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April 28, 2009

There’s a certain look to a widow who’s in her mid-twenties, whose husband was killed in Gaza in January.  Eyes swollen with tears, yet with steely determination at the same time.  A certain vulnerability on her still very young face, and a face that seems too old for her age, all at the same time.  An image of pain and of unspeakable sadness, but not asking for pity.  Was it just me, or was it clear that even in the midst of her unbearable burden, she knew full well that she – like the young husband who was taken from her far too early – is part of something much larger than she is?  Is that why, looking at her, I had a sense of – more than anything else – strength?

I would have liked many more people to see her.  President Obama, for example, as he prepares for another stab at Middle East peace-making.  Hillary Clinton, who’s now telling us to make peace lest we lose American support in the looming confrontation with Iran.  All those Jews out there, beating their breasts, despondent that the Jewish state is so “un-Jewish” in its seeming unwillingness to make peace.

We hear all those people – of course we do.  And as we do, we can’t help but wonder if the world has begun to tire of us, to regret the decision that it made on November 29, 1947.  (We know without doubt, for example, that were the UN to vote today, Israel would not be created.)  Calls for Israel to negotiate with Hamas despite the latter’s commitment to Israel’s destruction, the poisonous environment of Durban II and the Obama administration’s willingness to engage with Iran even as it continues to enrich uranium, all contribute to this sense.

So to all those who are wringing their hands about Israeli intransigence and inflexibility, on this eve of Israeli Independence Day, a brief word about nations, and states, and purpose.  For without understanding purpose, there’s no understanding Israel.

Israelis elected Ehud Barak in 1999 because he promised peace with the Palestinians.  When Barak put the majority of the West Bank and even parts of Jerusalem on the table, most Israelis went along.  The deal fell apart because Palestinians unleashed the Second Intifada.  The majority of Israelis supported Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage from Gaza and to uproot all the Jewish communities there.  They even elected Ehud Olmert in 2006, after he ran on a platform of further withdrawal from the West Bank.  How did a country that has continually favored painful concessions for peace end up with Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister respectively?  It is that which Obama, Clinton and all the hand wringers must understand if they have any hope of being heard here.

To appreciate today’s Israeli sentiment, all those people would do well to keep in mind two iconic photographs on which virtually every Israeli is raised.   These images have come to represent two radically different eras – Jewish powerlessness under the Nazis, and Jews at the height of their power, when they captured the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians.

Poland Obit SendlerThe former period is represented in the minds of many Israelis by a black and white photograph of a Jewish boy, probably no older than nine or ten, dressed in his finest coat and hat, his black dress socks pulled up almost to his knees.  He is the model of innocence, of European-Jewish financial and social success, and yet, he is pitiful – the very picture of vulnerability.  His parents are not at his side, and no onlookers have come to comfort him.  His hands raised high in surrender as a Nazi points a gun in his direction, the boy’s fate depends entirely on the whim and will of his enemies.  He might as well already be dead.

A very different image was taken at the Western Wall in the aftermath of the paratroopers’ conquering of the Old City during the June 1967 Six Day War.   This photo, by David Rubinger, is equally iconic.  It, too, portrays Jews and soldiers – three, in fact.  But now, the Jews and the soldiers are one and the same.  No longer is the Jew the frightened boy looking away from the Nazi’s gun somewhere in Europe.  He is home, in Jerusalem, responsible for his own destiny.

rubingersixdaywar4Nothing in this image celebrates war.  The soldiers’ weapons are nowhere to be seen.  Their helmets have been removed.  The figure in the center ­is young, almost boyish.  What captured the Jewish imagination was not the Jew as soldier, but image of a Jew whose existential condition had been entirely altered in the period between those two photos, all because of the creation of the Jewish state.  The Jewish state, Zionism promised, would radically alter the condition of the Jew in the world.  No longer would Jews live and die at the whim of others.  No longer would our children’s safety be dependent on what our enemies decided.

Today, Israelis are concerned that that has begun to change, that we are sliding inexorably back to the reality represented by the first image.  For eight years, Palestinian rockets and mortars turned Israeli childhoods in Sderot and other cities into years of incessant fear.  Thousands of Israeli children studied and slept – and some died – at the whim of Palestinian Kassam-launchers.  And when Israel finally did respond, the world’s outrage was instantaneous.

Now, Israelis wonder if the Americans have quietly resigned themselves to a nuclear Iran.  If Israelis become convinced that that is the case, it will be not Netanyahu or Lieberman, but American policy, which will have caused Israeli intransigence.  For an Iranian nuclear weapon, even were it never used, would reverse the change in the existential condition of the Jew that Israel made possible.   Once Iran has nuclear capacity, every Israeli parent will put their children to bed at night knowing that once again, our survival and that of our children will depend not on what we do, but on what others decide our fate should be.  An Iranian nuclear weapon would represent not only a failure of American deterrence, but the failure of the promise of Zionism, to create and sustain a Jewish state that could keep its citizens safe.

An international community committed to significant progress in the Israel-Arab conflict must first convince Israelis that we are not being abandoned, that the world is committed to the purpose for which Israel was created.  Very few of us relish sending our sons and daughters off to war, to bear for life the scars of battle, or worse.  We, too, would like nothing more than an end to this horrific conflict.  Our voting record proves it.

But as we prepare to celebrate independence once again, one fact must remain clear: we will not end the conflict at all costs.  That is what the international community must demonstrate it understands.  For on this Erev Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, as on all the others, we, at least, know well what is at stake.  Given the choice between sending our children off to fight yet again, or of returning to the world of that first photograph in which someone else will decide if we live and for how long, almost all of us will choose the former.

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