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Catastrophism as an Obstacle to Peace

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I had an interesting conversation with two friends over dinner this past weekend, both American, both Jewish, one who has little emotional connection to Israel and one who is a committed Zionist who lived in Israel for several years before returning to the ‘States. The subject: the latter friend was expressing real fear that Israel would “cease to exist” in her lifetime.

What, I wondered out loud, did she mean by that? The answer wasn’t entirely clear. There was fear that an Iranian bomb (if they build one) would be dropped on Tel Aviv (not necessarily by Iran directly). There was fear that rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon would grow so frequent and severe that living in Israel would become untenable for the most-educated slice of the Israeli Jewish population, who would increasingly flee to greener pastures in Europe or America. There was fear that Israel would become a pariah state, lose American patronage, and then rapidly spiral into economic and then military and political collapse. Most centrally, there was the sense that the bedrock Israeli attitude of yihyeh b’seder – “it’ll be ok” – has eroded to the point where the nation is not psychically capable of withstanding the intense pressures it is under.

My non-Zionist friend, meanwhile, seemed to think: well, then, would it be so bad if Israel ceased to exist? Jews had survived in the diaspora for centuries. Nationalism was a problematic ideology, and most of the West is trying to move beyond it – certainly beyond the kind of “blood and soil” nationalism that we identify as a central cause of both World War I and World War II.

Myself, I was mystified by both attitudes – which are very widespread, in my experience, among their respective communities. I have, myself, plenty of fears for Israel, a country with which I am deeply concerned, but essentially no fear at all that Israel will “cease to exist.” I don’t even know what that phrase means – that Israel will cease to define itself affirmatively as a “Jewish state”? That Israel will merge into a larger entity, or subdivide into smaller entities? Those would be big changes, yes, but “cease to exist” is a funny phrase to use for something could happen to the UK, or Belgium, or Canada. When I listen to both of them, what I think they mean is: that the Israeli Jewish population will cease to reside there; that Jews will move, en masse, to some other place or places, or will be physically annihilated. Does anyone really believe that kind of outcome is likely? That Israeli Jews will quietly line up and depart their country – or will be obliterated in some great cataclysm? That any force on earth is both capable and determined enough to achieve such an outcome?

I don’t think these attitudes are rooted in anything resembling facts. Would an Iranian bomb be a bad thing? Definitely. Would Iran be crazy enough to hand a nuclear weapon to terrorists, or launch a first strike itself? The obvious – obvious – answer is: “no.” There is simply no evidence whatsoever to back up such a prediction.

Will Israel suffer from brain drain? Undoubtedly – but it’s been suffering from it for decades. Meanwhile, they keep producing – and importing – new brains. At the same time that migration from Israel to Europe is increasing, migration the other way is also increasingly – Israelis are moving to Germany, but French Jews are moving to Israel.

Will Israel become a pariah state? It’s certainly possible. But Israel’s direct dependence on American aid is lower than it has ever been, and the very trends toward Islamic radicalism and Sunni-Shia sectarian warfare that Israelis rightly worry about have made it possible for Israel to form a variety of alliances of convenience – such as with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example – that would have been hard to imagine in years past. Israel was pretty thoroughly anathematized in the 1970s, and it’s still here – and much, much stronger than it was then.

Moreover, there’s essentially no evidence that the Israeli government sees its situation as nearly so dire. If it did – if it really thought the Iranian nuclear program was an overwhelming existential threat, or if it really thought it couldn’t survive becoming a pariah state – it would be some action, any action, to move toward a political settlement with the Palestinians in the West Bank – or at least give the American administration some kind of fig leaf. But the Netanyahu government has done exactly the opposite at basically every opportunity, and behaved as if the stability of the governing coalition is much more important than placating the Americans or isolating Tehran. (The contrast with the behavior of Ariel Sharon is notable in this regard.)

“Countries sometimes disappear” my friend proclaimed. “And Israel is a young country – it wouldn’t be so hard to make it disappear.” Really? Israel was founded in 1948. Here are some countries that are younger than Israel: Algeria (1962), Angola (1975), Antigua and Barbuda (1981), Armenia (1991) and Azerbaijan (1991). And those are just the ones that begin with “A” – there are 12 more countries that begin with “B,” another 12 beginning with “C,” and more and more with nearly every other letter of the alphabet. I haven’t done a complete count, but I’d be shocked to discover that the majority of recognized countries are older than Israel.

None of this means that I endorse an attitude of yihyeh b’seder. It won’t all be ok. Sometimes you actually have to do something so that things get better, as opposed to worse. But there’s a huge difference between “things will get worse” and total catastrophe. Similarly, there’s a huge difference between, “Israel needs to change” and “Israel needs to cease to exist.” The former potentially has an audience. The latter basically has none – obviously should have none. Who has ever endorsed the proposition, “I should cease to exist?” Who has ever even listened to somebody who contemplates such a proposition? What, as I asked at the top, could it even realistically mean?

Israel is not, in any meaningful sense, a provisional experiment. It is downright bizarre that both so many Israeli Jews (and their friends abroad) and so many of Israel’s detractors continue to talk as if it were. Bizarre – and destructive. That conviction within Israel feeds policies that, in turn, feeds the extremism of its opponents – and vice versa. Catastrophism even infects advocates of peace – they say that Israel “must” act now, or a South African scenario becomes “inevitable.” But there is no such point in the future at which a just solution becomes literally impossible. It merely gets harder and more expensive the longer it is deferred. Peace should be pursued because peace as such is good, and because this kind of war cannot be won (by either side), only ended with compromise. But “we’d better make peace now before we lose the war” is a pretty poor sales strategy for peace when speaking to a paranoid and traumatized nation.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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