very bad options for Israel, but, tragically, they are certainly better than death.

The futile search for ordinary solutions by the people of Israel should never be dismissed by non-Israelis with anger, disdain or self-righteousness. After all, one can hardly blame the citizens of Israel for denying such terrible and unjust portents. Such denial is manifestly human.

Let us be candid. We live in a world where the impassioned writings of Dostoyevsky ring much truer than the ethereal dialogues of Plato, a world wherein unreason “normally” trumps rationality, and where survival is sometimes dependent upon accepting what is evidently absurd. No presidential speeches in Washington can ever change any of this, especially where alleged attachments to “diplomacy” are uttered robotically without a scintilla of serious thought.

Sisyphus understood that his rock would never stay put at the summit of the mountain. He labored nonetheless. He did not surrender.

Like Sisyphus, Israel must learn to understand that its own “rock,” the agonizingly heavy stone of national security and international normalcy, may never stay put at the summit. Yet, still, it must continue to push, upwards. It must continue to struggle against the ponderous weight, if for no other reason than simply to continue.

For Israel, true heroism, and perhaps even the fulfillment of its unique mission among the nations, now lies in recognizing something lying beyond all normal understanding: Endless pain and insecurity are not necessarily unbearable, and must sometimes be borne with faith and equanimity. Failing such a tragic awareness, the government of Israel will continue to grasp at illusory peace prospects, and thus to welcome repeatedly false dawns.

Israel is not Sisyphus, nor is there any reason to believe that Israel must necessarily endure altogether without experiencing many personal and collective satisfactions. Even aware that its titanic struggle toward the recurring summits may lack a definable moment of “success,” that these summits may never be truly “scaled,” the Jewish State can still learn that the struggle itself carries incomparable benefits. Even a seemingly absurd struggle can have its notable accomplishments, its unheralded blessings, and its more or less palpable rewards.

Newly tolerant of ambiguity, and consciously surviving without any “normal” hopes of completion and clarity, the people of Israel could achieve both spiritual and survival benefits in their personal and collective lives. Their now enlarged lucidity could immunize them from the demeaning, and potentially lethal, lures of more “ordinary” nations.

Israel’s feverish search for a solution has led it down a continuing path of despair, and even toward a genuine “sickness unto death.” For Israel, all basic truth must sometimes emerge from paradox. To survive into the future, Israel’s only real choice will be to keep rolling the rock upwards.

Among other things, this means rejecting, fully and unapologetically, all presidential calls from Washington for a “Two-State Solution.” Such calls, it must finally be understood, whatever their true origins in Barack Obama’s plan for a “New Middle East,” could produce only another Final Solution.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is currently Professor of International Law at Purdue University. The author of ten major books and several hundred scholarly articles on world affairs, his columns appear in many major American and European newspapers and magazines. His book Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983) offers a different strategic adaptation from the same Greek myth. In Israel, Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel.

For further reading, we suggest A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism by Daniel Byman.

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