* Charles Krauthammer: The Czech writer Milan Kundera once defined a small nation as “one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it.” The United States is not a small nation. Neither is Japan. Or France. These nations may suffer defeats. They may even be occupied. But they cannot disappear. Kundera’s Czechoslovakia could – and once did.
* Israel too is a small country. This is not to say that extinction is its fate. Only that it can be. Moreover, in its vulnerability to extinction, Israel is not just any small country. It is the only small country whose neighbors publicly declare its very existence an affront to law, morality, and religion and make its extinction an explicit, paramount national goal.
* Countries as far away as Malaysia will not allow a representative of Israel on their soil nor even permit the showing of Schindler’s List lest it engender sympathy for Zion.
* Krauthammer: “The stakes could not be higher. It is my contention that on Israel – on its existence and survival – hangs the very existence and survival of the Jewish people. Or, to put the thesis in the negative, that the end of Israel means the end of the Jewish people. They survived destruction and exile at the hands of Babylon in 586 B.C. They survived destruction and exile at the hands of Rome in 70 A.D., and finally in 132 A.D. They cannot survive another destruction and exile. The Third Commonwealth – modern Israel, born just 50 years ago – is the last.”
* “The return to Zion is now the principal drama of Jewish history. What began as an experiment has become the very heart of the Jewish people – its cultural, spiritual, and psychological center, soon to become its demographic center as well. Israel is the hinge. Upon it rest the hopes – the only hope – for Jewish continuity and survival.”
* “Israel is different [than the Diaspora]. In Israel the great temptation of modernity – assimilation – simply does not exist. Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity: It is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago. You dig the soil and you find pottery from Davidic times, coins from Bar Kokhba, and 2,000-year-old scrolls written in a script remarkably like the one that today advertises ice cream at the corner candy store.”
* “The Ten Tribes had melted away into history. As such, they represent the historical norm. Every other people so conquered and exiled has in time disappeared. Only the Jews defied the norm. Twice. But never, I fear, again.”
The original tribes of Israel
“A SMALL NATION CAN DISAPPEAR, AND IT KNOWS IT”
[Note by Tom Gross]
The essay below, by Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post columnist and political commentator Charles Krauthammer, was first published 15 years ago in the Washington-based magazine the Weekly Standard. The editors at Jewish Ideas Daily have drawn attention to it again at this time.
One doesn’t want to be too gloomy – since Krauthammer’s essay was first written, Israel has in many ways thrived, particularly in the economic sphere. However, Krauthammer’s analysis is well worth reading again now, particularly in the context of the Iranian (and potentially Sunni Arab) nuclear threats.
(For a recent related dispatch, please see:
“Genocides, unlike hurricanes, are predictable, and Iran is following the pattern”)
(Charles Krauthammer, along with the senior staff of the Weekly Standard, and of Jewish Ideas Daily, are longtime subscribers to this email list.)
(You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.)
“ON ISRAEL REST THE HOPES – THE ONLY HOPE – FOR JEWISH CONTINUITY AND SURVIVAL”
At Last, Zion
By Charles Krauthammer
The Weekly Standard
(Written and originally published in 1997)
I. A SMALL NATION
Milan Kundera once defined a small nation as “one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it.”
The United States is not a small nation. Neither is Japan. Or France. These nations may suffer defeats. They may even be occupied. But they cannot disappear. Kundera’s Czechoslovakia could – and once did. Prewar Czechoslovakia is the paradigmatic small nation: a liberal democracy created in the ashes of war by a world determined to let little nations live free; threatened by the covetousness and sheer mass of a rising neighbor; compromised fatally by a West grown weary “of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”; left truncated and defenseless, succumbing finally to conquest. When Hitler entered Prague in March 1939, he declared, “Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist.”
Israel too is a small country. This is not to say that extinction is its fate. Only that it can be.
