In an ancient myth, the Greek gods condemn Sisyphus to roll a great rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone will inevitably fall back of its own weight. By imposing this terrible judgment the gods had prescribed the dreadful punishment of interminable labor. But they also revealed something vastly more difficult to understand, namely, that even such useless labor need not be altogether futile. Such labor, they knew, could also be heroic.
This is where Israel stands today. For a combination of very complex reasons, Israel now faces the monumental and prospectively endless task of pushing a massive weight up the “mountain,” always, for no ascertainable purpose. And, almost for certain, the great rock will always roll right back down to its point of origin. There is, it would appear, simply no real chance that it will remain perched, fixedly, securely, at the summit.
For Israel, there is no clear and expected solution to its essential and existential security problem. Rather, in the fashion of Sisyphus, the Jewish State must now accept the inconceivably heavy burden of a possible suffering without predictable end. There is, of course, always hope, but – for now at least – the only choice seems to be to continue pushing upward with no apparent relief, or, to sigh deeply, to lie prostrate, to surrender and to die.
What sort of sorrowful imagery is this? Can anyone be shocked that, for the always-imperiled people of Israel a Sisyphean fate must lie far beyond their ordinary powers of imagination? Not surprisingly, the Israelis still search for ordinary solutions. They look, commonly, into politics, into new leaders, into concrete policies. They seek remedies, answers, peace settlements, road maps; they examine the whole package of ordinary prospects that would allegedly make Israel more normal and therefore more safe. But Israel is not normal, nor can it (or should it) ever be “normal.” For reasons that will be debated and argued for centuries, Israel is altogether unique. To deny this uniqueness, and to try to figure out ways in which the great tormenting stone might finally stay on the top of the mountain forever, is to seek banal answers to extraordinary questions. Above all, it is to misunderstand Israel’s very special and very sacred place in the universe.
Appropriately, let us recall immediately that Sisyphus is a heroic and tragic figure in Greek mythology. This is because he labored valiantly in spite of the apparent futility of his efforts. Today, however, Israel’s leadership is sometimes still acting in ways that are neither tragic nor heroic. Increasingly unwilling to accept the almost certain future of protracted war and terror, the prime minister of Israel – even as he is willing to fight honorably and purposefully in Gaza and in Lebanon – still embraces various intended codifications of national suicide. Whether it is named Oslo or the Road Map makes no difference.
The diplomatic promise of peace with a persistently genocidal adversary is a sordid and persistent delusion. To be sure, protracted war and terror hardly seem a tolerable or enviable outcome, but this fate – at least for the moment – remains better than the undiminished Arab/Islamic plan for a relentlessly “Final Solution.” To be sure, protracted war and terror are bad options, but they are certainly better than death, and death is the only plausible promise of Oslo and the Road Map.
The futile search for ordinary solutions by the people of Israel must never be dismissed with anger, disdain or self-righteousness. After all, one can hardly blame them for denying such terrible and unjust portents. But Israel exists in a world where the terms justice and Jews can never be uttered in the same breath, and where navigating according to rules of logic and reasonableness will always be fatal. It is a world wherein unreason trumps rationality and where survival is sometimes dependent upon accepting and enduring what is manifestly absurd.
Sisyphus understood that his rock would never stay put at the summit of the mountain. He labored nonetheless. Like Sisyphus, Israel must soon learn to understand that its own “rock” – the agonizingly heavy stone of national security and international normalcy – may never stay put at the summit. Yet, Israel must still continue to push, upwards; it must continue to struggle against the ponderous weight – if for no other reason than to continue, to endure. For Israel, true heroism – and perhaps even the true fulfillment of its unique mission among the nations – now lies in recognizing something well beyond normal understanding: Endless pain and insecurity are not necessarily unbearable and must sometimes even be borne with complete faith and equanimity. Failing such a tragic awareness, the government of Israel will continue to grasp at illusory peace prospects and to welcome repeatedly false dawns.
Of course, Israel is not Sisyphus, and there is no reason to believe that Israel must necessarily endure without great personal and collective satisfactions. Even fully aware that its titanic struggle toward the recurring summits may lack a definable moment of success – that these summits may never be truly “scaled” – the Jewish State could still learn that the struggle itself carries manifold benefits. The struggle has its essential accomplishments: its unheralded blessings, its more-or-less palpable rewards. Now, newly tolerant of ambiguity, and consciously surviving without any “normal” hopes of completion and clarity, the people of Israel could achieve both spiritual and security benefits in their personal and collective lives. Most importantly, their now enlarged lucidity could immunize them from the lethal lures of ordinary nations.
Israel’s feverish search for a solution has led it down a continuing path of despair. Today, as its government contemplates yet another round of unilateral territorial surrenders in Judea/Samaria – even while it is at war in disengaged Gaza and in Lebanon (despite the current cease-fire) – Israel’s leaders prepare to relinquish the country’s last shreds of national dignity and national security. For Israel, basic truth often emerges from paradox. To survive into the future, Israel’s only real chance is to keep rolling the rock upwards. Unlike Sisyphus, Israel and its people can still enjoy many satisfactions along the way, but – like Sisyphus – all Israel must still recognize that its individual and collective Jewish life may require a tragic and possibly unending struggle.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). One of his earlier books is titled Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983), which concerned a very different adaptation from the very fruitful Greek myth. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for THE JEWISH PRESS.