For Jews, free will must always be oriented toward life, to the blessing, not to the curse. Our binding charge is to strive in this obligatory direction of individual and collective self-preservation by using our intelligence and by exercising our essentially disciplined acts of will. In circumstances where such striving is consciously rejected, the outcome – however catastrophic – can never rise to the dignified level of tragedy.
The ancient vision of authentically “High Tragedy” has its origins in Fifth Century BCE Athens. Here, there is always clarity on one overriding point: The victim is one whom “the gods kill for their sport, as wanton boys do flies.” This wantonness, this caprice, is precisely what makes tragedy unendurable. With “disengagement” and “realignment,” with Oslo and the “Road Map,” Israel’s corollary misfortunes are too-largely self-inflicted. The continuing drama of a “Middle East Peace Process” is, at best, a surreal page torn from Ionesco or even Kafka. Here there is nary a hint of tragedy, not even a cathartic element that might have been drawn from Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. At worst – and this is the more plausible characterization – Israel’s unhappy fate has been ripped directly from the demeaning pages of irony and farce. Under Olmert, Israel now acts and lives a peculiarly blood-soaked form of comedy, an unabashedly high-budget, low drama that relies on concocted contrivances of plot and on humiliatingly low levels of credibility.
In farce, matters would generally end badly but for a last-minute rescue called deus ex machina. But no such “god in the machine” will rescue Israel. In more specifically Jewish terms, we may recall the words of Rabbi Yania: “A man should never put himself in a place of danger and say that a miracle will save him, lest there be no miracle.” (Talmud, Sota 32a and Codes, Yoreh De’ah 116). Of course, it may be that Ehud Olmert does not actually expect a miracle, but then, we must inquire, upon exactly what manner of reasoning does he base his religiously, morally and intellectually vacant policy of land for nothing?
In Judaism, as we have already noted, there can never be any justification for deliberate self-endangerment. In classical Greek tragedy, there can never be any deus ex machina. In true tragedy, the human spirit remains noble in the face of an inescapable death, but if there is anything at all tragic about Israel’s Olmert-Bush propelled descent, it lies only in the original Greek meaning of the word: “goat song.” For Jews, this theatrical resemblance to paganism is especially hideous, as it comes from the dithyrambs sung by goatskin-clad worshippers of Dionysus.
Aristotle understood in his Poetics that true tragedy must always elicit pity and fear, but not pathos, which is an utterly unheroic suffering. The Greek philosopher identified tragedy with “good” characters that suffer because they commit some grave error (hamartia) unknowingly. Prime Minister Olmert, on the other hand, has continued Israel’s march of folly not because of any such error – or even because of some wantonness or caprice – but (in the most charitable explanation) because his concessionary policies are detached from any decent sense of Judaism.
Whether a policy is named Oslo or Road Map or some altogether new name contrived in Washington makes no substantive difference. The diplomatic promise of peace with a persistently genocidal adversary is unassailably a sordid delusion. To be sure, protracted war and terror hardly seem a tolerable or enviable policy outcome, but even this difficult fate remains far better for Israel than the undiminished Arab/Islamist plan for a relentlessly Final Solution. Protracted war and terror are assuredly very bad options, but they are certainly better than death.
The futile search for ordinary solutions by the people of Israel must never be dismissed by others 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 wider world where the terms “justice” and “Jew” can never be uttered in the same breath, and where navigating according to shamelessly asymmetrical rules of logic and reasonableness will ultimately be fatal. Let us be candid. It is a world where Dostoyevsky rings much truer than Plato, a world wherein unreason “normally” 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. He did not surrender.
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, it must still continue to push, upwards. It must continue to struggle against the ponderous weight – if for no other reason than simply to continue, to persist. For Israel, true heroism – and perhaps even the genuine fulfillment of its unique mission among the nations – now lies in recognizing something beyond normal understanding: Endless pain and insecurity are not necessarily unbearable and must sometimes 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 altogether without experiencing 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 can still learn that the struggle itself carries manifold benefits. The seemingly absurd struggle does have its accomplishments, its unheralded blessings, and its more or less palpable rewards. Newly tolerant of ambiguity, and consciously surviving without any “normal” hopes of completion and clarity, the people of Israel could achieve both spiritual and survival 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, toward a “sickness unto death.” Today, as its leaders contemplate yet another round of unilateral territorial surrenders in Judea/Samaria, the government prepares to relinquish the country’s last shreds of national dignity and national security. For Israel in particular, basic truth must emerge from paradox. To survive into the future, Israel’s only real choice 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 also recognize that its individual and collective life may require an authentically tragic and unending struggle.
Nonetheless, true tragedy does not denigrate; it exalts.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, February 1, 2008. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and the author of 10 major books on international relations and international law. One of his earlier books is titled Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy(1983), which concerned a different adaptation from the still-fruitful Greek myth. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.