Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, (“The Hope”), was written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, an English poet, originally from Bohemia. In 1897, at the first Zionist Congress, Hatikvah was adopted as the anthem of Zionism. And at that time, The Hope of the delegates to the Zionist Congress was for a return to Zion, and the rebirth of the Jewish state.
The text of Hatikvah was edited by some settlers in pre-state Palestine, and in 1948, it was proclaimed as the national anthem of Israel after the modern state of Israel was created. And after 1948, The Hope was for Israel to be a free nation in its own homeland, no longer just to be able to return to Zion.
In 1986, the Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien, published the best single history of the modern state of Israel. The book, called The Siege, chronicled the long, but ultimately successful struggle to create a modern state of Israel in the first half of the last century and the battles the state fought after it won its independence in 1948. O’Brien, as the delegate from Ireland to the United Nations Special Political Committee, found himself seated between Iraq and Israel at meetings when the topic known as ‘the Question of the Palestinian Refugees’ was discussed by this UN Committee in the years 1956-1960.
O’Brien writes that he does not recall ever being asked to pass notes between the two delegates. In fact, his willingness to speak to the Israeli delegate seemed to bear an inverse relationship with the willingness of the Iraqi delegate and other Arab delegates to speak to him and his wife. This was especially true after the Iraqi Revolution of 1958, that led to the hanging of the previous Iraqi delegate who had sat next to O’Brien for two years. In1982, O’Brien began work on The Siege.
In the introduction to the book, which is without question, quite sympathetic to Israel, O’Brien makes clear that he never could understand the optimism expressed by some of those in the diplomatic community or the press that the Israeli-Arab conflict, and more particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could be successfully resolved. And it was because of this, that he titled his book, The Siege, since he believed Israel’s conflict with its enemies would not soon end, and as a result the state would remain besieged by its enemies. O’Brien believed this because he saw no path for real compromise between a state that believed it had a right to exist, and its enemies whose primary goal was for that state to be destroyed.
Since the publication of The Siege, we have had the first intifada, the Gulf War, the Oslo Accords and their promise of a political settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the failure of the second Camp David summit with Clinton, Ehud Barak and Arafat, the second intifada, the Gaza disengagement, the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon , Hamas’ electoral victory, and then their rout of Fatah forces to take over Gaza. A lot of big stories, and occasional hopes of peace, always dashed.
Twenty two years on from the publication of The Siege, and 60 years on from the founding of the modern state of Israel, it is worth asking if anything has really changed. Is Israel’s hope for a future in its own homeland as much at risk today as when the anthem was adopted by the new state in 1948? Can Israel hope for a better future, for peace and normalcy, to be a state like any other? Or is that hope naïve? More specifically, is Israel’s and the Jewish people’s hope for Israel to remain a free nation in its own land, at odds with the reality of the continuing Siege (today — of 300 million Arabs in 20 nations aligned against just 5 million Israeli Jews) as well as the new existential dangers to the state?
I believe that the survival of Israel should matter a lot to American Jews. Just prior to the start of World War 2, the world’s Jewish population stood at over 17 million, close to 1% of the world’s total population. Of that number, over half, more than 9 million, lived in Europe, about a third in America, and but 3%, roughly half a million, in Palestine. Today, after 6 million Jews perished in less than six years in the Holocaust, we have never come close to restoring our numbers. The best current estimate of the world’s Jewish population is a bit over 13 million, with roughly 80% of the total split between Israel and the US, about 40%, or five million plus, in each country.
While Jewish numbers worldwide are down by almost 25% in 65 years, the world’s population has more than tripled. We are now but 1 of every 500 people on the earth, a group smaller than the Dutch. In Europe, barely a million Jews still reside, fewer than 10% of the world’s total Jewish population, and barely a tenth of their former level in Europe. As Diaspora Jewry suffers the twin blows of a high intermarriage rate and a low birthrate, the Jewish numbers in virtually every country outside of Israel continue to decline. The only exceptions recently have been Canada, where Jews have a much lower intermarriage rate and a higher birth rate than in the US, and Germany, which accepted some older Jews from Russia as refugees. In this country, despite immigration of over half a million Jews from Russia, Israel, and other countries in the last 30 years, the Jewish population has declined by over 10% from a peak of 6 million in 1950 to 5.3 million, according to one population survey, or is now just over 6 million, according to another survey.
