A Test of Wills
An ancient Midrash recounts a conversation between Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael asserts his superiority over Isaac on the grounds that his circumcision took place at 13, when he was fully conscious of the ordeal, while Isaac was only eight days old at his circumcision. Isaac replies that if God were to request him to give up his life he would gladly do so.
That conversation, according to the Midrash, constituted the immediate prelude for the Binding of Isaac. Ishmael and Isaac were disputing which one of them is the true inheritor of the Divine promise of the Land to their father Abraham. And both understood that the answer to that question turns on the measure of mesirut nefesh - self-sacrifice – each demonstrates for the right to inherit the Land.
Ishmael’s descendants remain faithful to that understanding. It is we Jews who give every indication of having lost our will, in large part because we have lost our belief in the Divine promise to Abraham.
At the outset of the Oslo process, the late Gerrer Rebbe remarked: “The Zionists regret having established a state.” At the time, the statement seemed unduly harsh. After all, does not every Jew consider peace to be a desideratum, and had not almost all of the greatest Torah leaders expressed their belief that territorial compromise is permissible for the attainment of peace?
Only with the passage of time has it become clear how far-sighted the Rebbe was and how deep goes the malaise.
During the Second Lebanon War, even Haaretz was full of op-eds lamenting the loss of national will. Ari Shavit declared reconstituting our national will to be the most important task confronting Israeli society, and lashed out at the country’s elites for having sapped all the sources of the old Zionist spirit in their headlong pursuit of money and pleasure.
But his clarion call has not been answered. Ever since the reservists’ demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of the war, the country has sunk into a profound apathy. The prime minister’s personal popularity consistently hovers near the single digits, and every poll shows that his prescriptions for peace through compromise are rejected by the overwhelming majority of the public. Yet he goes on pirouetting around the world as if he actually spoke for the nation, and no one takes to the streets to protest.
IT IS HARD to believe that any new revelation would provoke real anger, even a finding by the Winograd Committee that 33 IDF soldiers lost their lives in the final days of the war in a ground operation undertaken solely to save the government’s face and with the clear knowledge that it could attain none of its objectives prior to a cease-fire going into effect. We act as if we have achieved the leadership we deserve.
Nowhere is our loss of belief in our right to be here more evident than in the conduct of negotiations with our Palestinian neighbors. Yossi Beilin, one of the authors of the Oslo process, says that his grandfather, a prominent early Zionist leader, erred in not accepting the British offer of Uganda. If we cannot achieve peace with the Palestinians, he has repeated many times, there is no future for the state. He assumes that peace is in our hands to make, and he writes as if the attainment of peace, not the creation of a state for the Jews, was the primary goal of Zionism.
Meanwhile the Palestinians are confident that the Land will one day belong to them and that time is on their side. Apart from a tactical decision to sit with Israelis at the bargaining table, it is hard to think of a single Palestinian demand that has been modified in any respect since the beginning of Oslo, if not since 1949. As a consequence, the West has long since stopped pressing them to do so.
Nor is the Palestinian confidence demonstrably misplaced. What else should they conclude, when even after the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza have blown up in our faces, Israel’s leaders are soon back with offers of further territorial withdrawals?
Already in 2000, George Will wrote that the Oslo process had succeeded “in destroying the absolute prerequisite for successful negotiations – the insistence that something is non-negotiable.” For us there are no red lines, nothing that is sacrosanct.
Prior to Annapolis, every day brought new Palestinian Arab demands that Israel must meet as a condition for Palestinian attendance, as if peace is only of benefit to the Jews. And we, in fact, acted as if we were the party suing for peace, in the hopes that the Palestinians would allow us to live in some part of their Land.
PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state was a salutary attempt to reverse this trend, and to place Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s existence where it belongs – at the beginning, not the end, of the process. For, as Bernard Lewis has observed, as long as the dispute is about Israel’s creation in 1948, not the borders of 1967, no possibility of compromise exists.
But no sooner was the demand raised than it was abandoned, after being summarily rejected by the Palestinians.
Our obsession with world opinion bespeaks a nation that has lost the belief in the justness of its cause, and signals that we can always be pushed a bit further. True, a country that does not manufacture its own F-16s and is by no means self-sufficient must be mindful of international opinion. But no country that believes in its right to exist allows one of its cities to be terrorized by rocket fire that it has the power to end, especially when doing so only sets the stage for ever more citizens coming within missile range. By our relative inaction, we have caused the world to view rocket attacks on Israeli cities as normal.
WE HAVE just completed celebrating the Maccabees’ victory – that of the weak over the strong, the few over the many. That victory was only possible because the Maccabees saw themselves as the righteous ones battling evildoers, the pure struggling against the impure, those learning God’s Torah combating those who willfully defiled His image.
History shows, writes Daniel Pipes, that, in the long run, victory usually goes to the side not with the stronger military or more vibrant economy, but to that with the greater belief in its own cause. Once, the Jews were the greatest proof of that proposition.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on December 13 2007.