Why Israel Has Become A Not-Quite Tragic Hero

"The executioner's face," sang Bob Dylan, "is always well-hidden."  In the particular case of Israel, the sources of existential danger have instead always been obvious.  Nonetheless, from 1948 until the present, virtually all of the nation's prime ministers, facing periodic wars for survival, have steadfastly preferred assorted forms of collective denial.  In consequence, rather than accept the plainly exterminatory intent of determined enemy states and terrorist organizations, these leaders have opted for territorial dismemberment, and incremental surrender to openly-barbarous "partners for peace."

To be sure, this is not the whole story.  During its very short contemporary life, the state of Israel has accomplished extraordinary feats in science, medicine, agriculture, education, and industry.  Its military institutions, far exceeding all reasonable expectations, have fought, endlessly and heroically, to avoid any new forms of post-Holocaust genocide.

Still, almost from the beginning, the indispensable Israeli fight has not been premised on what should have remained as an unequivocal central truth of the now-reconstituted Jewish commonwealth.  All of the disputed lands controlled by Israel have an incontestable Israeli legal title.  All diplomatic negotiations resting upon alternative philosophic or jurisprudential premises must, of necessity, be misconceived.

Had Israel fixedly sustained its own birthright narrative of Jewish sovereignty, without submitting to periodic and enervating forfeitures of both land and dignity, its future, although problematic, would at least have been tragic.  But by choosing instead to fight in ways that ultimately transformed its stunning victories on the battlefield to abject surrenders at the conference table, this future may ultimately be written as farce.

In true life, as well as in literature and poetry, the tragic hero is always an object of veneration, not a pitiable creature of humiliation.  From Aristotle to Shakespeare to Camus, tragedy always reveals the very best in human understanding and purposeful action.  Aware that whole nations, like the individual human beings who compose them, are never forever, the truly tragic hero nevertheless does everything possible to simply stay alive.

For Israel, and also for every other imperiled nation on earth, the only alternative to tragic heroism is humiliating pathos.  By their incessant unwillingness to decline any semblance of a Palestinian state as intolerable (because acceptance of "Palestine" in any form would be ruthlessly carved out of the living body of Israel), Israel's leaders have created a genuinely schizophrenic Jewish reality in the "new" Middle East.  This is a Jewish state that is, simultaneously, unimaginably successful and incomparably vulnerable.  Not surprisingly, over time, the result will be an increasingly palpable national sense of madness.

Perhaps, more than any other region on earth, the Jihadi Middle East and North Africa is "governed"  by unreason.  Oddly, this very reasonable observation is reinforced rather than contradicted by the prevailing patterns of  "democratic revolution" across the area.  While the pundits, politicos, and journalists optimistically expect that the fall of area-tyrants will be a good thing, from the informed Israeli standpoint, exactly the opposite must be observed.  Already, especially in Egypt, the hand of Jihadi elements is being strengthened widely.  In non-Arab Iran, which will soon become a nuclear power because neither Israel nor the United States had effectively stood in its way, preparations are well underway to further assist Sunni Hamas allies in Gaza, and to further prepare Shiite Hezb'allah surrogates in Lebanon, both for an Islamic victory in the inevitable next (religious) war.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 put an end to the Thirty Years War, the last of  the great European religious wars sparked by the Reformation.  In the Middle East and North Africa, however, we may still only be at the start of the next great religious wars.  If fought with biological and/or even nuclear weapons, such conflicts may rage until every flower of culture is trampled, and until all things human are leveled in a vast chaos.  From such wholly plausible wars, there may be neither escape, nor sanctuary.

Credo quia absurdum.  "I believe because it is absurd."  Israel, very desperately, wants to discover some discernible correctness and clarity in the persistently squalid theatre of regional world politics, but the polite diplomatic meanings with which it is pressed to coexist seethe menacingly, flush with grotesque allusions, and together with dangerously hidden meanings.  

Mythology can help Israel to better understand its options.  In ancient myth, as recounted by Albert Camus, the Greek gods had condemned Sisyphus to roll a great rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would unceasingly fall back of its own weight.  By imposing this terrible judgment, the Greek gods had imposed the dreadful punishment of interminable labor.  But, at the very same time, they had also revealed something far more difficult to understand:

Even useless labor need not be meaningless.  Such labor, they knew, could also be heroic.

Israel now faces the prospectively endless task of pushing a massive weight up the "mountain."  Always.  And, almost for certain, the great rock will always roll right back down to its point of origin.

There is, it would appear, no real chance that the rock will ever remain perched, fixed, securely, at the summit.  Why, then, should Israel even bother to push on?

For Israel, long-suffering and always in mortal danger, there is no easy solution to its essential security problem.  In the fashion of Sisyphus, the Jewish State must now accept the inconceivably heavy burden of a possible suffering without end.  There is, of course, always hope, but, for now at least, the only true choice seems to be to continue pushing upward with no apparent relief, or to sigh deeply, to lie prostrate, and to surrender (that is, to follow the "peace process" to "Palestine").

