People have often pondered the strange phenomenon of Israel’s survival. For over 70 years, a few million Jews have held off an enemy that is larger by orders of magnitude and wields immense military and economic power. This is, without question, improbable.
Some, of course, attribute Israel’s resilience to divine intervention, but others have more mundane explanations. Usually, it is the one proffered by Golda Meir: “We have nowhere else to go.”
Meir was not alone in her assessment. Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap was reportedly once asked by members of the PLO how they could expel the Jews as he had expelled the French and then the Americans. Giap answered, “The French could go back to France. The Americans could go back to America. The Jews have nowhere to go. You will not expel them.”
This phenomenon was perhaps best described by the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu in his masterwork The Art of War. Sun Tzu presented the idea of what he called “desperate ground,” which he defined as “ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay.”
“Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear,” he explained. “If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.”
Sun Tzu even went so far as to recommend placing soldiers on desperate ground if all other options have been exhausted. “Place your army in deadly peril, and it will survive,” he wrote. “Plunge it into desperate straits, and it will come off in safety.”
If Sun Tzu, Meir and Giap are correct, then the secret of Israel’s survival is no secret at all. Israel exists and has always existed on desperate ground. As a result, it fights hard and has thus far come off in safety.
Moreover, Israel is by no means the only one to have survived because it found itself on desperate ground. The Russians in World War II, the Kurds in the fight against Islamic State, Bashar Assad in the ongoing Syrian civil war and numerous others have survived because they had no place of refuge and could only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay.
However, this presents Israel with a difficult and painfully ironic paradox, because, in many ways, the Jews have always been on desperate ground. The Jewish people are the last survivors of an ancient world whose great peoples and powers have almost all passed into history. By rights, the Jews should have followed them, and there were numerous points when they could have.
The Jews’ ultimate answer to their desperate position was Zionism, which sought to provide the Jewish people with the tools to fight back not only by way of relentless endurance, but also physical force if necessary. This, it was hoped, would ensure Jewish survival in a world that, due to the technological horrors of the modern age, was perhaps more dangerous than any that had existed before.
The paradox, however, is that Zionism also wanted more than this: It sought to move the Jews off of desperate ground. Indeed, Herzl himself believed that the political normalization of the Jewish people provided by statehood would bring an end to anti-Semitism and, with it, the Jews’ seemingly perpetual suffering.
Thus far, unfortunately, this has not happened. Zionism and the state it built have survived and even thrived on desperate ground, but Zionism has yet to achieve its ultimate goal. The means by which the Jews survive remain the same: to fight hard, because there is no help for it.
What this means is that the great work of Zionism has still not been completed. There are indications, such as the Abraham Accords, that the completion may come sooner rather than later, but for the moment, Israel and in many ways the Jewish people remain on desperate ground.
It may be that this is the historical fate of the Jewish people. But this can never be known for certain, and perhaps it is our task, in this generation, to see our desperate position not as an immutable destiny but a call to action. It is for us to make at least the attempt to complete the task of Zionism, and create something the Jews have never known, which is the ability to survive through something more than desperation. It may not be for us to finish the work, but nor are we free to desist from it.