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A World Without Enemies

In Isaac Babel’s 1931 short story "Argamak," a Jewish intellectual "thirsting for peace and happiness" joins a Red cavalry division made up of Jew-hating Cossacks.  The division commander understands the Jew’s strange choice. So, he takes a prized stallion from one of the Cossacks and gives it to the Jew to ride. The Cossack is furious.  The Jew, sensing the Cossack's hatred, asks the commander, “Why did you give me an enemy?"  Not bothering to disguise his contempt, the commander explains, “I understand you completely. . . .  Your aim is to live without making enemies. . . .  Everything you do is aimed that way—so you won't have any enemies.”

Relevant Links
Ten Words for Five Days  Eliana Gurfinkel, Sparks in My Head. An Israeli oleh hadash from Paris tells how life in Israel doing the recent war gave her a “noble feeling, fed every day by what I see around me.”
The IDF and the Israeli Spirit  Moshe Ya’alon, Azure. Moshe “Bogi” Ya’alon, former IDF chief of staff and minister in the Netanyahu government, discusses the connection between communal solidarity and national security.

More than 80 years later, Babel’s Jews still live.

During Israel's recent mini-war with Hamas, the online Slate magazine published an article by its legal writer, Dahlia Lithwick, titled, “I Didn’t Come Back to Jerusalem to Be in a War.” Lithwick lived in Israel as a child in 1977, the year of Anwar Sadat’s visit to the Israeli Knesset. She recently returned there with her children for another year, in part to enlarge their horizons beyond an American world made up of “equal parts comfort and Lego.”  She did not expect the enlargement to include a war with Hamas. 

The article began with a memory of peace—Sadat’s visit, in honor of which Lithwick and her little brother “stayed up half the night making an enormous Egyptian flag.”  It ended with a dream of peace, asserting that, in defiance of the war being waged outside her window, “We have nothing but peace left to talk about.”  Between the dreams, Lithwick tried to come to grips with her own feelings about what was obviously a psychologically painful situation for her.  But she also claimed to capture the mood in Israeli society as a whole: “Trust me when I tell you that everyone—absolutely everyone—is suffering and sad. . . .  It’s [expletive] sad.  Everyone I know is sad.”

The piece also attempted to transcend the conflict, studiously avoiding exclusive identification with Israeli suffering.  It worried about not just “our friends here who are being called up” but the “innocent children on either side who are being traumatized by growing up in this way” and the “harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side” of the conflict.  “I am worried,” wrote the author, “about terrified children in Gaza.” 

Slate’s editor tweeted Lithwick’s piece as “brilliant.”  It was praised as compelling reportage by punditsphere inhabitants like Andrew Sullivan.  And it took courage for Lithwick to write her article—and to go to Israel, beyond “comfort and Lego,” in the first place.  The problem is, the article’s portrayal of Israel’s national mood contradicts everything I know from my experience of having lived through three wars in Israel and the Israeli media’s coverage of this one. 

I was in Israel during the 2000-2005 Al-Aqsa intifada, when buses and coffee shops were blowing up; the 2006 war in Lebanon, when missiles were falling on Israeli civilians in the north; and the 2008 war in Gaza, when missiles were falling on Israeli civilians in the south.  There was deep, inexpressible grief for those who died; but the Israeli public as a whole was in a fighting spirit—defiant, resilient, and determined.  Strangers bolstered each other’s morale.  Every day provided examples of mutual aid.  People hosted families of complete strangers for extended periods of time in their homes.  We dreamed, thought, and argued—about how we might win a war that will probably last a generation.

During the most recent war and its aftermath, I was temporarily in New York City; but in all my conversations with friends and family back in Israel—blue-collar and intellectual, Sephardi and Ashkenazi alike—I have not heard any sadness.

I have also followed the conflict in the Israeli media.  Israelis approved or disapproved of the Netanyahu government’s handling of the war, with criticism coming from the left and right.  But a poll revealed that the military operation in Gaza enjoyed 91% support among the Jewish Israeli public.  After the seventh day of combat, demonstrations were organized around the country against a cease-fire and in favor of a sustained ground assault.  The Israeli ethos is not characterized by sadness.  Israelis are in for the long haul, fighting a just fight. 

And on the matter of the suffering on both sides, undifferentiated sympathy in this case reflects not moral strength but moral obtuseness and weakness.  If you want to end the suffering, on both sides, you should unequivocally root for Hamas’s defeat. Hamas is a virulently anti-Semitic terrorist organization that attacks Israeli civilians on one side of the border as it hides behind Palestinian civilians on the other.  Or, as Hamas proudly proclaims, “We love death more than you love life.”

The Slate article could have come down squarely on the Israeli side of the conflict even while acknowledging the common humanity and suffering of both sides.  But it did not do that, and it is no accident—because taking sides means naming an enemy, which Lithwick was constitutionally unprepared to do.  “We have nothing but peace left to talk about,” she wrote, as if victory can’t be discussed.  No wonder she feels sadness, a function of the frustrated desire to live without enemies.  But it is bizarre to project this sadness onto Israeli society.