In an article in The Weekly Standard in 1998, on the occasion of Israel’s 50th anniversary as a modern state, the political columnist Charles Krauthammer laid out the very bleak math on the future of the Jewish Diaspora if present trends continue. Krauthammer’s conclusion was that Jewish survival was now inextricably linked to Israel’s survival. In a very short period of time, most of the world’s Jews will live in Israel. In Israel, the Jewish birthrate averages 2.9 per woman of child bearing age, well over the replacement level of 2.1. Add in immigration into the country from the endangered Jewish communities abroad (today immigration is up from Britain, France, and Argentina), and Israel’s Jewish population has grown in every year.
But as Krauthammer also pointed out, the world’s one large growing Jewish community is enormously vulnerable. More than 60% of Israel’s Jews live in a thin strip of land by the coastal plain, less than 75 miles north to south and 10 miles wide, smaller in size than the Great State of Rhode Island. When Krauthammer wrote his article in 1998, the threat of Iranian nuclear devices directed at this population seemed remote.
But 10 years have passed, and the leadership of Iran has, if anything, become more hysterical about the existence of Israel. Jews have learned, or so I hope, not to disregard the threats of extremist leaders who promise to wipe us out, and if necessary, to sacrifice a portion of their much larger population as an investment to eliminate ours. Each year we are told by some analyst in the know that Iran remains 2 to 4 years away from completing its nuclear program. But unfortunately, Iran can not continue to be 2 to 4 years away each succeeding year. And no , Iran did not give up their nuclear weapons program, as a badly flawed and misinterpreted National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessment argued last fall.
Krauthammer warned that the destruction of Israel, were it to occur either from the calamity of war or a political collapse of the state leading to mass emigration, could be the final nail in the coffin of our people’s history. Two enormous blows — the Holocaust, and then the destruction of Israel — would simply be too much to absorb. The process of intermarriage and assimilation in the Diaspora would accelerate, and Jewish numbers would decline even more rapidly than they have to this point. What Krauthammer asks, would be the argument for Jewish continuity at this point?
The threats to Israel of course go far beyond Iran. Following an inconclusive five week war in the summer, of 2006, Hezbollah, a Shiite terror group, is still dug in on Israel’s northern border, now re-supplied with as many as 20,000 rockets and missiles by Iran, its primary sponsor, and allowed into Lebanon by Syria, which for 25 years has effectively controlled Lebanon’s borders. The presence of an expanded UN force and the Lebanese army in South Lebanon has not in any way interrupted this weapons re-supply. Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in the year 2000 was supposed to have eliminated any Lebanese grievance against Israel. But contrary to international assurances, the Lebanese government made no effort to secure this border, and allowed Hezbollah to establish a beachhead, and then followed the deadly provocations which led to the 2006 war.
The on again, off again peace process with the Palestinians, begun in 1993, has now deteriorated to a new low with the current escalation in fighting between Israel and Hamas. Israel removed all of its settlers and armed forces from Gaza in the summer of 2005. Philanthropists, including Bill and Melinda Gates, provided the money to purchase the Israeli greenhouses in Gaza to turn them over to the Palestinians upon the Israelis’ disengagement from Gaza, so that an enormously productive agricultural business could form the basis of a new Palestinian national economy in the Gaza Strip. Turn over the greenhouses is exactly what the Palestinians did, in the first days after the Israelis left, destroying or removing virtually every usable piece of machinery and equipment, either for scrap, or as a futile angry gesture against the former Israeli occupation.
The Egyptians promised to guard the Rafah crossing between Gaza and the Sinai after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, to prevent smuggling of weapons into Gaza and presumably also to prevent terrorists and their weapons from coming into Sinai from Gaza and continuing the al-Qaeda type attacks that have occurred in Sinai in the past few years and damaged the Egyptian tourist economy.
But this effort has also been a disaster. More weapons have come into Gaza from Egypt in the past two years than in the previous 38 years under Israeli occupation. These weapons include Strellas that can be fired to bring down jets flying into or out of Ben Gurion Airport, if smuggled into the West Bank. When Hamas breached the border with Egypt a few weeks back, the returning fighters brought back into Gaza enormous quantities of weapons, many of them too large to smuggle through the tunnels they have dug under the Philadelphi Road separating Sinai from Gaza.
