A Source of Optimism in a Time of Ruthlessness

Some recent communication crystalized thoughts regarding how to approach events in the Middle East (and their associated blowback at home) with anything but despair.

Most recently, a brief discussion in the comments section required me to think again about the conundrum of treating BDS as both a failure and a threat.

As I’ve explained in the past, failure creates its own momentum, just as victory does.  So there is ample reason to communicate the inability of a propaganda campaign like BDS to achieve any of its stated goals, especially since it is one of the few elements of the global anti-Israel de-legitimization/propaganda campaign we “civilians” can directly impact.

But the scope of things we cannot impact (at least directly) was brought home when my Rabbi (who I have come to admire more and more over the years) sent we congregants a series of missives over the summer which described his attempts to carry on a normal sabbatical in Israel while dodging missiles trying to kill him every other day.

After such a harrowing experience, we were braced for a post-sabbatical holiday sermon that would focus on events in the Middle East.  But what impressed me most about his impassioned first-hand description of front lines in the recent Hamas-initiated war was his ability to clearly articulate reality (which includes both the Hamas Covenant and the organization’s official policy of child sacrifice) while still holding onto his long-standing optimism that peace (somehow, some way) would eventually emerge out of so much violence and catastrophe.

In more cynical moments, I might wonder whether someone’s longing for peace when groups like Hamas and ISIS are holding (and gaining) territory might represent an inability to grasp reality.  And the argument that 20+ years of peace processing seems to have led to noting but endless war is one I wish more people (including more optimists) would confront.

But, at the same time, I maintain my own optimism about not just ultimately defeating BDS but the ultimate success of Israel and the Jewish people over the forces of chaos which are clashing and burning and killing across the globe.

Now this optimism is not blind to the fact that what we can expect in the coming years is more and more darkness and that even “victory” over the bloody forces arraigned against us represents nothing but a limited respite.  For, despite the slogans and costumes and Koranic verses, what we face on all battlefields is not ultimately Islam (or Islamism or Jihad or whatever euphemism we use to sooth the sensibilities and prejudices of ourselves and others) but mankind’s oldest enemy: ruthlessness.

If you read this series (or other things I’ve written in the past), you’ll recognize my cribbing from Lee Harris who describes history as the halting progress of civilization against a ruthless foe always dogging its heels.  When mankind was capable of nothing but foraging and hunting, it was the ruthless who discovered they could get all the food they wanted by simply killing others to obtain it, making the survivors their slaves in the process.

Moving ahead ten-thousand years, who could have anticipated that a blend of 18th and 19th century philosophy and economics, or the racial ravings of an Austrian paper hanger would harden into ideologies used to justify the murder of millions and the enslavement of billions?  But if you think of movements like Communism and Fascism as the intellectual infrastructure the ruthless use to justify their means, then everything makes perfect sense.  For the ends these ruthless Fuhrers and Commissars pursued was not the utopias they promised the public (and gullible foreigners), but their own absolute rule with a power of life and death beyond anything history’s most vicious tyrants and emperors could ever imagine.

Today, it is the Islamic world where a lethal blend of historic fantasy, cultivated grievance, and ends-justify-means ideology is driving the planet to a new brink.  But it is also a war-weary world that can’t bring itself to do what must be done to drive off the ruthless that has created the opening where a new group of warlords will fight to the death to win the right (and the power) to expand their war world-wide.

To be fair to folks like Neville Chamberlain, at least he and his generation made their decisions within living memory of the killing fields of World War I, which helps explain why they went to the lengths they did to ignore and appease evil until it was almost too late to stop it.  Our excuse is that we have become too comfortable with a half a century of non-war (or, more specifically, a half a century where most of us never had to make sacrifices in order to defeat a ruthless enemy).  Which is why it has become so easy to blame Bush, blame Israel, blame ourselves for the world returning to a state of nature we’d rather believe does not exist.

So what can possibly provide anyone a sense of optimism when facing a new conflict that is sure to lead to the re-ordering of the world (and not for the better), a re-ording likely to be accompanied by the death of millions (if not tens of millions)?  In a word: Zionism.

How can it be that the most loathed label in the global political lexicon can be a source of hope, even salvation?

The inspiration of a people at the brink of extinction creating a nation three years later which has grown into a successful, prosperous, mighty and humane democracy should be enough (dayenu) to justify a high degree of optimism.  But think for a moment about how much the history of the Jewish state defies the laws of the jungle that hold sway nearly everywhere else on the planet.

Israel has the might (and has always had the might) to actually commit all of the crimes it is routinely accused of, and yet it has chosen not to do so.  And as galling as it might be to be accused of genocide by the genocidal leaders of a Palestinian less-than-state whose population exploded under dreaded Israeli “Occupation” (rather than go down, as it has during all other genocides in history), as ludicrous as it might be to be accused of ethnic cleansing by Arab state who cleansed their nations of Jews decades ago (with Christians next on the hit list), as vile as it might be to hear nihilists and allies of the warlords bringing misery to the rest of the world declare “Zionism” to be the ugliest word ever uttered, Israel’s choices represent its determination to not let its soul be driven by the same ruthless nature that has historically guided those with power.

Want another example?  OK – How about an atomic-scale one?  For rather than use its nuclear arsenal to dominate the region (like any “normal” nuclear power would do), Israel simply shut up about it with the assumption that it would remain a last resort (rather than an asset to be pulled out for this or that strategic reason).  My guess is that a nuclear Iran will not show similar restraint.

One can find other examples, all of which add up to Zionism demonstrating to the world that a state can succeed without devolving into bitter ruthlessness or ends-justifying-means on a national scale.  And, given the mayhem that now engulfs virtually every one of Israel’s neighbors, it is a lesson worth considering – especially by those who might prefer to nail to the cross a nation that may have found a way to live with the many paradoxes (past vs. future, faith vs. politics, national vs. individual identity, power vs. humanity) that has made modernity such a vexing, thrilling, yet bloody experience for all of us.

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2 Responses to A Source of Optimism in a Time of Ruthlessness

  1. Michael Lumish October 18, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    Interesting piece, Jon, although I find it a little humorous that the brief piece that I have queued up for the EOZ for tomorrow is entitled, “Why I am not a Zionist.” (!)

    I think that where I take issue, however, is in this:

    “despite the slogans and costumes and Koranic verses, what we face on all battlefields is not ultimately Islam (or Islamism or Jihad or whatever euphemism we use to sooth the sensibilities and prejudices of ourselves and others) but mankind’s oldest enemy: ruthlessness.”

    The problem with this idea, I think, is that “ruthlessness” cannot act. That takes people and whoever the people are using Islamic theology as a weapon against others is the enemy.

    That enemy is one person among his allies and taken together, they represent the enemy as a collective.

    This enemy is not the entirety of Islam. It is merely those many millions within the Islamic community who believe in the violent Jihad.

    • DivestThis October 21, 2014 at 10:33 am #

      I take your point, given that my appeal to ruthlessness sounds a lot like the notion that we are fighting “terror” (rather than people involved with political movements that use terror as a weapon). But while “terror” is indeed just a tactic, “ruthlessness” is a characteristic that describes all of the enemies the Jews have faced over the ages, most recently in the form of Nazis, Communists and, now Jihadists. And while I agree that describing “Islam” (in toto) as our ruthless foe is false, I think it’s fair to say that the part of the Islamic world that has embraced a ruthless ideology to achieve its ends puts them into the same category as previous ruthless actors (whom these Jihadis admire and seek to emulate) that have made us their enemy.

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