Moreover, in its vulnerability to extinction, Israel is not just any small country. It is the only small country – the only period, period – whose neighbors publicly declare its very existence an affront to law, morality, and religion and make its extinction an explicit, paramount national goal. Nor is the goal merely declarative. Iran, Libya, and Iraq conduct foreign policies designed for the killing of Israelis and the destruction of their state. They choose their allies (Hamas, Hezbollah) and develop their weapons (suicide bombs, poison gas, anthrax, nuclear missiles) accordingly. Countries as far away as Malaysia will not allow a representative of Israel on their soil nor even permit the showing of Schindler’s List lest it engender sympathy for Zion.
Others are more circumspect in their declarations. No longer is the destruction of Israel the unanimous goal of the Arab League, as it was for the thirty years before Camp David. Syria, for example, no longer explicitly enunciates it. Yet Syria would destroy Israel tomorrow if it had the power. (Its current reticence on the subject is largely due to its post-Cold War need for the American connection.)
Even Egypt, first to make peace with Israel and the presumed model for peacemaking, has built a vast U.S.-equipped army that conducts military exercises obviously designed for fighting Israel. Its huge “Badr ‘96” exercises, for example, Egypt’s largest since the 1973 war, featured simulated crossings of the Suez Canal.
And even the PLO, which was forced into ostensible recognition of Israel in the Oslo Agreements of 1993, is still ruled by a national charter that calls in at least fourteen places for Israel’s eradication. The fact that after five years and four specific promises to amend the charter it remains unamended is a sign of how deeply engraved the dream of eradicating Israel remains in the Arab consciousness.
II. THE STAKES
The contemplation of Israel’s disappearance is very difficult for this generation. For fifty years, Israel has been a fixture. Most people cannot remember living in a world without Israel.
Nonetheless, this feeling of permanence has more than once been rudely interrupted – during the first few days of the Yom Kippur War when it seemed as if Israel might be overrun, or those few weeks in May and early June 1967 when Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran and marched 100,000 troops into Sinai to drive the Jews into the sea.
Yet Israel’s stunning victory in 1967, its superiority in conventional weaponry, its success in every war in which its existence was at stake, has bred complacency. Some ridicule the very idea of Israel’s impermanence. Israel, wrote one Diaspora intellectual, “is fundamentally indestructible. Yitzhak Rabin knew this. The Arab leaders on Mount Herzl [at Rabin’s funeral] knew this. Only the land-grabbing, trigger-happy saints of the right do not know this. They are animated by the imagination of catastrophe, by the thrill of attending the end.”
Thrill was not exactly the feeling Israelis had when during the Gulf War they entered sealed rooms and donned gas masks to protect themselves from mass death – in a war in which Israel was not even engaged. The feeling was fear, dread, helplessness – old existential Jewish feelings that post- Zionist fashion today deems anachronistic, if not reactionary. But wish does not overthrow reality. The Gulf War reminded even the most wishful that in an age of nerve gas, missiles, and nukes, an age in which no country is completely safe from weapons of mass destruction, Israel with its compact population and tiny area is particularly vulnerable to extinction.
Israel is not on the edge. It is not on the brink. This is not ‘48 or ‘67 or ‘73. But Israel is a small country. It can disappear. And it knows it.
It may seem odd to begin an examination of the meaning of Israel and the future of the Jews by contemplating the end. But it does concentrate the mind. And it underscores the stakes. The stakes could not be higher. It is my contention that on Israel – on its existence and survival – hangs the very existence and survival of the Jewish people. Or, to put the thesis in the negative, that the end of Israel means the end of the Jewish people. They survived destruction and exile at the hands of Babylon in 586 B.C. They survived destruction and exile at the hands of Rome in 70 A.D., and finally in 132 A.D. They cannot survive another destruction and exile. The Third Commonwealth – modern Israel, born just 50 years ago – is the last.
The return to Zion is now the principal drama of Jewish history. What began as an experiment has become the very heart of the Jewish people – its cultural, spiritual, and psychological center, soon to become its demographic center as well. Israel is the hinge. Upon it rest the hopes – the only hope – for Jewish continuity and survival.
III. THE DYING DIASPORA
In 1950, there were 5 million Jews in the United States. In 1990, the number was a slightly higher 5.5 million. In the intervening decades, overall U.S. population rose 65 percent. The Jews essentially tread water. In fact, in the last half-century Jews have shrunk from 3 percent to 2 percent of the American population. And now they are headed for not just relative but absolute decline. What sustained the Jewish population at its current level was, first, the postwar baby boom, then the influx of 400,000 Jews, mostly from the Soviet Union.
