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Clocks Redux: True Meanings Of Time For The Imperiled Jewish State


Over these many years, as my faithful readers will recall, I have occasionally referenced the idea and concept of time in my Jewish Press columns. For the most part, these column references to chronology have pertained very precisely to very particular Israeli issues. This week, however, expanding my ambit of concern, I would like to center an entire argument concerning Israel’s survival on time. Specifically, I will now explore with you various connections between time and Israel’s struggle against war and terror in the Islamic Middle East. I trust that you, my readers, will find such an expanded argument both interesting and useful.

First and foremost, as is already obvious to all, Israel is certainly a state like no other. It is, of course, a Jewish state, the Jewish state, and this characterization alone must set it apart from every other actor in world politics. Therefore, only when this core meaning is kept right before our eyes can we then proceed to understand the truly critical meanings, for Israel, of time. And only when Israel’s leaders take great pains to relate time to conflict, will Israel be allowed to meet the indispensable obligation revealed in Proverbs 24:6: “For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war.”

For Israel’s all-too-many Arab-Islamic enemies, time means something very different from what it means to Jews. For the Israelis, real time has somewhat more to do with an awareness of felt time than with the invented measurements of clocks. Indeed, if it were otherwise, Israel would already have been hit with even higher levels of both war and terrorism.

Time means very different things to the various players on the world stage. Altogether appropriately, this subjective idea of felt time has its identifiable historical origins in ancient Israel. Rejecting the idea of time as linear progression, the early Hebrews generally approached chronology as a qualitative experience. There, time was understood as inseparable from an always deeply personal content.

The Jewish prophetic vision was that of a community existing in time, under a transcendent G-d. Political space in this vision was important, to be sure, but not because of territoriality. Here, the significance of space derived from the momentous events that took place within sacred borders.

For present-day Israel, now about to come under more intense pressures from a new American president, the space-time relationship will have two complex dimensions. First, still-advocated (Road Map) territorial surrenders by Israel would reduce the amount of time Israel has to resist both terrorism and aggression. Second, any such surrenders, considered cumulatively, have already provided time for Israel’s enemies to await their long-sought perfect war-making opportunity. It follows that in an apparent but noteworthy and regrettable paradox – time now serves Israel’s enemies both by its diminution and by its extension.

An expanding awareness of the subjective idea of time as lived, a metaphysics based not on time as equally numbered moments, but rather upon representations of time as experienced, could impact the way in which Israel’s new/old prime minister (Mr. Netanyahu) confronts the country’s principal adversaries. This would mean attempting to better understand the manner in which these Islamic/Islamist enemies, themselves, choose to live within time. In the final analysis, this will require a deeper understanding of very precise religious obligations that are drawn by Arab/Islamic foes from their particular interpretations of faith and law.

For example, should Jerusalem determine that certain Jihadist terror groups accept a very short time horizon in their felt need to strike Israel, Mr. Netanyahu’s response to this planned violence would have to be correspondingly swift. On the other hand, pursuant to good intelligence, if it would appear that this enemy time horizon is substantially longer, Jerusalem’s defensive responses could reasonably be more drawn out and less urgent.

The exact duration of this enemy time horizon will always be determined by the terrorists’ own idea of divine expectation. It must be Israel’s task, therefore, to identify and understand this idea, an intelligence task that could also affect the way in which Israel decides the important and impending trade-offs between public safety and civil liberties (a trade-off situation that we are now already having to discuss more often, here in the United States).

For Israel, the primary importance of time must be expressed not only by the country’s own relationship to space, but also as a storehouse of memory. By recalling the historic vulnerabilities of Jewish life in the world, Israel’s current leaders could step back from a seemingly endless sequence of surrenders. “Yesterday,” says Samuel Beckett in his analysis of Proust, “is not a milestone that has been passed, but a day stone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous.” Aware that tomorrow will be determined largely by “yesterday,” newly-elected Prime Minister Netanyahu will have a unique opportunity to recognize that time is power.

Of special interest to Israel (and also to the United States) is the time horizon of the Jihadist suicide bomber. This particular form of murderer, as I have discussed many times on these pages of The Jewish Press, is actually afraid of death, so afraid – in fact -that he is willing to “kill himself.” Paradoxically, such “suicide” is conceived as a means of conquering mortality. This very strange conquest of death, in turn, is really a way to “unstop time,” to replace one’s distinctly human apprehensions of lifelong suffering with an eternity of bliss.

Truth, here, thus lies in paradox, and Israel can now benefit importantly from understanding a seemingly contradictory mindset that identifies “suicide” with everlasting life. Such an understanding should focus upon a core Islamic terrorist idea that time does not have a “stop,” and that “heroic martyrdom” is seen as the surest way to soar above mortal limits. Mr. Netanyahu, please take heed!

Intellectually and conceptually, the most obvious way to combat the Arab/Islamic suicide bomber’s deadly notion of time is to disabuse him/her of this notion. This would entail a realization that the suicide bomber now sees himself/herself as a sacrificer, escaping from time without meaning to a meaningful place of sacred time. Abandoning the profane time of ordinary mortals, the Arab/Islamic suicide bomber transports himself/herself into the exclusive world of immortals. The temptation to “sacrifice” despised Jewish infidels at the bloody altar of Jihadis therefore always considerable.

What should Mr. Netanyahu now do with this chronology-centered understanding of enemies? Even after Operation Cast Lead (or perhaps as a result of this operation), it is plain that massive war against the terror infrastructure can never be a total solution. Rather, Israel’s immediate and somewhat antecedent task must be to convince prospective suicide bombers that their intended “sacrifice” will never elevate them above mortal limits of time. The would-beJihadist murderers should soon be convinced that they are not now living in profane time, and that every sacrificial killing of Jews is actually a profanation of Islam.

Exactly how to accomplish this vital objective, must quickly become central to Israel’s life or death struggle against war and terrorism in time. For incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu, soon to be buffeted by yet another round of harsh winds from Washington, there can be a no more significant question. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assuredly don’t actually intend to harm the Jewish state, but together, their combined lack of real and realistic vision is bound to reflect an utterly timeless sort of error.

Copyright© The Jewish Press, April 24, 2009. All rights reserved

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and international law. He was Chair of Project Daniel and is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.

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