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Israel’s Heroism of Survival

Israeli soldiers stand at attention at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem

Photo Credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90

Israel’s military victories were never the results of an inspired military or political leadership. While the anniversary of the Six-Day War has led to an outpouring of adoration for the usual suspects: the khaki-garbed generals striding victoriously through a carefully cropped photo, even if one of them had come down with a nervous breakdown not long before. Israeli generals have never been geniuses, the best-known ones have carried their own press releases into battle, and have walked a fine line between daring and criminal incompetence. Their victories were won for them by the men in the field, who survived to carry out their operations.

If Israeli generals are overrated, then Israeli governments are far worse, and, considering the number of generals who have played a role in politics, the confluence of the two conditions is not surprising. Israeli governments have, for the most part, been timid, cowardly and incompetent (Which is to say that they were, for the most part, a lot like the governments of the rest of the West).

The victories of the Six-Day War have for the most part been traded away by a succession of Prime Ministers in exchange for the promise of a peace that has yet to materialize. It is a miracle, nearly as great a miracle as the victory itself, that they were not actually traded away a week afterward.

The only political obstacle to the destruction of Israel by its politicians, has been the unwillingness of its enemies to accept its surrender. Western powers have repeatedly badgered Israeli leaders into giving up the store, only for Muslim leaders to turn up their noses and demand everything.

Israel’s greatest strategic defeat did not happen in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, a war in which Israeli leaders, in conjunction with pressure from Washington D.C., crippled the military so badly that Israel was nearly destroyed. It happened in 1991, when Washington D.C. and Israeli Labor politicians finally talked Yasser Arafat into accepting Israel’s surrender, while lying to the Israeli people about the terms of that surrender.

The Israeli fighting man was able to brave the largest tank battles in history, but his leaders could not manage to hang on to the country’s national rights after the dead were buried and the wounded went home. No sooner do Israeli soldiers win a victory than their leaders rush to snatch it away from them and give it back, out of fear of what the world will think.

If Israel has a vital and active settlement movement, it is because Israelis know that their own leaders cannot be counted on to secure their rights. A Muslim in Israel has the same special privileges that a Muslim in Europe or a Muslim in America has. Any claim he makes is automatically treated as fact by the media, academia and the judiciary.

That is the situation locally in every country, and it is the situation globally. It is the situation in Israel, a place that the media lambasts as a monster grinding up and chewing Muslim babies, but where a Muslim can walk into court, with a handful of papers that would not stand up to serious scrutiny in any other jurisdiction, and lay claim to the land of a small village, which holds legal title and full papers to it. And the court will refuse to accept any alternative, but to speedily evict every man, woman and child from that land, while the conservative government will threaten to fire any minister that takes legislative action against that court’s decision.

It would be nice to think that this is some horrid exception, but it’s the usual course of affairs in a country where a conservative government is one that occasionally talks about taking action on Iran and prides itself on boldly laying claim to its own capital. Past Israeli governments have not been better. Many have been even worse. Their victories were not won by them; they were won for them. They were achieved through bold actions taken out of desperation, by farmers and workers with guns facing impossible tasks and more impossible odds.

All this makes the Six-Day War that much more impressive and awe-inspiring. An act of God done through the hands of fighting men in a country facing annihilation. And it is also a reminder that Israel’s survival does not depend on its governments. If past governments had been able to fully enact their peace agendas, there likely would be no Israel. Can such governments celebrate the Six-Day War? Do they have any right to take credit for what they have given away and what they intend to give away?

Much as the Jewish People have been preserved by God and Anti-Semitism, Israel has been preserved by God and the irrational hatred of its Muslim neighbors. And between these poles is where the ordinary heroism of its people emerges. This is not the heroism of brazen trumpets and endless victory parades– but the heroism of survival.

Men glorify war in order to deny the mortality of the killing fields. But day-to-day survival is a much less glorious thing. It is not inspiring in the same overtly transcendent way. It is merely life. It is the routine of surviving from one battle to the next, one generation to the next, moving slowly toward the future, reciting Kaddish for the dead, and then going into the earth, while your children go on.

The Jewish people are survivors, not only of one Holocaust, but of many great and small. We have walked the road from a burning Jerusalem to Europe and back out of a burning Europe to Jerusalem in a mere few thousand years. That journey is the heroism of survival. It is the only heroism that matters in the long run, because it is the only kind that sustains itself.

Israelis have struggled with accepting that their heroism will not be fundamentally different than that of the Galut, the heroism of the exile, the heroism of survival. That the difference between their past and present is not fundamental, but is their ability to fight and a land to fight for. It is a transcendent difference, but not one that transforms the fundamental conditions of life for the Jewish People.