Well, the baby boom is over. And Russian immigration is drying up. There are only so many Jews where they came from. Take away these historical anomalies, and the American Jewish population would be smaller today than today. In fact, it is now headed for catastrophic decline. Steven Bayme, director of Jewish Communal Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, flatly predicts that in twenty years the Jewish population will be down to four million, a loss of nearly 30 percent. In twenty years! Projecting just a few decades further yields an even more chilling future.
How does a community decimate itself in the benign conditions of the United States? Easy: low fertility and endemic intermarriage.
The fertility rate among American Jews is 1.6 children per woman. The replacement rate (the rate required for the population to remain constant) is 2.1. The current rate is thus 20 percent below what is needed for zero growth. Thus fertility rates alone would cause a 20 percent decline in every generation. In three generations, the population would be cut in half.
The low birth rate does not stem from some peculiar aversion of Jewish women to children. It is merely a striking case of the well-known and universal phenomenon of birth rates declining with rising education and socio-economic class. Educated, successful working women tend to marry late and have fewer babies.
Add now a second factor, intermarriage. In the United States today more Jews marry Christians than marry Jews. The intermarriage rate is 52 percent. (A more conservative calculation yields 47 percent; the demographic effect is basically the same.) In 1970, the rate was 8 percent.
Most important for Jewish continuity, however, is the ultimate identity of the children born to these marriages. Only about one in four is raised Jewish. Thus two-thirds of Jewish marriages are producing children three-quarters of whom are lost to the Jewish people. Intermarriage rates alone would cause a 25 percent decline in population in every generation. (Math available upon request.) In two generations, half the Jews would disappear.
Now combine the effects of fertility and intermarriage and make the overly optimistic assumption that every child raised Jewish will grow up to retain his Jewish identity (i.e., a zero dropout rate). You can start with 100 American Jews; you end up with 60. In one generation, more than a third have disappeared. In just two generations, two out of every three will vanish.
One can reach this same conclusion by a different route (bypassing the intermarriage rates entirely). A Los Angeles Times poll of American Jews conducted in March 1998 asked a simple question: Are you raising your children as Jews? Only 70 percent said yes. A population in which the biological replacement rate is 80 percent and the cultural replacement rate is 70 percent is headed for extinction. By this calculation, every 100 Jews are raising 56 Jewish children. In just two generations, 7 out of every 10 Jews will vanish.
The demographic trends in the rest of the Diaspora are equally unencouraging. In Western Europe, fertility and intermarriage rates mirror those of the United States. Take Britain. Over the last generation, British Jewry has acted as a kind of controlled experiment: a Diaspora community living in an open society, but, unlike that in the United States, not artificially sustained by immigration. What happened? Over the last quarter-century, the number of British Jews declined by over 25 percent.
Over the same interval, France’s Jewish population declined only slightly. The reason for this relative stability, however, is a one-time factor: the influx of North African Jewry. That influx is over. In France today only a minority of Jews between the ages of twenty and forty-four live in a conventional family with two Jewish parents. France, too, will go the way of the rest.
“The dissolution of European Jewry,” observes Bernard Wasserstein in Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945, “is not situated at some point in the hypothetical future. The process is taking place before our eyes and is already far advanced.” Under present trends, “the number of Jews in Europe by the year 2000 would then be not much more than one million – the lowest figure since the last Middle Ages.”
In 1990, there were eight million.
The story elsewhere is even more dispiriting. The rest of what was once the Diaspora is now either a museum or a graveyard. Eastern Europe has been effectively emptied of its Jews. In 1939, Poland had 3.2 million Jews. Today it is home to 3,500. The story is much the same in the other capitals of Eastern Europe.
The Islamic world, cradle to the great Sephardic Jewish tradition and home to one-third of world Jewry three centuries ago, is now practically Judenrein. Not a single country in the Islamic world is home to more than 20,000 Jews. After Turkey with 19,000 and Iran with 14,000, the country with the largest Jewish community in the entire Islamic world is Morocco with 6, 100. There are more Jews in Omaha, Nebraska.
