The Worthy Life – II

Last time, I talked about what it means to live a worthy life and how Israelis’ existential condition – in which each of them is responsible for defending and building a nation – has made them some of the happiest people on the face of the earth.

For those of us who do not live under similar conditions, which includes most of Israel’s friends and supporters, her enemies and detractors, and huge swaths of humanity both friends and foes are trying to reach, might there be something about human nature we all ignore as we settle on strategies to communicate our messages, persuade others, and build alliances?

The list of things mentioned last time which add up to a worthy life (meaningful work, a loving relationship, genuine friends, and a life committed to truth and beauty) was informed by the ancient philosopher Aristotle whose writing on ethics identified happiness as the ultimate goal all our efforts drive towards.  Why do we want money?  To live in comfort.  Why do we want comfort?  Because comfort makes us happy.  Why do we want happiness?  No answer is needed to this question because happiness is the “final cause,” the end point where all other efforts and ambitions lead.

But by “happiness,” Aristotle wasn’t talking about simple giddy joy.  Rather, he was using a Greek term better translated as “flourishing.”  And if you build into your life the components needed to call it worthy, you can live a happy (in all senses of the word) flourishing life.

Getting back to Israel advocacy, as we argue our cause are we offering listeners anything that might help them achieve the ultimate human desire to be happy and flourish?

Within the pro-Israel community, discussions of strategy and tactics still tend to boil down to a debate over offense vs. defense (or “going on the attack” vs. “positive messaging”).

Advocates for “going on the attack” argue that we cannot perpetually take punches from Israel haters who relentlessly assault and malign the Jewish state and its friends with the most outrageous calumnies, accompanied by outrageous behavior no one should have to tolerate.  This strategy can be boiled down to: Let’s tell the truth about Israel’s enemies (including their bigotry, misogyny and violent intolerance) as aggressively as they tell their lies about us.

In contrast, calls for “positive messaging” highlight how little impact shouts and insults have on crucial undecideds who can be swayed by getting to know Israel and its people, culture, food, and marvelous gifts to the world (in the form of cures for illness and high-tech wonders as well as progressive values).

I’ve written a number of times about pragmatic reasons why each of these approaches is flawed.  A complete treatment of the subject can be found here, but the key problem with an attack strategy is that we as a Jewish pro-Israel community lack the militant goals needed to sustain what would need to be a decades-long, non-stop smearing of our foes.  And if we were really playing by BDS rules, we would have to drag innocent third parties into our fight, without any concern over what harm that might cause others. For better or worse (better, in my opinion) our community lacks the ruthlessness needed to give our opponents a full taste of their own medicine.

Positive campaigning seems to be a way out of this dilemma, but the things that tend to be highlighted in such campaigns (whether it’s High-Tech Nation, Gay Pride parades, hummus recipes or Eurovision Song Contest victories) aren’t much of a shield against an enemy arguing on behalf of freedom, justice and international law (regardless of how much they have drained all three terms of any meaning).

Beyond these practical considerations, the big problem with both the “Offense” and “Positive” positions is that neither offers listeners anything that talks to the human need for meaning and purpose.  I’ll admit to a certain glee when I see Israel haters forced to flee when faced with an argument they can’t counter or their latest BDS failure.  But such emotional satisfaction on the part of the activist is not the same as providing others the satisfaction derived from striving for a flourishing life (meaningful work, loving relationships, etc.).

Similarly, while I’m in awe of the technological prowess of the Israel people and the openness of their society, a strategy based entirely on telling these stories strikes me as a continuation of the Diaspora tradition of endlessly having to prove to the majority culture our worthiness as a minority.

But there is another story the remarkable achievement of Israel taps into, one that can spill over from giving Israelis a life full of purpose to providing the same satisfaction to all who support or just befriend the Jewish state.

Few would argue that the nadir of the last century (if not all centuries) was the Holocaust which exterminated six million men, women and children for the crime of being Jews.  But too few follow this up by seeing the rebirth of the Jewish state just three years after that disaster as one of the most monumental achievements in human history.

Ingathering exiles, making the desert bloom, defeating larger and more powerful enemies again and again and – yes – building a tolerant nation with a growing population and economy are all part of this magnificent story, the story of that much maligned word “Zionism.”

And, with all due respect to those who see us as a “Chosen People,” Israel’s accomplishments have nothing to do with Jews being special in any way.  For if a people at death’s door can achieve such wonders, anyone can do it.  And many have (think about South Korea that built a flourishing state by investing in their own people after national ruin in war).

This dynamic tale, the Zionist story of what a society can achieve if its citizens have purpose and are ready to live for the future as well as the present, is what stirs many of us to genuine love for (not just appreciation of) the Jewish state – more so than the defeat of enemies or the latest Israeli-built microchip or app.

And why shouldn’t it?  For this move turns our pro-Israel advocacy into meaningful work, creates bonds of true friendship between fellow Jews (including happy Israelis) and other Jewish and non-Jewish activists.  It dedicates us to fighting for the truth and enjoying the beauty of one of history’s most inspiring tales.  In short, it provides us many (although by no means all) of the things necessary to live a worthy, flourishing life.

In contrast, the demented behavior of our foes is a testament to where a life dedicated to destruction and ugliness leads.  And for those our opponents demand follow their lead (such as intersectional allies in minority communities, biased journalists and partisan scholars) the price of abandoning reason, ethics and professional standards to join the cause are sources of suffering.  For deep down, even the most corrupt journalist writing about “peaceful marchers” on the Gaza border know they are communicating a lie, just as academics committed to spreading ignorance and bigotry understand they have not just abandoned the quest for truth or beauty but are actively fighting against it.

This explains why Israel’s foes spend so much mental effort blocking out and shouting down reality they want to avoid.  For their lives are dedicated to things that are the opposite of what brings happiness, which is why they are so damned miserable.  In a way, the contrast between flourishing Israel and the basket cases that represent the rest of the Middle East is a macrocosm of what can be achieved at the societal level by embracing the quest for a worthy live vs. battling to live an unworthy one.

So we friends of the Jewish state should offer not slams against our enemies or hummus parties, but steps towards living a meaningful life – a sharp contrast to the slavery and self-loathing on offer from our enemies.   Put in such terms, is there really a contest?

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One Response to The Worthy Life – II

  1. Eli Ignatoff June 5, 2018 at 12:27 pm #

    A terrific essay.

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