The Six-Day War was a glorious victory that came out of the ordinary necessity of survival, and it was followed by the ordinary necessity of survival. Israel after the Six Day War was bigger and more defensible, but it was not a fundamentally different place. Israel after the Oslo Accords is not a different place either; it is just weaker, more endangered and less defensible. Neither war nor peace can provide transcendence, they only change the parameters of survival.

No matter how many songs are sung about sticking flowers in a barrel and no matter how many doves of peace are released over Kikar Rabin, there is no fundamental transcendence to be found in a peace treaty. Especially a treaty that has been proven to be worthless by Israeli governments from every side of the spectrum. There is no hope to be found in change, only in survival.

Israel did not win the Six Day War because its generals were brilliant. It won it because it had no choice. The alternative was death. The mass death of millions. If Israel breaks the Iranian nuclear program, it will be for the same reason, because it has no choice.

‘Ein Breira’ is in some ways the only Israeli doctrine that matters. It says that we must survive because the only alternative, the ‘Breira’ of the left, is death. Ein Breira means that there is a clear choice between survival and destruction. Life and death. The left has repeatedly chosen death, for itself and for others. It would be nice to say that the right has chosen life, but most often it was the left and the right which found survival thrust on it through a single stark choice, such as the one that they faced in the Six Day War. Ein Breira. Fight or die.

“Against your will you were born,” the Sayings of the Fathers teaches, “against your will you live, against your will you die and against your will you are destined to give a judgement and accounting before the king, king of all kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

The sentiments are fatalistic, and yet the modern State of Israel was born against the will of its leaders, who would have signed an accord that would have left a rump state easily consumed by the Arab armies, it lived against the will of its leaders, who would have signed it away in a hundred accords, and if it dies, it will paradoxically also be against their will.

When all the schemes and conferences come to naught, when Washington D.C. is the crutch that fails, as it always fails, then Israel discovers its survival instinct. The moment of Ein Breira that crystallizes the will of a nation that has survived for thousands of years, whose cultural integrity led it back to the land of its forefathers, and whose abilities are the result of a Divine blessing and curse; the gifts of Jacob and the curse of the greatest and most prolonged test to destruction experienced by any people on earth.

Expecting Israeli governments to do the right thing by choice is as useless as expecting most governments to do the right thing by choice. The choice is rarely theirs. It is forced on them by a recognition that all their compromises are futile, that their way has utterly failed, and that a black wall stands before them. Either life or death. Either war or suicide.

That was the choice that Israel faced in 1967. Its war was the War of No Choice, Milhemet Ein Breira. Prime Ministers and Generals crack in the face of such a wall. Their voice breaks, as the voice of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, probably the most decent man to ever hold the office, did. Or their mind does, as the mind of one of the nation’s most celebrated generals did. But where the leaders falter, the nation fights because ordinary men do not live with the illusion of control over external events. That is the fatal delusion of leaders. The ordinary man only knows that he must fight to save his people.

The truly great heroic acts of Israel’s wars were often individual acts of astounding courage. They are almost incomprehensible to people who have not seen war come to their cities, who have not lived with the understanding that there are a few miles between them and armies whose sole purpose is to wipe them and their families off the face of the earth. And that those miles must be guarded by them and men like them, ordinary people who are nothing special, who are not heroes, who are waiting to go back home to their families and their jobs, who like all men, have easily apparent faults.

This reality, like the reality of ordinary pervasive bigotry, has almost passed out of the memory of men in the modern world. It has passed out of the reality of some of the posher parts of Israel, where the electorate of left-wing parties believes that this was a myth perpetuated by warmongers for the benefit of the defense industry. But it is still the reality in Israel. It is a reality that will never go away. That can never go away because humanity does not change, it abides in its follies and evils, and then dresses them up in the sophisticated rhetoric of its chattering classes. It can be defeated in battles, but the only war that can be won against it, is the war of survival.

Survival is more than life. The genes of every people that have ever lived pollinate the human race. It is surviving with the knowledge of who you are and what you represent. It is not merely the survival of some disparate strands of DNA, but the survival of a people, a nation, and of their spirit.

The world was created in six days and on the seventh day we rest. But there is no rest for Israel. Not before the war and not after. Not after the treaties that were supposed to end the grievances of war. No victory or peace treaty can begin or end history, they can only change the difficulty of survival, the conditions under which the ordinary heroism of the everyday life is expressed by going on despite the will of those who want to kill us that we should not. Survival is the final victory.

About the Author: Daniel Greenfield is an Israeli born blogger and columnist, and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His work covers American, European and Israeli politics as well as the War on Terror. His writing can be found at http://sultanknish.blogspot.com/. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press.


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