Sunday, October 15, 2006

Looking for an “Existential Threat” in All the Wrong Places.

I am a member of a Reconstructionist Synagogue, and I recently receive the latest issue of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation's magazine “Reconstructionist Today”. In it was a long article by Dr. Carl Sheingold in which he argues that Diaspora Jews should care about Israel – be in community with Israeli Jews, to use his phraseology. This in itself is not controversial. But what was, in my opinion, is his “proof”. It is based on how bad Diaspora Jews would feel if Israel disappeared. This was driven home, according to Dr. Sheingold, by this past summer’s "existential threat" to Israel’s survival.

Israel was never under existential threat this past summer. The number of Israeli civilians killed over the six weeks of fighting was equal to about one months worth of Israeli traffic accidents and less then the number of Palestinian’s killed by Israel military action in Gaza in a similar 6 week period. The number of Israeli soldiers killed in the 6 weeks of war was less than a single battle – the Chinese Farm – in the 1973 war against Egypt. The economic damage done to Israel was about 1/10th that done to Lebanon.

There are only two things that, in the foreseeable future, pose a existential threat to Israel: an Iranian nuclear attack, and internal rot within the Israeli society and politics that causes living conditions and morale to sink enough to cause emigration a economic stagnation. Neither of these imminent. Neither is inevitable. Each can be avoided, by taking strategic action now.

But the rational long term planning, collective self criticism, strategic thinking, and return to morality, required to mitigate these threats are impossible as long as the hysteria of an “Existential Threat” is thrown up – all the time – as the primary reason to “support” Israel.

My own understanding of why Dr Sheingold’s arguments, despite the facts, will resonate with so many Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, is two fold.

First, we are all still deeply traumatized by the Holocaust. We just can’t get over it.

But just as a violent rape victim’s fear of the outside world, a fear that can be debilitating to a normal life, may be understandable - it is not, in the end, a useful or correct assessment of the world as it is. Rape happens. That’s a fact. But not all the time, and it is not inevitable. Many rape victim’s – and holocaust survivors – have dysfunctional traumas. Those of us less traumatized by world's potential for cruelty need to help them get over it, not re-enforce their fears and prejudices.

Second, Israel as it is, has become something much less than a light unto the nations. When Israeli’s where recently asked what made then proudest about their country, they pointed to their achievements in high tech. Is this what Jews dreamed about for 2000 years? To invent a better cell phone? Israel today has the second most unequal economy in the developed world. It’s public health system is in ruins. It’s public schools in decline. It’s humanities and social science faculties second rate. It’s treatment of its non-Jewish citizens blatantly discriminatory. It’s policies in the occupied territories cruel and oppressive. It leaderships corrupt. And it’s social fabric fragmented. What else then remains to rally its own citizen’s, and Jews around the world, to its cause, but an ever present “Existential Threat”?

Partly, this is a card cynically played by Jewish and Israeli leaders, but more significantly it has been internalized by many Jews – in Israel and outside. We want to support Israel. We have invested so much already. It hasn’t been easy. We don’t want to admit how far from our hopes things have strayed. We need a reason to stick with “supporting Israel” – even when such mindless support only harms the vision and values we desire. With all the carrots seemingly unnattianable, what better stick to urge ourselves blindly forward with, then the always present, always imminent “existential threat.”


Blogger basics said...

hey syd!
it's jeremiah. Through a post on hadar's facebook, i found your blog, and i'm reading it...

1) do you think iran developing a bomb would be an 'existential' threat to israel? (i.e., just the development of the capability more then the usage), personally looking at things now in 2009, the best thing would be for iran to have the bomb to protect against the possibilty of israel's usage against iran. (and although i don't like the irani gov't i don't think they're stupid enough to bomb israel, israel otoh...)

2) love your point about being a light unto nations, so true, but i think i'd disagree with you on when that happened (i.e., i'd probably push for far earlier in its existence then you would...just like me and my dad)

all the best, and see you soon!
from bogotá a hug!

10:54 pm  
Blogger Sydney Nestel said...


Yes - Iran's having a nuclear bomb is an existential threat to Israel. It is also an existential threat to Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other countries

The question is how much of a threat, and what to do about it?

The Soviet nuclear program was an existential threat to the U.S. - as was the U.S. "bomb" and existential threat to the Soviets. But the policy of MAD (mutual assured destruction) actually worked to prevent either side using there nuclear weapons.

Israel - and its ally the U.S. - have the power to utterly destroy Iran if it nukes Israel.

Are the Iranians insane enough not to care? I don't think so.

I think the bigger threat is from radical terror groups ala al Queida - who really don't care, as they think totally apocopliticlly. If they get a nuclear weapon - watch out!!

4:53 pm  
Blogger basics said...


ok, i get it, an existential threat, and while i don't believe in nuclear weapons, i think for the most part the only way to get the evil back into pandora's box is to let every state have one (probably comes from my view of the cuban missile crises). I think a 'rogue state' (which i dont think iran or even iraq were, and i doubt north korea is) or non-statal entity like al queda, would probably be a dangerous, but the genie is out of the bottle, and ONLY ONE COUNTRY has ever used nuclear weapons against another (and yet 'we' trust them to run the world, hmmm?)

So yes, pandora the evil is out of the box, what can we do about it? give it to all states? keep them in the hands of the one state to use it? give it only to the 'good' states (who defines good?)? I think, unfortunately, MAD is the only option!

you say the only real fear is the rogue state/non-state entity, but for me the fear is truly in the only state to use them and in the state that will probably use them(israel)

11:04 pm  

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