What sort of sorrowful imagery is this?  Can anyone really be shocked that, for the beleaguered people of Israel, a Sisyphean fate must lie beyond their ordinary powers of imagination?  Expectedly, the Israelis still search for ordinary diplomatic solutions.  They look, commonly, into politics, into personalities, into leaders, into tangible policies.  They seek remedies, answers, peace settlements, cartography, disengagements and realignments.  They examine, sometimes meticulously, the whole package of ordinary prospects that would allegedly make Israel more "normal," and hence more "safe."

But safety will never come to Israel through banality.  Israel is not "normal," nor can it be made normal.  For reasons that are bound to be hotly debated and argued for centuries, Israel is unique.  To deny this uniqueness, and to try to figure out ways in which the great tormenting stone might finally stay on the top of the mountain forever, is to seek very superficial answers to extraordinary questions.  Above all, it is to misunderstand Israel's special place in the world, and to chain All Israel to what the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard generically called the "sickness unto death."

The worst fate for Israel is not "merely" to have to endure one war after another, or even to keep rolling the rock up the mountain.  Rather, it is to try to buy its way free from its own irresistible destiny and torment by falsifying itself.

For each individual on earth, one's personal existence is wholly improbable.  Consider only that the number of possible combinations for the human DNA molecule is ten to the 2,400,000,000th power.  This means that the odds of any one of us being "me" are one in ten to the 2,400,000,000th power.

These are not betting odds.

One can readily imagine that these not very promising numbers apply as well to nation-states in world politics.  Still, when we speak of Israel, the singular Jewish state, we must enter into an entirely different kind of calculation.  In essence, Israel's existence is both more and less probable than the life of any single individual.  The apparent paradox lies in Israel's special origins, and also in its absolute uniqueness.

Let us return to the Greek myth.  We recall that Sisyphus is an heroic and tragic figure in Greek mythology.  This is because he labored valiantly in spite of the apparent futility of his efforts.

Today, Israel's leadership, continuing to more or less disregard the nation's special history, still acts in ways that are neither tragic nor heroic.  Unwilling to accept the almost certain future of protracted war and terror, one deluded prime minister after another has sought to deny Israel's  special situation in the world.  Hence, he or she has always been ready to embrace, unwittingly, then-currently-fashionable codifications of collective suicide.

In Washington, President Barack Obama is consciously shaping these particular codifications, not with any ill will, to be sure, but rather with all of the usual diplomatic substitutions of rhetoric for authentic intellectual understanding.

Human freedom is an ongoing theme in Judaism, but this sacred freedom can never countenance a "right" of collective disintegration.  Individually and nationally, there is always a binding Jewish obligation to choose life.  Faced with the "blessing and the curse," both the solitary Jew, and the ingathered Jewish state, must always come down in favor of the former.

Today, Israel, after Ariel Sharon's "disengagement," Ehud Olmert's "realignment," and Benjamin Netanyahu's hopes for "Palestinian demilitarization," awaits a tragic fate.  Yet, the dramatic genre portraying this destiny can better be described as "pathos."  Resembling the stark and minimalist poetics of Samuel Beckett, the entire "play" is profoundly meaningful, but it is also regrettable and preposterous.

True tragedy contains calamity, but it must also reveal greatness in trying to overcome misfortune.

For the most part, Jews have always accepted the obligation to ward off disaster as best they can.

For the most part, Jews generally do understand that we humans have "free will."  Saadia Gaon included freedom of the will among the most central teachings of Judaism, and Maimonides affirmed that all human beings must stand alone in the world "to know what is good and what is evil, with none to prevent him from either doing good or evil."

For Israel, free will must always be oriented toward life, to the blessing, not to the curse.  Israel's binding charge must always be to strive in the obligatory direction of individual and collective self-preservation, by using intelligence, and by exercising disciplined acts of national will.  In those circumstances where such striving would still be consciously rejected, the outcome, however catastrophic, can never rise to the dignifying level of tragedy.

The ancient vision of authentically "High Tragedy" has its origins in Fifth Century BCE Athens.  Here, there is always clarity on one overriding point: The victim is one whom "the gods kill for their sport, as wanton boys do flies."  This wantonness, this caprice, is precisely what makes tragedy unendurable.

With "disengagement," with "realignment," with "Palestinian demilitarization," with both Oslo and the Road Map, Israel's corollary misfortunes remain largely self-inflicted.  The continuing drama of a Middle East Peace Process is, at best, a surreal page torn from Ionesco, or even from Kafka.  Here, there is nary a hint of tragedy; not even a satisfyingly cathartic element that might have been drawn from Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides.  At worst, and this is the more plausible characterization, Israel's unhappy fate has been ripped directly from the utterly demeaning pages of irony and farce.

