Vol. 45: Dina’s choice
Understanding (if not condoning) the Israeli mindset
When I last visited Israel, in the spring of 1975, I was 32 and Israel was just turning 27. In its brief existence, this infant country had already fought four wars of survival against its surrounding neighbors: the 1948 War of Independence, the Suez War of 1956, the Six-Day War of 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. On this occasion, I looked up a friend of my parents whose own survival story seemed to me equally remarkable.
Dina, as I will call her, had been born in Vienna in 1927 to an upper-middle class Jewish family. When she was 11, her seemingly secure bourgeois life was suddenly shattered when Hitler annexed Austria and her family was forced to flee their country. Over the next ten years they became, successively, stateless fugitives, concentration camp inmates, Holocaust victims, and Displaced Persons. When the war finally ended in 1945, 18-year-old Dina made her way to what was then Palestine. When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, she was 21.
At this point, remarkably, Dina had resumed the urbane and sophisticated life she had known as a girl in Vienna. But her personal reinvention wasn’t unique when you think about it. By defining itself as a haven for victims of oppression, Israel endowed itself with a sense of purpose rarely seen elsewhere. And over the next generation, Israel welcomed “refuseniks” who brought their own traumatic memories of anti-Jewish discrimination in the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Immigrants as optimists
Donald Trump notwithstanding, economists generally agree that immigrants— whether fleeing from tyranny or merely seeking a better life— tend to be optimists, and consequently they become agents of positive change wherever they settle. So, imagine a nation peopled with Jewish immigrants, heirs to a 2,000-year-old history of surviving by one’s wits, who suddenly find themselves in a homeland where, relatively speaking, they can do whatever they please. And imagine that these millions of educated and resourceful Jewish immigrants have all been concentrated within an area about the size of New Jersey. This is a land where (unlike the U.S.), you don’t need to move 3,000 miles to join or create a high-tech startup, because this whole compact country is its own Silicon Valley.
For all these reasons, such a unique nation became, in effect, an incubator for change. Israeli Jews “made the desert bloom,” as their leaders never tired of pointing out. They also created a world-class ecosystem for high-tech entrepreneurs, especially in fields like telecommunications, desalination, irrigation, and agriculture.
Unfortunately, the downside of this Jewish/immigrant synergy (there’s always a downside, isn’t there?) is a tribal mindset that dehumanizes those outside the tribe. By viewing outsiders with suspicion if not animosity, this mentality rejects one of the basic building blocks of civilization: the recognition of our common humanity with our adversaries.
High hopes, traumatic memories
No doubt Dina was imbued with all the energy and hopefulness of citizenship in this dynamic yet vulnerable new land. When I caught up with her in 1975, she was an elegant and cultured woman of 48, living comfortably as the wife of a prominent Jerusalem physician. As the two of us sat on her spacious balcony overlooking Jerusalem’s fabled seven hills, our conversation inevitably turned to Israel’s place in the world. I mentioned what struck me as an obvious conundrum: Israel labeled itself a democracy, yet it officially and unofficially relegated its Arab residents to second-class status.
At this, Dina sighed. “It’s true we haven’t treated the Arabs well,” she said. “But after all I’ve been through, if I have to choose between being a persecutor and being a victim, I’ll be a persecutor.”
My initial gut instinct— and probably yours— was to reply: This is not an either/or choice. I could have quoted Clarence Darrow: “You cannot protect your liberties in this world unless you protect my liberties. You cannot be free unless I am free.” I could have paraphrased the Hebrew sage Hillel the Elder: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” As an American unscarred by the traumas of war, I could have cited endless theories about the benefits of extending equal justice to all. But of course, I said nothing. Dina’s lived experience trumped any platitudes I might cite.
And however remarkable Dina’s story may have seemed to me, at that point virtually the entire Jewish population of Israel consisted of Holocaust survivors like Dina— Jews whose best liberal instincts were often understandably eclipsed by traumatic memories.
Thumbing through the Talmud
When Israel retaliated against Hamas for the terrorist atrocities of October 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained that Israel must protect itself against its enemies. He failed to explain how bombing civilians in Gaza will enhance Israel’s long-term security. Nor did he answer what strikes me as the critical question: Even if Israel succeeds in eliminating Hamas altogether, what then?
Nothing in the Torah— or any religion, for that matter— advocates armed retribution as a long-range solution to human relations. But Netanyahu does understand the emotional roots of his constituents’ thinking: When you’re attacked, fight back. Even if retaliation isn’t in your best long-range interest, it will make you feel good, however briefly.
I couldn’t argue with Dina on that day back in 1975. After everything she’d been through, who was I to disagree? And after all the Israelis have been through, who are the rest of us to disagree? But after all the Palestinians have been through…. Do you get my drift?
Like many another Jew, last week found me frantically thumbing through my Talmud for an answer to this month’s pressing theological question: What’s the morally optimal ratio when it comes to swapping prisoners for hostages? The sages of the Mishnah, I’m sorry to say, were clueless about this subject. (As Mel Brooks put it in his “2,000-Year-Old Man” act, “We were so stupid. We didn’t even know who was fellas and who was ladies.”) But our enlightened modern age possesses the tools— psychological and technological— for achieving lasting peace and tranquility. Just ask ChatGPT, for goodness’ sake. But who wants tranquility when you’ve got scores to settle?
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