Israel: What Happens When a Sovereign Nation Doesn’t Control Its Borders?

The nation of Israel and the Arab occupants of the Gaza Strip have just concluded another of the seemingly endless series of bloody squabbles and cease-fires in a long struggle to settle who rightfully should occupy and control the land.

What is new here? Not much. Gleaned from experience, “cease-fire” merely means time to bury the dead, tend the injured, sweep up the rubble, restock the arsenals, prepare for the next saber-rattling.

Since the 1948 founding of the modern nation state of Israel, this area has been the subject of worldwide debate and years of violent skirmishes between that nation and its neighbors, and between its Jewish citizens and Arab residents. To the Israelis it is their reinstating the nation status of the Jewish ancestral homeland. To the Arabs, it’s seizure and occupation by invading colonists.

Which side is correct? In truth, an intellectually honest appraisal of “Israel the nation” will encompass a horizon of more than three thousand years. The nineteenth century British prime minister, Sir Benjamin Disraeli, reportedly once quipped, responding to anti-Semitic remarks by a member of Parliament, “Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

That would be King Solomon, administrator of Solomonic wisdom, and son of King David, slayer of the giant, Goliath, that murderous chief of Israel’s mortal enemy, the Philistine tribe. This, Jerusalem’s First Temple, was completed circa 957 BCE, well after the Israelites had consolidated the city as the center of their kingdom.

Despite this eastern Mediterranean shore having been the site of political and military turbulence over the centuries, Jews have kept a continuous presence there. Clearly, one should judge with ardent skepticism assertions that today’s Israelis, direct descendants of those Israelites, are somehow “meddlesome trespassers” in a land long inhabited by both Jews and Arabs. Jews are, themselves, no strangers to “seizure and occupation.”

It comes as no surprise that it takes unwavering resolve, cultural cohesion, and preparedness to defend a people’s uninterrupted sovereignty over a parcel of land for three millennia. No group has done it yet, the Israelites being no exception. First was the breakup into the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern counterpart, Judah. Then came centuries under varied foreign interference. There was the Assyrian siege, the Babylonian exile, then limited freedom under Persian emperor Cyrus, to be terminated by the Greeks with their conquest of Jerusalem by Alexander the Great.

The Maccabean Revolt produced about a century of autonomy, ending with the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey. Judah became the Roman province of Judea, ruled for decades by the Herods and local prefects, strictly beholden to the Caesars.

Uneasy existence under Roman rule led to the Jewish population’s Great Revolt of 66 CE. Their crushing defeat came four years later when powerful Roman legions completely destroyed Jerusalem. They razed the Second Temple, the 4th century BC replacement of the original structure Babylon destroyed. All that remains of this magnificent edifice, expanded and refurbished by Herod, is the Western Wall, a site revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Decades later, Emperor Hadrian visited the ruined city and ordered its rebuilding as a classic Roman town, named Aelia Capitolina, and outfitted for worship of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian gods. Its paganization and new restrictions on Jewish practices led in 132 CE to the powerful revolt under a formidable Jewish commander, Simon Bar Kokhba. The enraged Hadrian responded with an overwhelming and murderous scorched earth suppression, with death to hundreds of thousands from battle, fires, starvation, and disease. Myriad Jewish settlements were erased. Though Jews would still dwell in the countryside, they were banished from and forbidden to enter their city, now the pagan Aelia.

The final insult was Hadrian’s cunningly-ordered renaming of Judea to “Palaestina” – today’s Palestine – after the Jews’ ancient enemies, the Philistines.

What wisdom can we gain from this narrative? Unquestionably, it’s “See what happens when a sovereign nation fails to control its borders?” (Food for thought.)

This spurred the Diaspora, from gradual dispersion to exile from the Jewish millennial homeland. Once the possessors of their own nation, their capital city, and its Temple – the nerve center of culture, spirituality, morality, and Jewish identity – they lost them to the arrogant whims of a progression of foreign despots. And it was all the consequence of their determination to declare their independence and right to self-governance.

For eighteen centuries they would be strangers in strange lands, sometimes guardedly accepted, other times forced to flee or else – the Sephardic expulsion from Spain, the pogroms of eastern Europe, the catastrophically demonic “final solution” by Hitler’s Nazis.

But with the piercing thorns of exile have also come sweet fruits. The years of hardship and trial have tempered and sharpened this people, making them hardened, resourceful, and ingenious. They have absorbed essential practices and methods of host cultures, endowing them with commanding mastery in arts, sciences, technology, industry, and social, political, and military leadership.

Through it all, they have kept and cherished their culture and identity. And they have preserved their longing for an end to exile and return to their homeland, often singing in their rituals of faith, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Israel is once again a sovereign nation. But in the cruelest of ironies, with their return – centuries in the making – they are now branded as “invaders” by anti-Semites everywhere. Unwelcome as they were in other lands, they are now smeared as unwelcome in their own.

And more’s the pity. With the rich distillation of intellectual and practical treasures they bring, they turn a long underdeveloped region into a fertile treasure – to the benefit of Jews and Arabs, alike – and are rewarded with ingratitude, jealousy, and resentment.

Today’s prime minister of ascendant Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, epitomizes this rich distillation. Born in Tel Aviv to a family of religious and intellectual leaders, he was educated in Jerusalem and the United States, with college and advanced degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He speaks English with a Philadelphia accent, and knows the American psyche intimately. Veteran of an elite special forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces, he participated in numerous defensive and rescue missions. He lost a brother to Operation Entebbe and suffered his own wounds of war. He knows well the imperative – and the human cost – of a nation fighting for its life.

The advantage, after three millennia of hard experience from busybody outsiders, goes to the Israelis. They have founded an advanced first-world nation with a civil society governed democratically, with rights and liberties guaranteed to all citizens. Their foes, the nihilistic Hamas and its hateful and jealous Iranian sponsors are no match. Nor are the self-righteous, virtue signaling anti-Semites of the world in the same moral class.

It was in Jerusalem’s Temple that a Jew from Nazareth spoke to the Pharisees, regarding the Law and the Prophets: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Amen. The Law of Love is the Law of Peace. Without love, there can be no peace; without peace there is no love.

IMAGE: Diorama of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period at the Israel Museum by Chris Yunker. CC BY 2.0.

(Correction: This article was updated because it was Pompey, not Herod the Great who conquered Judea.)

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