Under former Prime Minister Olmert, Israel acted and lived a peculiarly portentous form of comedy, an unabashedly high-budget low drama that relied on concocted contrivances of plot, and on humiliatingly low levels of credibility.  At the end, in Gaza, Olmert acted correctly with Operation Cast Lead, but it was a limited tactical rather than strategic reaction, and was intended only to reverse his own earlier and by then, irremediable errors.

In farce, matters generally end badly but for a last-minute rescue called deus ex machina.  But no "god in the machine" will rescue Israel.  To recall a more specifically Jewish commentary, one may consult the words of Rabbi Yania: "A man should never put himself in a place of danger, and say that a miracle will save him, lest there be no miracle[.]" (Talmud, Sota 32a and Codes; Yoreh De'ah 116).  Of course, it may be that Israel's prime ministers never did actually expect a miracle, but then, we must also inquire, upon what precise manner of reasoning did so many Israeli leaders base their flagrantly vacant policies of land for nothing?

In Judaism, there can never be any justification for deliberate self-endangerment.  In classical Greek tragedy, there can never be any deus ex machina.  In true tragedy, the human spirit remains noble in the face of an inescapable death, but if there is anything at all tragic about Israel's self-propelled descent, it lies only in the original Greek meaning of the word: "goat song."  For Israelis, this particular theatrical resemblance to paganism should be disturbingly hideous, as it comes from the dithyrambs sung by goatskin-clad worshipers of Dionysus.

Aristotle understood, in his Poetics, that true tragedy must always elicit pity and fear, but not pathos.  Pathos is, always, unheroic suffering.  The great Greek philosopher had identified tragedy with "good" characters, who suffer because they commit some grave error (hamartia) unknowingly.

Whether a policy is named Oslo or Road Map or some altogether new name about to be contrived in Washington or Jerusalem, makes no difference.  The sordid promise of peace with a persistently genocidal adversary is always a delusion.  To be sure, protracted war and terror hardly seem a tolerable or enviable policy outcome, but even this difficult fate remains better for Israel than the undiminished Arab/Islamist plan for a second Final Solution.  Protracted war and terror are very bad options for Israel, but, tragically, they are certainly better than death.

The futile search for ordinary solutions by the people of Israel should never be dismissed by non-Israelis with anger, disdain, or self-righteousness.  After all, one can hardly blame the citizens of Israel for denying such terrible and unjust portents.  Such denial is manifestly human.

Let us be candid.  We live in a world where the impassioned writings of Dostoyevsky ring much truer than the ethereal dialogues of Plato, a world wherein unreason "normally" trumps rationality, and where survival is sometimes dependent upon accepting what is evidently absurd.  No change of power in Washington can ever change any of this, especially where abundant attachments to "diplomacy" are routinely uttered without a scintilla of serious thought.

Sisyphus understood that his rock would never stay put at the summit of the mountain.  He labored nonetheless.  He did not surrender.

Like Sisyphus, Israel must learn to understand that its own "rock," the agonizingly heavy stone of national security and international normalcy, may never stay put at the summit.  Yet, still, it must continue to push, upwards.  It must continue to struggle against the ponderous weight, if for no other reason than simply to continue.

For Israel, true heroism, and perhaps even the fulfillment of its unique mission among the nations, now lies in recognizing something lying beyond all normal understanding.  Endless pain and insecurity are not necessarily unbearable, and must sometimes be borne with faith and equanimity.  Failing such a tragic awareness, the government of Israel will continue to grasp at illusory peace prospects, and thus to welcome repeatedly false dawns.

Israel is not Sisyphus, nor is there any reason to believe that Israel must necessarily endure altogether without experiencing many personal and collective satisfactions.  Even aware that its titanic struggle toward the recurring summits may lack a definable moment of "success," that these summits may never be truly "scaled," the Jewish State can still learn that the struggle itself carries incomparable benefits.  Even a seemingly absurd struggle can have its notable accomplishments, its unheralded blessings, and its more or less palpable rewards. 

Newly tolerant of ambiguity, and consciously surviving without any "normal" hopes of completion and clarity, the people of Israel could achieve both spiritual and survival benefits in their personal and collective lives.  Their now enlarged lucidity could immunize them from the demeaning, and potentially lethal, lures of more "ordinary" nations.

Israel's feverish search for a solution has led it down a continuing path of despair, and even toward a genuine "sickness unto death."  For Israel, all basic truth must sometimes emerge from paradox.  To survive into the future, Israel's only real choice will be to keep rolling the rock upwards. 

Unlike Sisyphus, Israel and its people can still enjoy great satisfactions along the way, but, like Sisyphus, all of Israel must also recognize that its individual and collective life will require a tragic and unending struggle.

There is, finally, sincere consolation in all of this.  True tragedy does not denigrate; it exalts.

Louis René Beres, Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue,  was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971).  He is the author of ten major books on international relations and international law.  Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, one of his earlier books, Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983), offered a different strategic adaptation from the same Greek myth.  In Israel, Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel.
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