OpinionIsrael at War

Jewish powerlessness is a choice

The Diaspora mentality of accommodating the whims of the powerful will not work against Iran.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Gidon Ben-Zvi
Gidon Ben-Zvi contributes to The Algemeiner, The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, CiF Watch and blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind.

Israel’s military brass and political leadership are dithering over whether and how Israel should respond to Iran’s attack last week. The Israeli public, however, seems to have made up its mind. According to a poll released this week by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 74% of the Israeli public opposes a counterstrike “If it undermines Israel’s security alliance with its allies.” Only 26% are in favor of retaliation even if it damages ties with those allies.

Shockingly, it appears that Israel is questioning the legitimacy of defending itself following a massive assault that involved some 300 missiles and drones. Out of fear of alienating allies and international public opinion, Israelis are opting for the path of least resistance.

This decision not to decide, to opt for short-term quiet at the expense of long-term safety, security and even freedom has not been followed by a collective sigh of relief. Rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD are rising rapidly. This disconcerting trend began because of the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, when Israel was almost immediately urged by “friends” around the world to exercise “restraint.”

Unsurprisingly, the national malaise is palpable.

While the Iranian attack was unprecedented, this manifestation of powerlessness is not new. It is an outgrowth of the Jews’ tortured history. In particular, it recalls Ruth Wisse’s eye-opening analysis of the historic Jewish relationship to power.

In her book Jews and Power, Wisse contended that to survive as a distinct group in the Diaspora for almost 2,000 years, Jews implemented a strategy of accommodation. Without a land to call their own, 100 generations of exiled Jews sought to live as “a light unto the nations” by seeking the protection of their non-Jewish rulers.

This strategy succeeded to a certain extent. Over those 2,000 years, great civilizations arose, thrived, declined and disappeared. Yet the Jews insisted on continuing to exist. They proved remarkably adept at adapting to the whims and caprices of their host societies and those who ruled them.

But Wisse maintained that this accommodationist approach has left the modern State of Israel at a loss when confronting the Islamic world’s “political tradition of conquest and expansion,” especially in the Middle East.

As we are seeing now, 2,000 years of accommodation has morphed into Israel’s aversion to exercising power, even though Iran’s actions were nothing less than a casus belli that demanded an immediate military response.

Israel’s leadership is acting much like the Diaspora Jews of old, showing undue deference to the U.S. government, the current “ruler” of non-Jewish society and the Jewish peoples’ primary benefactor du jour.

The oft-repeated fear that an Israeli military response to Iranian aggression will provoke a regional war is an inversion of the “political imbalance … Jews had experienced in the Diaspora,” to quote Wisse. Once stateless and powerless, the millions of Jews living in Israel are now accused of being too strong for their own good, even though they are surrounded by Arab states numbering close to 500 million people and two billion Muslims worldwide.

For a split second, it looked as if Israel was going to break the Diaspora mold and retaliate immediately against Iran. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reverted to form after U.S. President Joe Biden told him that the U.S. would not support any Israeli counterattack.

A White House official said Biden told Netanyahu that since Israel, the U.S. and other countries in the region succeeded in foiling the Iranian attack, Israel should do nothing. The president reportedly said, “You got a win. Take the win.”

How is this a win? Living in perpetual fear of the next Iranian attack while depending on the goodwill of foreign governments is an unprecedented reimagining of victory.

Despite Israel and its allies’ miraculous success against the Iranian barrage, Tehran succeeded in establishing new red lines in its war against the Jewish state. The Islamic Republic had previously been content to outsource its anti-Israel attacks to proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. Now it has been emboldened to take a more active role.

Continued operational passivity in exchange for such goodies as a reimposition of sanctions on Iran by the U.S. and uninterrupted military aid will only ensure that Jewish self-determination is sacrificed at the altar of merely surviving another day.

In the fateful days ahead, Israel has a decision to make: Either fully embrace all the responsibilities that come with national sovereignty or continue to default to the accommodationist mechanisms employed by persecuted, despised Diaspora Jews.

Before Jewish independence was reestablished in 1948, shifting political winds, wars and economic upheavals inevitably resulted in one-time allies and protectors in Europe turning on the Jews over centuries. Time will tell if history is about to repeat itself.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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