These communities do not figure in projections. There is nothing to project. They are fit subjects not for counting but for remembering. Their very sound has vanished. Yiddish and Ladino, the distinctive languages of the European and Sephardic Diasporas, like the communities that invented them, are nearly extinct.
IV. THE DYNAMICS OF ASSIMILATION
Is it not risky to assume that current trends will continue? No. Nothing will revive the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and the Islamic world. And nothing will stop the rapid decline by assimilation of Western Jewry. On the contrary. Projecting current trends – assuming, as I have done, that rates remain constant – is rather conservative: It is risky to assume that assimilation will not accelerate. There is nothing on the horizon to reverse the integration of Jews into Western culture. The attraction of Jews to the larger culture and the level of acceptance of Jews by the larger culture are historically unprecedented. If anything, the trends augur an intensification of assimilation.
It stands to reason. As each generation becomes progressively more assimilated, the ties to tradition grow weaker (as measured, for example, by synagogue attendance and number of children receiving some kind of Jewish education). This dilution of identity, in turn, leads to a greater tendency to intermarriage and assimilation. Why not? What, after all, are they giving up? The circle is complete and self-reinforcing.
Consider two cultural artifacts. With the birth of television a half- century ago, Jewish life in America was represented by The Goldbergs: urban Jews, decidedly ethnic, heavily accented, socially distinct. Forty years later The Goldbergs begat Seinfeld, the most popular entertainment in America today. The Seinfeld character is nominally Jewish. He might cite his Jewish identity on occasion without apology or self- consciousness – but, even more important, without consequence. It has not the slightest influence on any aspect of his life.
Assimilation of this sort is not entirely unprecedented. In some ways, it parallels the pattern in Western Europe after the emancipation of the Jews in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The French Revolution marks the turning point in the granting of civil rights to Jews. As they began to emerge from the ghetto, at first they found resistance to their integration and advancement. They were still excluded from the professions, higher education, and much of society. But as these barriers began gradually to erode and Jews advanced socially, Jews began a remarkable embrace of European culture and, for many, Christianity. In A History of Zionism, Walter Laqueur notes the view of Gabriel Riesser, an eloquent and courageous mid-19th-century advocate of emancipation, that a Jew who preferred the non-existent state and nation of Israel to Germany should be put under police protection not because he was dangerous but because he was obviously insane.
Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was a harbinger. Cultured, cosmopolitan, though firmly Jewish, he was the quintessence of early emancipation. Yet his story became emblematic of the rapid historical progression from emancipation to assimilation: Four of his six children and eight of his nine grandchildren were baptized.
In that more religious, more Christian age, assimilation took the form of baptism, what Henrich Heine called the admission ticket to European society. In the far more secular late-20th century, assimilation merely means giving up the quaint name, the rituals, and the other accoutrements and identifiers of one’s Jewish past. Assimilation today is totally passive. Indeed, apart from the trip to the county courthouse to transform, say, (shmattes by) Ralph Lifshitz into (Polo by) Ralph Lauren, it is marked by an absence of actions rather than the active embrace of some other faith. Unlike Mendelssohn’s children, Seinfeld required no baptism.
We now know, of course, that in Europe, emancipation through assimilation proved a cruel hoax. The rise of anti-Semitism, particularly late-19th- century racial anti-Semitism culminating in Nazism, disabused Jews of the notion that assimilation provided escape from the liabilities and dangers of being Jewish. The saga of the family of Madeleine Albright is emblematic. Of her four Jewish grandparents – highly assimilated, with children some of whom actually converted and erased their Jewish past – three went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps as Jews.
Nonetheless, the American context is different. There is no American history of anti-Semitism remotely resembling Europe’s. The American tradition of tolerance goes back 200 years to the very founding of the country. Washington’s letter to the synagogue in Newport pledges not tolerance – tolerance bespeaks non-persecution bestowed as a favor by the dominant upon the deviant – but equality. It finds no parallel in the history of Europe. In such a country, assimilation seems a reasonable solution to one’s Jewish problem. One could do worse than merge one’s destiny with that of a great and humane nation dedicated to the proposition of human dignity and equality.
