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October 21, 2014 / 27 Tishri, 5775
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Irony and Intuition: Understanding Israel’s Best Philosophy of Survival

For states, as for individuals, fear and reality go together naturally.
Louis Rene Beres

Louis Rene Beres

Sometimes, especially in the most conspicuously urgent matters of life and death, truth may emerge through paradox. Consider, for example, the work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one of his most illuminating parables, the Argentine writer, who once wished openly that he had been born a Jew, examines the surprisingly sober calculations of a condemned man.

In near desperation, this unfortunate soul, suddenly recalling that hopeful human expectations rarely coincide with reality (Eureka!), very consciously imagines and re-imagines the precise circumstances of his own impending death.

The man’s dour reasoning is quite simple and, as we shall soon see, more broadly instructive. Because these circumstances have become expectations, he calculates, death will have to wait for another opportunity. For now, thanks to both reason and intellect, his personal mortality can (at least temporarily) be pushed aside.

Here, Borges illustrates, by employing both savvy indirection and subtle inference, the improbable benefits of intentionally negative thought. Oddly, perhaps, but not incorrectly, he leads us to understand, in certain identifiable contexts, that nothing can sometimes be more life-extending than extreme pessimism.

Although counter-intuitive, such plainly neglected or discarded forms of understanding can have strategic and geo-political corollaries. Today, in the Middle East, Israel – arguably the ill-fated individual person writ large – understandably refuses to typify this trembling character of Borges. To be sure, (1) Israel ought not actively seek a conspicuously unheroic or fearful posture in world politics; and (2) Israel ought not to assume that it has in any fashion been “condemned to death,” either literally, or metaphorically.

Nonetheless, Israel does face roughly comparable existential perils.

These perils are not “merely” the visible threat from a steadily nuclearizing Iran, but also the result of important interactions or synergies between several seemingly discrete dangers. Understood in narrowly military parlance, over time the combined effect of rocket attacks from Gaza and/or Lebanon, together with Iranian nuclearization, could create a uniquely debilitating “force multiplier.” Left unimpeded, Israel’s resultant position of vulnerabilities could bring it face-to-face with unprecedented harms.

For states, as for individuals, fear and reality go together naturally. With this apparently odd fusion in its collective “mind,” Israel should soon begin to imagine itself, assertively, and also as the ingathered and promised post-Holocaust Jewish community, to be fully mortal. Then, and only then, could Israel’s leaders effectively undertake the specific political and military policies needed to secure the beleaguered state from myriad assaults, and ultimately, from irreversible surrenders and assorted further capitulations.

Viscerally, any such strange advice, especially where it is drawn from an unfamiliar and essentially arcane literature, will appear foolish or even cowardly to most Israelis. After all, they will argue, death fear is corrosive. And anxiety? Don’t we rightly understand that any such species of fear is inevitably a grave and darkly unforgivable expression of weakness?

What possible advantages, all would surely then inquire, can there be to deliberately nurturing any thoughts of national fear and trembling? This particular suggestion, Israelis will say candidly, must be meshugga (crazy).

Sometimes, however, truth may emerge through irony. Reassuring imaginations of collective immortality, imaginations that are likely encouraged and conjured up by a usual policy architecture of contrived hopes and false dawns, can only discourage sorely needed Israeli steps toward safety. Even in those expanding circles of enlightenment, where there is (thankfully) no longer any faith in the wholly one-sided and delusionary “peace process,” many Israelis will still instinctually resist any potentially useful portents of national annihilation.

In world politics, some expectations are pretty much universal. As with most of its enemies, Israel conveniently imagines for itself, a life everlasting. Unlike these enemies, however, Israel does not ever see itself achieving immortality, either individually or collectively, via the ritually “sacred” murder of foes – that is, through war and terror. Instead, it sees its survival as the permanent but complex product of several factors, most apparently divine protection, well-reasoned diplomatic settlements and prudent military planning.

Singly or collectively, there is nothing inherently wrong with faith in these particular sources of safety. Still, such sources should never be allowed to displace a prior and primary awareness of an always-possible national impermanence.

Strategically, the stark asymmetry of purpose between Israel and its adversaries places the Jewish state at a considerable disadvantage. While Israel’s enemies, especially Iran, manifest their own “positive” hopes for immortality by the intended slaughter of Jews (religiously, the jihadi nexus between these particular hopes, and such slaughter, is often codified, fixed, and compelling), Israel’s leaders display their own tiny country’s vague hopes for collective immortality (1) by acquiescing to incremental surrenders of vital lands; and (2) by releasing thousands of jailed terrorists in endlessly unreciprocated gestures of “good will.” In the end, to be sure, it will prove to have been a vain, indecent, and much too costly display.

Now, after a notably brief and fragile interlude of statehood – a mere 65 years – shall Jewish wandering begin yet again? However unwittingly, by conveniently and unceasingly denying its collective mortality, Israel may have prepared to hand its sworn enemies the keys to the Promised Land.

Part of the blame lies with dutiful acceptance of the “American paradigm.” Significantly, in spite of its endlessly simple charms, the pervasive American ethos of positive thinking is substantially flush with intellectual error. Rejecting such a patronizing ethos, and spurred on instead by appropriately dreadful imaginations of military disaster, the people of Israel may yet begin, as indeed they must, to boldly acknowledge certain decipherable connections between (a) Palestinian statehood; (b) Iranian nuclearization; and (c) regional war.

The alternative, to sheepishly accept the twisted cartography of a “two-state solution” and/or the inevitability of atomic weapons in Iran, could make an unforgivable mockery of the would-be Jew Borges’s deducible insights and hidden truths.

Borges’s wisdom, we have now seen, extends in unforeseen directions. Eventually, too much “positive thinking,” understood here as a wrongheaded denial of national vulnerability, could effectively hasten Israel’s final exit – its enemies’ determined plan for another “final solution.”

Naturally, this is not a plea for Israeli pessimism as such, but rather for Jerusalem’s facing up to utterly worst-case scenarios as a long-neglected but still promisingly gainful national security posture. In certain critical matters of Israeli and Jewish survival, American-style celebrations of pure optimism may be dense with error. Far better for Israel to face up to its core existential vulnerabilities, and then to plan accordingly.

L’chaim!

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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4 Responses to “Irony and Intuition: Understanding Israel’s Best Philosophy of Survival”

  1. Anonymous says:

    NEVER have the Arabs had legal rights to the land in question. Any respecting Jew and Jewess understands that it is far worse to suffer loss of our national pride, through humiliation by the enemy, because for that sin, of self abasement, or self hatred, we shall surely suffer a thousand deaths. Better to die fighting evil than to live under it. A life lived in fear is dying a thousand deaths and more.

  2. Anonymous says:

    NEVER have the Arabs had legal rights to the land in question. Any respecting Jew and Jewess understands that it is far worse to suffer loss of our national pride, through humiliation by the enemy, because for that sin, of self abasement, or self hatred, we shall surely suffer a thousand deaths. Better to die fighting evil than to live under it. A life lived in fear and shame is worse than dying a thousand deaths

  3. Anonymous says:

    bring back old fashioned revisionist zionism- we need a ideology to center ourselves around- whip up national pride for the masses. Why not? Religion is not going to do it, too many divides, and politics is divided. Only thing left is the idea of ensuring Jews have a viable place to call home.

  4. Dr. Dan says:

    Obama has shaken up the regimes of the Arab world to make a unified assault on Israel a conceivable possibility. A common enemy unites the fractured sects of Islam.

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