And finally, just as with the withdrawal from Lebanon, Israel mistakenly assumed that once Gaza was entirely Palestinian, at least the occupation of Gaza was one Palestinian grievance that was eliminated. But since the Israeli withdrawal, the Palestinians have fired over 5000 rockets at Sderot, and Ashkelon, and other towns in the Negev, 600 so far this year in but two months. The rockets now have improved accuracy and longer range, and various terror groups in Gaza are trumpeting that they now have chemical weapons to use against Israel as well.
What other country in the world would behave with the restraint Israel has shown at these daily attacks directed at its citizens? On Wednesday and Thursday last week last, 90 rockets were fired at Israel, a one day record, two of them barely missing a school and a hospital in Ashkelon. On Wednesday, a college student and father of four was killed by a rocket in Sderot. Despite all this, it is Israel which is defamed in the court of international opinion for its alleged collective punishment of Gaza, and “disproportionate” response to the rocket fire, not Hamas for its ongoing war directed at Israeli civilians.
As with so many other failed initiatives in the past, the Israeli disengagement from Gaza , accompanied by elections in the Palestinian territories, were supposed to strengthen the hand of the ostensibly moderate PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Many hoped this would lead to renewed negotiations between the two parties. But Palestinians rejected Abbas and his party and gave a strong mandate to Hamas. And unfortunately, this vote was not merely a protest against Fatah and Arafat’s decades of thievery and corruption, grotesque as this has been for many years. There were real Palestinian reformers on the ballot, who won but 2 seats out of 132 in the Palestinian parliament ,while Hamas won 72. Palestinians knew who they were electing with Hamas and what their agenda was concerning Israel. A vote for Hamas was not a vote for good government and clean streets.
And as for the moderation of Abbas, just this week, and in Arabic of course, the Palestinian leader warned of a new armed resistance against Israel and boasted of how Fatah and the PLO had trained all the other resistance movements in the Muslim world, including Hezbollah.
For a long time, we have heard from the Israeli and American Jewish peace camp that a new generation of Palestinians might be more willing than prior ones to finally achieve peace with Israel. But this is almost certainly backwards. Some of the older Palestinians, tired after 50 years of fighting with nothing to show for it, have seemed more willing to compromise, and the new, much more numerous younger generation of Palestinians are implacable Israel haters. With a birth rate of over 5 children per family in the West Bank and Gaza, and a median Palestinian age of 15 or 16, this next generation is very large. It was steeped in vicious anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda during the recent intifada, and under the wing of Hamas in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, will likely be ready for jihad and war against Israel for as long as their leaders call for it.
As calls continue for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, and end its occupation, completely ignored is the fact that it is only the presence of the Israeli Defense Forces that props up the Abbas government and prevents a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. If that takeover occurred, Hamas’ Qassam rockets could then be fired at commercial aircraft and all of Israel’s major population centers. Normal life in Israel would come to an end.
Alone among the states of the world, Israel is not assured of its continued existence. We do not need to discuss whether New Zealand or Ghana have a right to exist and whether they will continue to exist. Palestinians and their Arab allies have always suspected that at some point, Israelis will tire of the fight, or just as effective from their perspective, they can wean America away from its support for Israel, which will make Israelis realize the precariousness of their situation and their total international isolation. The expectation is that Israel will then, over time, make disastrous political concessions — choosing the false hope of a Palestinian peace partner over the reality of the continuing siege, and these will lead to a weakening of Israel’s strategic capability, and finally the defeat or collapse of the state. How today can Israel negotiate with the Abbas government, when the PA does not control Gaza and has no say over the 40% of the Palestinian population which lives there?
How do you make peace, when 60 years after the 1948 war, over a million Palestinians live in refugee camps, and are told that they will return to their homes in Israel. Does it matter that more than 95% of the so-called refugees have never stepped foot in Israel and are the second, third and fourth generation descendants of original refugees from the 1948 war, most of whom left at the direction of invading Arab armies or sensibly fled a war zone? Israel, on the other hand absorbed a Jewish refugee community driven out of the Arab countries in the years following the 1948 war equivalent in size to the Arab refugees from the ’48 war. None of them, however, remained in refugee camps for long years after they came to Israel. They became Israelis.
The Palestinians have never cared a whit for the human rights or living conditions of their refugees. Rather, the goal was to maintain an angry disenfranchised population, one that would never settle for anything but a full right of return. The hope was to overwhelm Israel with Palestinians, at which point Israeli Jews would see the bleakness of their demographic future and begin to leave. The current Palestinian call for a one state solution (a multi-ethnic Palestine dominated by the Arabs), has an identical goal — and does not require the movement of the Palestinian population to realize its goal.