Nonetheless, while assimilation may be a solution for individual Jews, it clearly is a disaster for Jews as a collective with a memory, a language, a tradition, a liturgy, a history, a faith, a patrimony that will all perish as a result.
Whatever value one might assign to assimilation, one cannot deny its reality. The trends, demographic and cultural, are stark. Not just in the long-lost outlands of the Diaspora, not just in its erstwhile European center, but even in its new American heartland, the future will be one of diminution, decline, and virtual disappearance. This will not occur overnight. But it will occur soon – in but two or three generations, a time not much further removed from ours today than the founding of Israel fifty years ago.
V. ISRAELI EXCEPTIONALISM
Israel is different. In Israel the great temptation of modernity – assimilation – simply does not exist. Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity: It is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago. You dig the soil and you find pottery from Davidic times, coins from Bar Kokhba, and 2,000-year-old scrolls written in a script remarkably like the one that today advertises ice cream at the corner candy store.
Because most Israelis are secular, however, some ultra-religious Jews dispute Israel’s claim to carry on an authentically Jewish history. So do some secular Jews. A French critic (sociologist Georges Friedmann) once called Israelis “Hebrew-speaking gentiles.” In fact, there was once a fashion among a group of militantly secular Israeli intellectuals to call themselves “Canaanites,” i.e., people rooted in the land but entirely denying the religious tradition from which they came.
Well then, call these people what you will. “Jews,” after all, is a relatively recent name for this people. They started out as Hebrews, then became Israelites. “Jew” (derived from the Kingdom of Judah, one of the two successor states to the Davidic and Solomonic Kingdom of Israel) is the post-exilic term for Israelite. It is a latecomer to history.
What to call the Israeli who does not observe the dietary laws, has no use for the synagogue, and regards the Sabbath as the day for a drive to the beach – a fair description, by the way, of most of the prime ministers of Israel? It does not matter. Plant a Jewish people in a country that comes to a standstill on Yom Kippur; speaks the language of the Bible; moves to the rhythms of the Hebrew (lunar) calendar; builds cities with the stones of its ancestors; produces Hebrew poetry and literature, Jewish scholarship and learning unmatched anywhere in the world – and you have continuity.
Israelis could use a new name. Perhaps we will one day relegate the word Jew to the 2,000-year exilic experience and once again call these people Hebrews. The term has a nice historical echo, being the name by which Joseph and Jonah answered the question: “Who are you?”
In the cultural milieu of modern Israel, assimilation is hardly the problem. Of course Israelis eat McDonald’s and watch Dallas reruns. But so do Russians and Chinese and Danes. To say that there are heavy Western (read: American) influences on Israeli culture is to say nothing more than that Israel is as subject to the pressures of globalization as any other country. But that hardly denies its cultural distinctiveness, a fact testified to by the great difficulty immigrants have in adapting to Israel.
In the Israeli context, assimilation means the reattachment of Russian and Romanian, Uzbeki and Iraqi, Algerian and Argentinian Jews to a distinctively Hebraic culture. It means the exact opposite of what it means in the Diaspora: It means giving up alien languages, customs, and traditions. It means giving up Christmas and Easter for Hanukkah and Passover. It means giving up ancestral memories of the steppes and the pampas and the savannas of the world for Galilean hills and Jerusalem stone and Dead Sea desolation. That is what these new Israelis learn. That is what is transmitted to their children. That is why their survival as Jews is secure. Does anyone doubt that the near- million Soviet immigrants to Israel would have been largely lost to the Jewish people had they remained in Russia – and that now they will not be lost?
Some object to the idea of Israel as carrier of Jewish continuity because of the myriad splits and fractures among Israelis: Orthodox versus secular, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, Russian versus sabra, and so on. Israel is now engaged in bitter debates over the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform Judaism and the encroachment of Orthodoxy upon the civic and social life of the country.
