Jorge Luis Borges, the very special Argentine writer and philosopher, sometimes quite happily identified himself as a sort of Jew. Although lacking any apparent basis in halacha, he nonetheless felt himself to be a deeply kindred spirit: “Many a time I think of myself as a Jew,” he is quoted in Willis Barnstone’s Borges at Eighty: Conversations (1982), “but I wonder whether I have the right to think so. It may be wishful thinking.”
How marvelous to hear such pleasing words. After all, any such explicit philo-Semitic sentiment is assuredly rare, especially when it is uttered in sincerity by one of the modern world’s greatest authors. It follows, in my judgment, that Jews and Israelis ought to pay especially close attention to certain hidden implications of Borges’ ecumenical wisdom.
Consider this: In one of his very best stories, a condemned man, having noticed that human expectations rarely coincide with reality, consciously imagines the circumstances of his own death. Because they have become expectations, he reasons, they can never actually happen.
So it should now be with the State of Israel. Recognizing that fear and reality go together naturally, the people of Israel should begin to consciously imagine themselves (even as the ingathered Jewish community which has been scripturally promised a distinct permanence or eternity), to be living within the contingentspace of individual and collective mortality. Only then, it seems could Israel effectively undertake the specific political and military policies that are now needed to secure it from forcible extinction.
After all, to conclude that G-d’s promise should allow Israel to simply sit back and automatically assume a Higher sphere of protection, irrespective of prudent strategic preparations, would be to fundamentally misunderstand both Torah and Talmud.
On another level, however, the advice to encourage national existential apprehensions may still appear foolish. Isn’t fear of death starkly debilitating? Most people, we already know, try to diminish this fear as best they can.
Anxiety, it should seem plain, is an obvious expression of weakness. What possible advantages could there possibly be to deliberately nurturing any thoughts of national fear and trembling; indeed, of existential dread and disappearance?
Here is a response. Truth sometimes emerges only through paradox, and imaginations of a collective immortality, imaginations generally encouraged by a panoply of false hopes and false dawns, willdiscourage needed Israeli steps toward collective self-preservation. Even in those expanding circles of enlightenment, where there is no longer any faith in an always-delusional peace process, many Israelis will instinctually resist any intimations of national annihilation. Unable to understand that what is true for individuals is also true for states, these Jewish citizens will stubbornly choose to imagine an Israel that is automaticallyforever. The predictable result of any such corrosively wrongheaded imagination would be an even greater level of Jewish national transience.
There are multiple ironies here. In the fashion of many of its Arab/Islamic enemies, Israel insistently still imagines for itself, either scripturally or strategically (or both), only life everlasting. But, unlike these enemies, Israel does not see itself achieving immortality, individually or collectively by the ritual murder of its enemies. Rather, it sees its collective survival as the permanentproduct of divine protection, reasoned diplomatic settlements, and/or prudent military planning.
Singly or collectively, and in any conceivable configuration or permutation, there is nothing inherently wrong with these particular expectations; still, they should never be allowed to displace a pragmatic prior awareness of an always-possiblenational impermanence.
Any asymmetry of purpose and expectation between Israel and its implacable Islamic foes will place the Jewish state at a notable and foreseeable disadvantage. While Israel’s enemies, most notably Iran, now manifest their positive hopes for immortality by the always-intended slaughter of Jews, Israel’s leaders display their country’s own expectations for collective immortality by agreeing to steadily incremental surrenders of vital territories. Most recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressly added the caveat of Palestinian demilitarization, but, as everyone already understands, this remains an utterly implausible and disingenuous expectation.
In the end, the protracted clash in the Middle East between Arab/Islamic believers in violence, and Israeli believers in Reason, will likely favor the former. In the end,unless the prevailing asymmetry is replaced by new and far-reaching Israeli imaginations of existential disaster,the Jewish believers in mutual understanding will have to depart once again from the Promised Land.
It is difficult, of course, to ask Israelis to resist American-style positive thinking, and, instead, to think the worst. Yet as Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt says, “The worst does sometimes happen,” and it would now be far better for Israel to err on the side of excessive pessimism. Only then, spurred on by the most conspicuously dreadful imaginations of disaster, could the people of Israel begin to contemplate the irremediably brutal connections between Palestinian statehood, Iranian nuclearization, and apocalyptic war.
The alternative, to blindly accept the dreadfully twisted cartography of President Obama’s road map, and/or to resignedly accept the interpenetrating inevitability of nuclear weapons in Iran, could precipitate Israel’s final defeat.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, and served as Chair of Project Daniel. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.