Jorge Luis Borges sometimes happily identified himself as a sort of Jew. Although without any apparent basis in Halachah, he obviously felt himself 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.”
Such an explicit Philo-Semitic sentiment is assuredly welcome and rare, especially when it is uttered in sincerity, by one of the modern world’s greatest thinkers and writers. It follows that we Jews ought to pay especially close attention to Borges’ ecumenical wisdom. I refer particularly to one of his best stories, wherein a condemned man, having noticed that expectations rarely coincide with reality, consciously imagines the circumstances of his own death. Because they have become expectations, he reasons, they can never actually come to pass.
So it should now be as well with the State of Israel. Recognizing that fear and reality go together naturally, the People of Israel should begin to imagine itself, even as the ingathered Jewish community, within the ambit of both individual and collective mortality. Only then could Israel effectively undertake the more specific political and military policies now needed to secure the Jewish State from forcible extinction.
Such paradoxical advice, of course, will appear foolish to many people. After all, they will argue, death fear is debilitating. Anxiety, we must surely understand, is an expression of weakness. What possible advantages, therefore, can there be to deliberately nurturing thoughts of national fear and trembling, of dread and disappearance?
Truth sometimes emerges only through paradox, and imaginations of a collective immortality – imaginations generally encouraged by a panoply of false hopes and false dawns – will inevitably discourage needed Israeli steps toward collective self-preservation. Even in those expanding circles of enlightenment where there is no longer any faith in the 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 – that prudent lifestyles must flow from a prior awareness of fragility – these Jewish citizens will stubbornly choose to imagine an Israel that is necessarily forever. The only predictable result of such wrongheaded imagination would only 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 imagines for itself only life everlasting. But unlike these enemies, Israel does not see itself achieving immortality, individually or collectively, by the ritual murder of its enemies through war and terrorism.
Rather, it sees its collective survival as the permanent product of divine protection, reasoned diplomatic settlements and prudent military planning. Singly or collectively, there is nothing inherently wrong with these expectations, but they should never be allowed to displace an antecedent awareness of possible impermanence.
The asymmetry of purpose and expectation between Israel and its implacable foes places the Jewish State at a notable and foreseeable strategic disadvantage. While Israel’s enemies, most notably Iran, now manifest their “positive” hopes for immortality by the intended slaughter of Jews (religiously, their nexus between these hopes and such slaughter is fixed and strong), Israel’s leaders display their country’s own expectations for collective immortality by agreeing to steadily incremental surrenders of vital territories.
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 reason will have to depart once again from the Promised Land. Exeunt omnes.
To be sure, it is difficult to ask of Israelis that they resist American-style “positive thinking” and choose, instead, to think the worst. Yet, all serious thought is steeped in pessimism, and it would now be far better for Israel to err on the side of candor. Spurred on by the most conspicuously dreadful imaginations of existential disaster, the People of Israel could finally begin to contemplate the stark connections between Palestinian statehood, Iranian nuclearization and apocalyptic war.
The alternative, to blindly celebrate the twisted cartography of a genocidal “Road Map” or to blithely accept the inevitability of atomic weapons in Iran, would encourage Israel’s military defeat.
Copyright The Jewish Press, June 29, 2007, All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters. Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, he is also Chair of “Project Daniel,” a private nuclear advisory group that reported authoritatively to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.