So what’s new? Israel is simply recapitulating the Jewish norm. There are equally serious divisions in the Diaspora, as there were within the last Jewish Commonwealth: “Before the ascendancy of the Pharisees and the emergence of rabbinic orthodoxy after the fall of the Second Temple,” writes Harvard Near East scholar Frank Cross, “Judaism was more complex and variegated than we had supposed.” The Dead Sea Scrolls, explains Hershel Shanks, “emphasize a hitherto unappreciated variety in Judaism of the late Second Temple period, so much so that scholars often speak not simply of Judaism but of Judaisms.”
The Second Commonwealth was a riot of Jewish sectarianism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, apocalyptics of every stripe, sects now lost to history, to say nothing of the early Christians. Those concerned about the secular- religious tensions in Israel might contemplate the centuries-long struggle between Hellenizers and traditionalists during the Second Commonwealth. The Maccabean revolt of 167-4 B.C., now celebrated as Hanukkah, was, among other things, a religious civil war among Jews.
Yes, it is unlikely that Israel will produce a single Jewish identity. But that is unnecessary. The relative monolith of Rabbinic Judaism in the Middle Ages is the exception. Fracture and division is a fact of life during the modern era, as during the First and Second Commonwealths. Indeed, during the period of the First Temple, the people of Israel were actually split into two often warring states. The current divisions within Israel pale in comparison.
Whatever identity or identities are ultimately adopted by Israelis, the fact remains that for them the central problem of Diaspora Jewry – suicide by assimilation – simply does not exist. Blessed with this security of identity, Israel is growing. As a result, Israel is not just the cultural center of the Jewish world, it is rapidly becoming its demographic center as well. The relatively high birth rate yields a natural increase in population. Add a steady net rate of immigration (nearly a million since the late 1980s), and Israel’s numbers rise inexorably even as the Diaspora declines.
Within a decade Israel will pass the United States as the most populous Jewish community on the globe. Within our lifetime a majority of the world’s Jews will be living in Israel. That has not happened since well before Christ.
A century ago, Europe was the center of Jewish life. More than 80 percent of world Jewry lived there. The Second World War destroyed European Jewry and dispersed the survivors to the New World (mainly the United States) and to Israel. Today, 80 percent of world Jewry lives either in the United States or in Israel. Today we have a bipolar Jewish universe with two centers of gravity of approximately equal size. It is a transitional stage, however. One star is gradually dimming, the other brightening.
Soon an inevitably the cosmology of the Jewish people will have been transformed again, turned into a single-star system with a dwindling Diaspora orbiting around. It will be a return to the ancient norm: The Jewish people will be centered – not just spiritually but physically – in their ancient homeland.
VI. THE END OF DISPERSION
The consequences of this transformation are enormous. Israel’s centrality is more than just a question of demography. It represents a bold and dangerous new strategy for Jewish survival.
For two millennia, the Jewish people survived by means of dispersion and isolation. Following the first exile in 586 B.C. and the second exile in 70 A. D. and 132 A.D., Jews spread first throughout Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Basin, then to northern and eastern Europe and eventually west to the New World, with communities in practically every corner of the earth, even unto India and China.
Throughout this time, the Jewish people survived the immense pressures of persecution, massacre, and forced conversion not just by faith and courage, but by geographic dispersion. Decimated here, they would survive there. The thousands of Jewish villages and towns spread across the face of Europe, the Islamic world, and the New World provided a kind of demographic insurance. However many Jews were massacred in the First Crusade along the Rhine, however many villages were destroyed in the 1648-1649 pogroms in Ukraine, there were always thousands of others spread around the globe to carry on.
This dispersion made for weakness and vulnerability for individual Jewish communities. Paradoxically, however, it made for endurance and strength for the Jewish people as a whole. No tyrant could amass enough power to threaten Jewish survival everywhere.
Until Hitler. The Nazis managed to destroy most everything Jewish from the Pyrenees to the gates of Stalingrad, an entire civilization a thousand years old. There were nine million Jews in Europe when Hitler came to power. He killed two-thirds of them. Fifty years later, the Jews have yet to recover. There were sixteen million Jews in the world in 1939. Today, there are thirteen million.
