Monday, March 15, 2010

Ruling From Afar

Israel has been an independent state since 1948. This 62-year period is the longest in history that the Jewish people have ruled their own country. The combined terms of Kings David and Solomon don’t match that, and Solomon, who consolidated his warlord father’s power, controlled Israel for only 39-years.

After that a succession of conquerors ruled Israel, most often from afar. The most famous were the Persians under Cyrus, the Greeks under Antiochus and the Romans under Titus. The latter resulted in a dispersion of the Jews from Israel and the end of a 1,000-year Jewish kingdom.

Once the idea of resettlement of Israel became a goal, brought about by second-class citizenship in the Russian empire, and the rise of socialism, which arose both independent of and paradoxically part of the same equation, Israel has been essentially ruled by outside powers steering policy.

Both the first and second aliya were as much idealism as escapism. The subjugation of the poverty stricken peasants fostered the taste for revolt; the alternative of starting a new society in an ancient homeland was the escape from tyranny. Nationalism was on the rise. Russian nationalists chose to implement socialist polices in their homeland; some Jews decided to try the socialist experiment in their own land, or at least land that was once historically theirs.

Many of the original settlers were disenfranchised orthodox Jews, today called ‘yotzei em sheala’ (leaving religious life with questions). Like Ben Gurion, the leaders had been raised in ultra-orthodox homes, their lives circumscribed by the rules and regulations set down by the rabbis in the small towns and villages in the Pale of Settlement, just about the only place the Tsar allowed them to live. Poverty was endemic. Work was restricted to agriculture. Oppression was a tight heavy yoke. No wonder many young men and women fled restrictive religious life and sought freedom in socialism and revolution. Those with firm foundations in Judaism sought to transfer this socialism and escapism to a utopian state outlined by the non-religious Viennese journalist Theordore Herzl in his landmark treatise “The Jewish State.”

But starting a country isn’t like starting a dot com company. Money has to be raised. A structure has to be devised. Leaders have to be found. A plan has to be followed. And then there is the question of survival, not only what to eat, but how to defend against hostile neighbors. Defense means weapons and training. Both require funds.

The early Zionists had to be both idealists and materialists. Had to have enough fervor to excite a crowd, keep them excited as they dug in malarial swamps, hacked away at parched earth, built on shifting sands. Yet material enough to realize that schnooring was a necessity. Money had to come from somewhere.

Tzdeka is an age-old Jewish tradition that traces its roots back to the Old Testament. A widow had to be cared for, also orphans, the sick, the needy. Along the way the ethics were refined: a wealthy man who became poor should be supported by the community in the style to which he was accustomed; the Torah scholar must be supported by the community lacking the scholar’s exceptional intellectual skills.

The wealthier Jewish merchants were always solicited for contributions, to the poor and needy, for a synagogue, a mikva, a Torah scroll. When the Jewish State was discussed, the wealthier Jews were brought into the mix. The Rothschilds put up money for farming equipment, a vineyard, financed new towns. An Italian/British financier named Montefiore helped with the foundations of a New Jerusalem. Simple Jews around the world were solicited for their pennies, just as U.S. President Obama appealed to donors for their dollar bills.

The bigger the child, the bigger the problems. The larger the country grew the larger the needs. Pre-state Israel, then named Palestine by the early Zionists, became a receiving nation. Like Jamestown in the British Colony, early agricultural settlements were communal. Most of the Jews lived on handouts from abroad.

Fast-forward a hundred years. The modern state of Israel is the second in hi-tech start-ups in the world with a GNP greater than all the surrounding Arab states combined. A standard of living envied by Israel’s neighbors, who still remain third-world countries. Israel’s intellectual potential was utilized, allowed to flourish, producing one of the economies hardly affected by a near financial collapse around the world.

Even the Arab population living under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza benefited from Israel’s financial success. As bad as the life is in the West Bank according to Arab sources, the standard of living, if work can be found, is still better than in other countries.

Israel is an independent state, capable of supplying other nations with aide, sending rescue teams to earthquake zones like Haiti and Turkey, supplying food and medical equipment to Thailand, helping out when possible.

But rather than join Israel as it developed, the Arab nationalists of the 1930’s, the Palestinian nationalists of the 1960’s, the Khoumanism of the eighties, the Islamic zealousness of the 90’s, all sought to deny Israel and the Jewish population an existence.

Ideally this enmity wouldn’t exist, but idealism is good in theory, until the bombs go off in the busses, the missiles fall into the settlements, throats are slit all the way through the spinal cord in a grisly decapitation.

Co-existence is a two-sided endeavor. Oil, politics, corruption, greed, all mix together to make the Middle East what it is. While the majority of Israelis abhor discrimination in theory, they still practice it, against their own citizens and their neighbors.

But discrimination isn’t limited to the Israelis. When the Black Plague swept Europe in the 14th Century, the Jews were blamed. No necessity in going on with the list of disgusting accusations that resulted in millions of Jews murdered over the centuries. Frequently this enmity is pure jealousy. Christians angered that Jews refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah; Moslems angry at Jews refusing to follow the ways of Islam. Secularists angered that the Jews were religious, businessmen angry that the Jews succeeded where they failed. On and on, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, once, On and On.

To defend herself Israel became an armed camp. From the early Fedayin to the Hamas , Hezbollah, and Achmenijads of today, weapons were needed for defense, sophisticated, expensive weapons. Israel started by purchasing weapons with donations made by wealthy Jews. Then aligning herself with countries seeking to exert political influence in the region.

The best friend Israel ever had is the United States, a country that recognizes Israel as the one stable Democracy in the region. Not a pure democracy, to be sure. Not an American democracy. But the US has supported and supports other countries with even worse offenses than Israel. Some of them were huge mistakes, like the S. Vietnamese. Others, most in fact, took the money and pocketed it. Not Israel.

So when U.S President Obama decides to push Israel into a peace agreement, the pressure starts to resonate with the historical past, reminders of the rulers who controlled the Holy Land from afar, the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Turks, British.

ADL director Abe Foxman has said that the US is pursuing a mistaken policy in the Middle East, one that was always wrong. One that puts Israel as the key to peace.
When U.S. President Obama decides that Israel shouldn’t build up Jerusalem, that decision may easily be construed as interfering in the internal affairs of another country.

When President Obama, under advice by well-meaning liberals and friends of Israel like Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod, push for a peace conference with the Palestinians, some pundits see this as a means to distract the world from the failures of Obama’s ability to make good on his campaign promises.

When all else fails, blame the Jews, is an old tactic, long practiced, usually with disastrous results for the Jews. Analysts wonder if cynical politics isn’t at work at what is called the lowest point in the US-Israel relations in 35-years.

Whatever the reasons, ruling from afar seems not to have gone out of style, no matter what Washington is saying,