As I said before, this should all matter a great deal to us. But for a variety of reasons, many in our own community seem to care little about Israel’s fate. We seem to have a whole laundry list of political issues and concerns that matter more. And some in our community have slipped even further, and have joined hands with some of the Arab groups or hard left groups who think Israel should be no more, that a state that is majority Jewish is an anachronism in today’s world.
For others in our community, because Israel is not perfectly behaved, it is an embarrassment, and its misbehavior is judged to be the principal cause of the current conflict. These are Jews who are only comfortable as victims. When Jewish support for Israel wavers in this country, American political support for Israel will weaken too.
Jewish Americans are optimistic people, as are Americans in general. Most of us either came from somewhere else or our parents and grandparents came here from somewhere else to achieve a better life in America. And we have by and large prospered in America. As Herman Wouk said in his stirring novel Inside Outside, America has been the “Golden Medinah” for the Jews who were fortunate enough to get here. But optimism does not have to mean false hope, or softness in the face of threats.
A large part of the worldwide Jewish people remains under siege today, in Israel, 60 years after the Jewish state was restored. Unlike any other state in the world, Israel is the target of boycott campaigns, daily terrorism, and threats from its neighbors, threats that include annihilation. The normalcy that was sought as a nation in 1948 has not yet arrived, much as Israelis go about their daily business and build their lives.
In the two remaining large Jewish communities in the world, the challenges are different. In Israel, the challenge is still an existential one — to deal with enemies who want to destroy the state. Jews in this country must do what we can do to ensure that America continues to support Israel, as it has since the formal rebirth of the state in 1948 and recognition by President Harry Truman ten minutes later.
America remains the one essential nation on the right side of history. The enemies of Israel are always trying to break that link to America. Our job is to see that the bond between the two countries is strengthened. Of late the threat to American support for Israel has ratcheted up.
On the college campuses, the anti-Zionist agitation has been around for many years. Combine left wing faculty propagandists, administrations wedded to multiculturalism and moral relativism, and heavy financing from the Gulf states to create Middle East studies centers, and you have a very toxic brew.
In the last 18 months, the media war has intensified. We have a new bestselling book by former President Jimmy Carter, accusing Israel of being the new South Africa, an apartheid state. Two professors representing elite universities — Stephen Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago — have tendentiously argued that support for Israel is no longer a strategic interest of the United States, and that the American government’s support for Israel is attributable to a powerful Israel Lobby. The authors also falsely argue that the invasion of Iraq was attributable to the work of various “neo-cons” (meaning Jews), who pushed the country to war, in service to Israel, where their allegiance really lies. Whatever your views on the wisdom of the Iraq invasion, do you really think that it took Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith to convince George Bush and Dick Cheney to pull the trigger? But this charge matters for those unhappy with the war, since a scapegoat is provided. Israel and the American Jews who support Israel are to blame for the American dead, the wounded, and the expense of the war. And the authors’ message is clear on a related matter — don’t let them (the Jews) start another war with Iran.
And finally, there was the six hour CNN series with Christianne Amanpour on God’s Holy Warriors, in which a very small number of violent West Bank settlers are blamed for the failure to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and the behavior of this small group is equated with Muslim fanatics who are destabilizing dozens of countries around the world.
Too many Jews shy away from making the case for Israel on their campus or in their community. But there is a case to be made. It requires that you know the facts, and be willing to present them — to those who are persuadable — and to challenge the lies of those who are not. Get involved with AIPAC and CAMERA, and Honest Reporting and MEMRI. Monitor your newspapers and respond to unfair attacks on Israel. Write your own opinion pieces. Work to get pro-Israel speakers invited to college campuses, and make sure there is an audience if they appear. Challenge anti-Israel bias in the media and the classroom. And since you are fortunate enough to live in a swing state in the Presidential election, vote for a candidate who is aware of Israel’s predicament, and supports a strong US Israel relationship, and understands that our nation is part of the same struggle as Israel, against a global and anti-western jihad.
In the decades following the Holocaust , many Jews asked themselves what they and their country could have done differently to have prevented the extermination of six million of our people or to have lessened the toll. We do not want to have to undertake such soul searching again. So I urge you to engage with Israel’s struggle, and to help provide the political, strategic and personal support to insure that they, who are on the front line, are never alone as the siege continues.
(This article is based on a talk given at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Cincinnati, March 1, 2008)
Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker and a Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Policy Center.