The effect of the Holocaust was not just demographic, however. It was psychological, indeed ideological, as well. It demonstrated once and for all the catastrophic danger of powerlessness. The solution was self-defense, and that meant a demographic reconcentration in a place endowed with sovereignty, statehood, and arms.
Before World War II there was great debate in the Jewish world over Zionism. Reform Judaism, for example, was for decades anti-Zionist. The Holocaust resolved that debate. Except for those at the extremes – the ultra-Orthodox right and far left – Zionism became the accepted solution to Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability. Amid the ruins, Jews made a collective decision that their future lay in self-defense and territoriality, in the ingathering of the exiles to a place where they could finally acquire the means to defend themselves.
It was the right decision, the only possible decision. But oh so perilous. What a choice of place to make one’s final stand: a dot on the map, a tiny patch of near-desert, a thin ribbon of Jewish habitation behind the flimsiest of natural barriers (which the world demands that Israel relinquish). One determined tank thrust can tear it in half. One small battery of nuclear- tipped Scuds can obliterate it entirely.
To destroy the Jewish people, Hitler needed to conquer the world. All that is needed today is to conquer a territory smaller than Vermont. The terrible irony is that in solving the problem of powerlessness, the Jews have necessarily put all their eggs in one basket, a small basket hard by the waters of the Mediterranean. And on its fate hinges everything Jewish.
VII. THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
What if the Third Jewish Commonwealth meets the fate of the first two? The scenario is not that far-fetched: A Palestinian state is born, arms itself, concludes alliances with, say, Iraq and Syria. War breaks out between Palestine and Israel (over borders or water or terrorism). Syria and Iraq attack from without. Egypt and Saudi Arabia join the battle. The home front comes under guerilla attack from Palestine. Chemical and biological weapons rain down from Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Israel is overrun.
Why is this the end? Can the Jewish people not survive as they did when their homeland was destroyed and their political independence extinguished twice before? Why not a new exile, a new Diaspora, a new cycle of Jewish history?
First, because the cultural conditions of exile would be vastly different. The first exiles occurred at a time when identity was nearly coterminous with religion. An expulsion two millennia later into a secularized world affords no footing for a reestablished Jewish identity.
But more important: Why retain such an identity? Beyond the dislocation would be the sheer demoralization. Such an event would simply break the spirit. No people could survive it. Not even the Jews. This is a people that miraculously survived two previous destructions and two millennia of persecution in the hope of ultimate return and restoration. Israel is that hope. To see it destroyed, to have Isaiahs and Jeremiahs lamenting the widows of Zion once again amid the ruins of Jerusalem is more than one people could bear.
Particularly coming after the Holocaust, the worst calamity in Jewish history. To have survived it is miracle enough. Then to survive the destruction of that which arose to redeem it – the new Jewish state – is to attribute to Jewish nationhood and survival supernatural power.
Some Jews and some scattered communities would, of course, survive. The most devout, already a minority, would carry on – as an exotic tribe, a picturesque Amish-like anachronism, a dispersed and pitied remnant of a remnant. But the Jews as a people would have retired from history.
We assume that Jewish history is cyclical: Babylonian exile in 586 B.C., followed by return in 538 B.C. Roman exile in 135 A.D., followed by return, somewhat delayed, in 1948. We forget a linear part of Jewish history: There was one other destruction, a century and a half before the fall of the First Temple. It went unrepaired. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered the other, larger Jewish state, the northern kingdom of Israel. (Judah, from which modern Jews are descended, was the southern kingdom.) This is the Israel of the Ten Tribes, exiled and lost forever.
So enduring is their mystery that when Lewis and Clark set off on their expedition, one of the many questions prepared for them by Dr. Benjamin Rush at Jefferson’s behest was this: “What Affinity between their [the Indians’] religious Ceremonies & those of the Jews?” “Jefferson and Lewis had talked at length about these tribes,” explains Stephen Ambrose. “They speculated that the lost tribes of Israel could be out there on the Plains.”
Alas, not. The Ten Tribes had melted away into history. As such, they represent the historical norm. Every other people so conquered and exiled has in time disappeared. Only the Jews defied the norm. Twice. But never, I fear, again.