The Slate article captures, in particularly concentrated form, perhaps the deepest dimension of contemporary liberal Jewish-American “disillusionment” with Israel: Israel is a troubling reminder that we do not live at the end of history.  The world is the same as it ever was, divided into friends and enemies.

Need this make us sad?  Of course not.  Theodor Herzl understood that “the enemy is necessary for the highest effort of the personality;” after all, it was Jew-hatred that originally spurred him into action.  As the African-American writer and critic Albert Murray has taught throughout his career, for heroes, dragons are simply opportunities to do their thing.  As God or fate would have it, Zionism still demands a heroic Jewish ethos. 

Do liberal American Jews possess the intellectual and spiritual resources to identify with this ethos?  It remains an open question whether they have the courage to reject the soul-comforting illusion that Jews can live without making enemies.  If they choose to hold on to that illusion, a sad future awaits.

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Martin Gray on December 3, 2012 at 8:01 am (Reply)
I grew up in a different world and a different time then Dahlia Lithwick. Jews understood there were enemies; people who would and did kill them for the very fact they were Jews. Jews were murdered on an industrial basis. Today, Jew hatred is alive and well. Wishful thinking and the desire to live in a world without enemies won't change that. Many American Jews have grown too comfortable. I am reminded of the Jews of Germany in the 30s who were too comfortable in their German shoes and, at first, contemptuous of the Nazis and their collaborators, then fearful, then panicked as they were rounded up throughout Europe, then dead. Among them 1,000,000 Jewish children murdered. !,000,000! Think on that number, or has it become merely a statistic? We always hear from the progressive left about proportional response by the Jews of Israel. Interesting lectures from the British and Americans and Russians who themselves have perpetrated unspeakable horrors against enemy civilian populations. Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Berlin, My Lai to name a few. The daily drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that hardly differentiate. Israelis are now forced to think about the unthinkable as their enemies draw close with new weaponry - weapons of mass destruction. And as I think about all of this with the perspective of age, the one lesson I learned that burns in my heart is never run from a fight with Jew haters - no mater what. What has changed since the Crusades, the Cossacks, the Nazis, the Communist purges - absolutely nothing.
Robert Ennis on December 3, 2012 at 10:45 am (Reply)
As for the "proportional response argument" I say that, since hostile Arabs outnumber Israeli Jews by over 100 to 1, that should be the proper proprtion. Particulrly since some of the most virulent Arab Jew hating leaders have announced their willingness to sacrifice a large "proportion" of their constituency to wipe Israeli Jews off the face of the earth. With that logic to go on, European style "proportionality" is a blueprint for extinction.
Chris on December 3, 2012 at 11:31 am (Reply)
(Theodor Herzl understood that “the enemy is necessary for the highest effort of the personality;” after all, it was Jew-hatred that originally spurred him into action.  As the African-American writer and critic Albert Murray has taught throughout his career, for heroes, dragons are simply opportunities to do their thing.  As God or fate would have it, Zionism still demands a heroic Jewish ethos. )

I love Israel. And the acceptance of the above precetion on a mass scale is paramount to insanity. Who in their right mind would accept this? Are your crazy? What you are saying is that ' We need war, to make us better human beings'???!!
I for one am for expanding my personality through compassion and humility, not by thinking that you must have a war against a significantly lesser powered adversary in order to reach a higher level of personality. Furthermore the above opinion is wrong on so many levels its scary. The only thing this war did for Israel is show off it's missle defence capabilities. It did nothing for the safety of Israeli or Paletinian children, it only worsened it and embolden her enemies. Is the world run by mad men? or is there truly a chance for peaceful exchange and cooperation to bring prosperity to all parties involved? Answer that question before trying to subtatiate a war that should have never have happened, with all parties knowing this to be the truth.
    Aryeh Tepper on December 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm (Reply)
    Chris -

    Your fear is unfounded. I am of course not suggesting that 'we need war to make us better human beings.' I am saying that, like it or not, life is often a low-down, dirty shame, and when you find yourself with an enemy, whining and crying and saying 'woe is me' are sad solutions. Herzl turned the sad fact of Jew-hatred into the energy of the Zionist movement, because he understood that when the world turns out to be a nasty place, the best response is to be a hero.
      Chris on December 3, 2012 at 8:41 pm (Reply)
      I was told by my military leaders, that 'fear, in the right dosage is what is needed to keep a man alive, it gives him that space to decide, wether to fight or flee, and to not have fear is to be clinically insane. Now I am not saying that Israeli leader need to be writhing in fear, what I am saying is they should take these times to reflect on the VERY' best course for thier nation not the one that brings profit, but also more fear , destruction and chaos, in an already expolsive situation. If they want war as a means to sustain the nation, or protect it's borders, by invasion of Gaza, I would hope that they would have exshausted all other means. However I am very much in support or retaliation By Israel for any terroist attacks, I am not for putting Israeli's future in jeapordy by these 'Mini-wars' which bold well for the military complex, but are devestating to society, and to use Herzi as a means to sustatiate this is ridiculuos, because you know he was talking about an equal advesary not terroists hiding in the sand. While I do see your point, and it is an excellent point of discussion, But how anyone could agree with this view point without reservation would be crazy. Why not focus on reconciliation, cooperation, proper descention, and true diplomacy, in place of missiles, wild-eyed statements? Must the zionist movement always spill blood to see its doctrine played out? i respect the leaders, but can no one see that there are other means, or is the world gone mad, with no way to return from the brink, and nothing left but to accept this interpretation of Herzi, as a good means to understand the current situation?
        Aryeh Tepper on December 4, 2012 at 1:32 am (Reply)
        Chris -

