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Living Amid Absurdity: Israel As Tragic Hero (Part One)


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True life, it seems, can never be brought purposefully before the judgment seat of Reason. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, absurd narratives now best mirror the deteriorating situation of life on earth. Still living an elaborate pantomime of right and wrong, justice and punishment, we humans desperately want the unfolding world-drama to develop with both fairness and sensibility. Generally, we witness something quite different.

We especially want to see correctness and clarity in the squalid theatre of world politics, but the polite meanings with which we are actually presented seethe with allusions and equivocations. What we mainly see each day is abundant anguish and a great deal of unreciprocated goodness.

Mythology can help us to understand. In 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 a dreadful punishment of interminable labor. But they also revealed something far more difficult to understand: Even such useless labor need not be altogether futile. Such labor, they knew, could also be heroic.

Enter Israel. For a combination of very complex reasons, Israel now faces the prospectively endless task of pushing a massive weight up the “mountain,” always, and 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 ever remain perched, fixed, securely, at the summit. Why, then, should Israel even bother to push on?

For Israel, long-suffering and always imperiled, there is no clear and easy solution to its essential and existential security problem. In the fashion of Sisyphus, the Jewish State must now accept the inconceivably heavy burden of a possible suffering without 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 prostate, to surrender (that is, follow the so-called “Road Map”) and to die.

What sort of sorrowful imagery is this? Can anyone really be shocked that, for the always- beleaguered people of Israel, a Sisyphean fate must lie far beyond their ordinary powers of imagination? Not surprisingly, the Israelis still search for utterly ordinary solutions. They look, commonly, into politics and personalities, into leaders and tangible policies. They seek remedies, answers, peace settlements, cartography, disengagements and realignments. They examine the whole package of ordinary prospects that would allegedly make Israel more “normal” and presumably more “safe.”

But safety will never come to Israel through banality. 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 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 superficial answers to extraordinary questions. Above all, it is to misunderstand Israel’s very special place in the world, and to chain all Israel to what the philosopher Kierkegaard called the “sickness unto death.”

The very worst fate for Israel is therefore not “merely” to have to endure one war after another, or even to have to keep rolling the rock up the mountain. Rather, it is to try to buy its way free from destiny and torment by falsifying itself.

For each and every individual on earth, personal existence is wholly improbable. The number of possible combinations of the human DNA molecule is ten to the 2,400,000,000th power. This means that the odds of any one of us being “I” are one in ten to the 2,400,000,000th power. These are not betting odds.

One can readily imagine that these not very promising numbers apply as well to states in world politics. But when we speak of Israel, the singular Jewish state, we must enter into an entirely different kind of calculation. In essence, Israel’s existence is both more and less probable than the life of any single individual. The apparent paradox lies in Israel’s special origins and in its absolute uniqueness.

Let us return to the Greek myth. We recall 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, Israel’s leadership, disregarding the nation’s own history, is still acting in ways that are neither tragic nor heroic. Increasingly unwilling to accept the almost certain future of protracted war and terror, another deluded prime minister seeks to deny Israel’s fundamental situation in the world. Hence, he is ready to embrace the currently fashionable codifications of collective suicide.

Prime Minister Olmert now has a rare opportunity to separate himself from his several confused and distracted predecessors. As a Jew, Mr. Olmert should also recall the magisterial Danish Christian thinker. Wherever the nations speak in chorus, as a “crowd” – Kierkegaard understood – is plainly “untruth.”

Human freedom is an ongoing theme in Judaism, but this genuinely sacred freedom can never countenance a “right” of collective disintegration. Individually and nationally, there is always a binding Jewish obligation to choose life. Faced with the “blessing and the curse,” both the solitary Jew and the ingathered Jewish state must always come down in favor of the former.

Today, Israel – after Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” and amid Ehud Olmert’s “realignment” – awaits a tragic fate. Nonetheless, the dramatic genre portraying this destiny can only be described as “pathos.” Resembling the minimalist poetics of Samuel Beckett, the entire “play” is profoundly meaningful, but it is also preposterous. True tragedy contains calamity, but it must also reveal individual greatness in trying to overcome misfortune.

We Jews have always accepted the obligation to ward off disaster as best we can. We generally do understand that we have “free will.” Indeed, Saadia Gaon included freedom of the will among the most central teachings of Judaism, and Maimonides affirmed that all human beings must stand alone in the world “to know what is good and what is evil, with none to prevent him from either doing good or evil.”

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.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, January 25, 2008. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and the author of ten 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.

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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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