The Hope and the Siege

Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, ("The Hope"), was written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, an English poet, originally from Bohemia.  Or it may have been first written in 1878 by Imber, a Galician, while living in the Ukraine. With google searches, one can only hope to learn the truth about something like this.   In any case, it was at first a nine stanza poem called Tikvatenu. 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.  By then, Hatikvah had been shortened to the first stanza of the original poem, and its chorus. 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. O'Brien later became editor of the London Observer in 1978, and in 1982 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.

We are twenty years past 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, Barak and Arafat, the second intifada, the Gaza disengagement, and most recently, Hamas' electoral victory in January of this year.  A lot of big stories, and occasional hopes of peace, always dashed.

Twenty years on from the publication of The Siege, and 58 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 nae? More specifically, today, 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, and the new 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% 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 about 13 million, with roughly 80% of the total split between Israel and the US, about 40%, or a little over five million, 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 total, 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 close to a million Jews from Russia, Israel, and other countries in the last 50 years, the Jewish population has declined by over 10% from a peak of 6 million.

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 2.6 per woman of child bearing age, well over the replacement level of 2.1. Add in immigation into the country from the declining Jewish communities abroad, 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 8 years have passed, and the leadership of Iran has, if anything, become more hysterical about the existence of Israel. Jews have learned , hopefully, 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 be 2 to 4 years away each succeeding year.

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 in the diaspora would accelerate, and Jewish numbers would decline even more rapidly than they have already. What Krauthammer asks, would be the argument for Jewish continuity at this point?

The threats to Israel of course go far beyond Iran. Hizbollah, a Shiite terrorist group, is implanted on Israel's northern border, with 15,000 rockets and missiles supplied by Iran, its primary sponsor, and allowed into Lebanon by Syria, which for 25 years has effectively controlled Lebanon's borders. 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 Hizbollah to establish a beachhead.

The on—again, off—again peace process with the Palestinians, begun in 1993, has now deteriorated to a new low. Israel removed all of its settlers and armed forces from Gaza in the summer of 2005.  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 attacks that have occurred in  Sinai  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 11 months 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.

And finally, just as with the withdrawal from Lebanon, Israel mistakenly assumed that since Gaza was now entirely Palestinian, at least the occupation of Gaza was one Palestinian grievance that was eliminated. But since the Israeli withdrawal, the Palestinians have fired well over 500 rockets at Sderot, and Ashkelon, and other towns in the Negev, almost two dozen in one day this week alone. 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.  And of course we have the present tension which began after the Palestinians tunneled under the border into Israel, killed two IDF soldiers, and kidnapped a third.

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.

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 6 children per family in the West Bank, and almost 8 in 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 much of 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.

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. 

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.  You can read these Jews as they throw in the towel on Israel in the New York Review of  Books, or listen to them on many college campuses, including Chicago's own DePaul University. 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, 58 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. We need to engage with Israel's struggle, and help provide the political, strategic and personal support to insure that they are never alone.

This article is based on a sermon delivered at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Il, July 8, 2006

Richard Baehr is the chief political correspondent of the American Thinker.