        I think you're reading too much into the idea of heroism. Realizing that you've got a dragon to slay doesn't preclude the necessity of rational political action. For instance:
          Chris on December 4, 2012 at 9:42 am
          Thank you for the reference. I think I have recieved a bit more understanding on the issue. I should have known I would end up with the weeping prophets life to reflect on. I always do. Peace.
Gadi/Ruth on December 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm (Reply)
In great hopes that truly we can establish a real Jewish ethos!
It does seem illusionaly illusional that peace can be established until we truly understand what is peace. And our Jewish Nation is truly in turmoil amongst ourselves, and if we can take a closer look at lets say whats happening inside of Jewish Society here in the land of Israel we can see the extremes of all the world in one little country, Israel is a paradox of the giant world which surrounds it. We live together in complete separation from one another, we allow our skin colors,our religious tastes, our social intellectual/financial standings, our choices in politics,and so on and so on to get in the way of us rising above all these differences to be united together as one nation, as brothers and sisters living together in peace amongst ourselves in mutual responsibility (arvut)between us. This was the only and entire reason that we were chosen to be as a nation, to lead the world by example,to be a light unto nations and yet we still have to realize/revitalize our essence in Jewish brotherhood, as one man with one heart.The world is demanding this from us sub-consciously and of course it is inflicted on us through great hatred. When we will begin to learn to open up our hearts to one another all the external hatred and violence towards us will subside. We Jewish people must unite together, this will be our greatest and only tool for true peace!
Mildred Bilt on December 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm (Reply)
First: Aryeh you used the example of one person as the absolute template for all "liberal American Jews"? Oy.
Second: Aryeh you don't know much about the crime picture in the US. African Americans keep killing African Americans, Anti-gays kill gays, teens kill the homeless, Moslem haters kill the Sikhs who are not Moslems but hey-anyone can make a mistake and hate groups target Hispanics etc.etc. (Get a subscription to the Southern Poverty Law Center Magazine- they document every hate crime and hate group-even the FBI uses them as a resource.) You're thinking American Jews are impervious to this environment? Oy.
Third: You say American Jews think they won't or don't have enemies? Are you saying that American Jews can't read, don't have TV's, don't work, don't go to school, live in caves, deaf, blind, and all those good things? Oy.
Aryeh-we know. Worse than that we know what's going on in Israel. Aryah-can you tell me why Shariah Law, writ large (in Hebrew) is the Law of Israel? Can you tell me why rabid leaders of fringe "religious" sects are represented in the Knesset and in fact, are powerful Ayutolas? In Israel? I keep hearing Ben Gurion's words in my ears: "Thank G-D for the Arabs. If it wasn't for them the Jews would be killing each other". The last thing Israel should want is for all American Jews to move to Israel. Do you think we would tolerate the heretics who proclaim all by themselves that they speak for the Almighty and they rule the land? We remember slavery in Egypt just like it was yesterday.
Yes, we know what Israel is facing-externally and internally. The enemies are everywhere, just like always and forever. and Aryeh-they're in Europe, America, Africa and generally all over the planet. Hello.
Jerry on December 3, 2012 at 11:56 pm (Reply)
That random rockets fired into Israeli civilian populations is acceptable to the world at large is simply an assertion that Darwin was right. Survival should be the result of random acts that favor the fittest organisms. When Israel protects itself with technology and refuses to die "proportionally," it is suggesting that one society can escape random acts of violence to survive in spite of the chaos of everyday life. In the mean and vicious world of most people, a benevolent Jewish society is an offense, since it is not available to everyone equally no matter how hard they try.
S W on December 4, 2012 at 2:58 am (Reply)
Ms. Bilt probably should be remembering a different Ben-Gurion quote: "...unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won't survive." Since she imagines through her citation of Ben-Gurion Jews so willing to kill Jews, she could provide examples rather than the comment, "oy." For one, I would be interested in her citing Jews who want to kill other Jews. One hopes she remembers the Yevsekzia referenced in a recent JID article, more Marxist than Jew. No news from Israel shows "rabid" Jews as she calls them wanting to kill other Jews. She writes, "enemies are everywhere," and this contradicts not only Lithwick but all those who spread her comment widely in condemnation of Israel and praise of dulled pacifism.

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