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Jewish Political Thought

The Dilemmas of Morality and Power -- A Last Word

Morality and Power: Contemporary Jewish Views, Conclusion

Daniel J. Elazar

Ours is a topic that can only be talked about today in light of the hard realities of the world in which we live and of the position of the Jews and the Jewish state in that world. Today, we Jews are confronted with the realities of power, its joys and curses.

In some respects we Jews have been reveling in the joys of power, of having power, after such a long period of powerlessness. But now we also have to come to understand some of the curses of power so that we can perhaps understand better what the responsibilities for exercising power are and how difficult these matters can be. It is a lot easier for Jewish intellectuals in America to complain about Irish cops than it is when the Jews are the cops as well. But you cannot have power without having cops. Pio Baroja, the great Spanish anarchist writer of the beginning of the twentieth century, defined the ideal commonwealth from an anarchist point of view as one "without priests, without flies, and without policemen." Unfortunately, we have since learned that one cannot have a world without flies and also have a world without policemen. Somebody has got to make sure that those people who are basically garbage dumpers do not do it. That is at the most minimum level of order, which is why Pio Baroja is now remembered more as a writer than he is as a political thinker.

Jews were in a situation where, figuratively and often literally, we had no policemen for almost 2,000 years. It is not that we were not involved in politics; we were involved in the politics of powerlessness. It was the politics of maneuver, of doing what we could with what little we had, what little we could offer in exchange for a minimum amount of security that enabled us to survive as a people throughout the long years of dispersion.

In many respects, rabbinic Judaism as we came to know it in its normative state was a set of prescriptions for how to live in a world in which we were nearly powerless. The sages did not want a powerless Jewish people, but understood that under the circumstances they needed to teach their people how to reconcile the realities of being in a position of minimal power with their collective needs and how to adjust accordingly. What they did was to teach Jews how to channel their political yearnings into spiritual ones wherever possible. Jews accepted that because they had no choice. While there was a choice, normative Judaism was not as normative as it later became. It struggled with other understandings of how to be Jewish and what being Jewish meant. But at a certain point because there was no other choice it became the normative brand of Judaism, with various variations, but basically that was it.

Approximately 100 years ago, a significant body of Jews founded the Zionist movement on the premise that Jews had had enough of powerlessness; that the Jewish people had to make it their business to get back into a situation where, as a polity, they could exercise normal political power in the normal world. In other words, they argued that the Jewish people should seek a state of its own, one which, whatever special qualities it would have (and there were a wide range of Zionist visions), would be normal, with both the trappings and the responsibilities of sovereignty, with an army, with a police force.

After the Six-Day War, Israel passed from having attained a politics of power to a situation which Jews began, the truth be told, to get a little drunk on power, both in Israel and in the diaspora. Suddenly Jews began discussing Jewish politics in new terms. While acknowledging that the exercise of power is a heavy responsibility, basically Jews liked the new situation very much. We liked being the strong guys on the block for a change. that is must understandable. When all is said and done, it is still better to be the strong guy on the block than the weak guy, even though strength carries with it responsibilities that bring their own problems. That is where we were for the past twenty years.

Now in the last few years Jews have begun to confront the other side of power. It is most blatant, of course, in relation to Israel, but it is not only in relation to Israel. We can see other facets of it, even in relation to diaspora communities, particularly in the United States and France. We are learning that power is like fire. Power is amoral. It is energy, it is force. It can be used for good; it can be used for ill. It can be well-controlled; it can be poorly controlled. It can be well-directed; it can be channeled; if not properly controlled or channeled, it can be abused.

In my opinion, the Jewish people made the right decision 100 years ago when we decided to go back to seek a politics of power, to seek the restoration of our own state that would play a role in the world. We need power, but we must learn how to control and live with it.

Quite frankly, I have very little patience with those who accuse Israel of abandoning Jewish values for reasons of political and military necessity. Statehood is a serious business and the State of Israel is not a summer camp for diaspora Jews. What are "Jewish values" held in the abstract and used to lecture others as to how to behave in dealing with the real difficulties of the human condition? It is easy to preach "Jewish values" when one does not have to pay the price.

The real question is: how do Jews preserve, foster and apply Jewish values when they must take care of themselves. When I hear my son, a medic in the Israeli tank corps who was serving in Samaria in February 1988, tell us how he saved the life of an Arab youth who wounded him in the leg and was subsequently shot in self-protection by one of my son's comrades, to me that says more about Jewish values than any number of articles on the New York Times Op-Ed page. In that connection, survival is also a Jewish value and it ill behooves the generation that had the good fortune to survive or not be caught up in the Holocaust to forget that.

That does not mean that there cannot be disagreements with regard to Israel's political and military policies. Israelis, like all humans, make mistakes and need to reassess matters from time to time. But there is a difference between recognizing human error and trying to correct it, and bemoaning the loss of Jewish values which seem to somehow be best preserved in a hothouse by people who do not bear the responsibility for the lives and security of others. I happen to believe that there have been few governments in history which have been so concerned with the moral aspects of their exercise of political and military power -- in Israel's case, for clearly Jewish reasons, whether traditionally religious or not.

The Zionist pioneers reluctantly pursued statehood to begin with. They were reluctant to establish an army. (Indeed, the choice of the name Israel Defense Forces was designed to reflect the Zionist commitment not to have any army.) The IDF that developed spends extraordinary amounts of time -- appropriately -- in trying to teach its soldiers Jewish values and their practical connections with the IDF mission. We have seen some of the results o that in the IDF's recoiling from the excesses that developed out of the Arab outbreaks, a situation which by its very nature provokes excesses.

There are some who are far less attuned to these moral dilemmas than others. There always are such in every society. And there are times when even those who are attuned will not live up to their own moral commitments. But overall, in my opinion, Israel continues to have an excellent record in this regard, one that has cost any number of Israeli lives over the years.

Despite media reports to the contrary, Israel has no lost or basically changed its sense of purpose or vision. ON the most immediate level, Israel is still a place where Jews can find a secure home, where every Jew lives by right and not by sufferance, and where Jews can develop as a people and not simply as individuals. On a second level, Israel remains committed to the principle that it should be the place where the dominant culture is Jewish and where authentic Jewish cultural development -- good, bad, or indifferent -- is part of the life of everybody in the state (including the non-Jews), and not merely small groups of intellectuals or ultra-Orthodox. At the highest level, despite all the difficulties, Israel is still pursuing the Jewish dream of striving to become a good society, even as it strives to become a normal one.

It is this combination that sometimes goes unnoticed among Israel's critics. To be a society of saints requires that others be normal and do the saints' dirty work for them. That is the approach of those who set themselves in ivory towers, of Essenes, or Christian utopian communities. We Jews have had enough of that kind of sainthood. For us it has cost too much.

It is true that there is a tension in Zionism between the search for normality, to be like all the nations, and the effort to build a special Jewishly-informed polity -- a light unto the nations. Both sides to that tension have their merits. Therefore the only way to resolve the tension between them is to try to achieve a synthesis of both, which is what Israel has been consciously or unconsciously trying to do. the big change that has taken place in the last forty years is that we are wiser now and understand that this is a more difficult task than the Zionist visionaries and those of us who followed them originally thought -- in part because of the hostile environment in which Israel finds itself, in part because of the cultural baggage which we brought from the Galut, in part because of elements in the Jewish character which we conveniently could ignore as long as we were a persecuted minority and could blame them on others, and in part because of human nature in general. If the task is much harder than we thought, this only makes the challenge that much greater.

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