Latest update: January 10th, 2013
For the most part, we Jews have always accepted the obligation to ward off disaster as best we can. For the most part, we generally understand that all humans have free will. Saadia Gaon included freedom of 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 Israel, free will must always be oriented toward life, to the blessing, not the curse. Israel’s authoritative charge must always be to strive in the obligatory direction of individual and collective self-preservation, by using intelligence and by exercising disciplined acts of national will. In particular circumstances, where such striving would be rejected, the outcome, however catastrophic, can never rise to the dignifying 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,” with “realignment,” with “Palestinian demilitarization,” with both Oslo, and the Road Map, Israel’s corollary misfortunes remain largely self-inflicted. The uninspiring drama of a Middle East peace process is, at best, a surreal page torn from Ionesco, or even from the Jewish genius of Prague, Franz Kafka. Here, there is nary a hint of tragedy; not even a satisfyingly cathartic element that might have been abstracted from playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides. At worst, and this is the more plausible characterization, Israel’s potentially unhappy fate has been ripped directly from the demeaning pages of irony and farce.
Under former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Israel had acted and lived a peculiarly portentous form of comedy, an unabashedly high-budget low drama, one that relied on concocted contrivances of plot, and on correspondingly low levels of credibility. At the end, in Gaza, Olmert acted correctly with Operation Cast Lead, but it was a limited or tactical rather than strategic reaction. Moreover, it was intended only to reverse his own earlier, and, by then, irremediable errors.
In farce, matters generally end badly, but for a last-minute rescue called, in dramatic theory, deus ex machina. But no “god in the machine” will rescue Israel. To recall a far more specifically Jewish commentary, one may also consult 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….” (Sota 32a; Yoreh De’ah 116).
It may be that Israel’s prime ministers never actually did expect a miracle, but then we must inquire as to why. Upon what precise manner of reasoning or faith did so many Israeli leaders base their flagrantly vacant and vacating policies?
In Judaism 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 manages to remain noble in the face of an inescapable death.
But if there is anything at all tragic about Israel’s prolonged security descent, it lies only in the original Greek meaning of the word: “goat song.” For Israelis, this particular theatrical resemblance to paganism should be disturbingly hideous. After all, 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. Always, pathos is unheroic suffering. The great Greek philosopher had identified tragedy with “good” characters, those who may suffer because they commit some grave error (hamartia) unknowingly.
Whether a policy is named Oslo or Road Map or something altogether new makes no difference. The sordid promise of peace with a persistently murderous adversary is always a delusion. To be sure, protracted war or terror or genocide hardly seems a tolerable or enviable policy outcome. But even this difficult fate remains better for Israel than the undiminished Arab/Islamist plan for a second Final Solution.
The futile search for ordinary solutions by the people and government of Israel should never be dismissed by non-Israelis with anger, disdain, or self-righteousness. One can hardly blame them for denying such terrible and unjust portents. Any such denial is manifestly human.
Let us be candid. We live in a world where the impassioned writings of Jewish writers and philosophers ring truer than the ethereal dialogues of Plato. This is a world in which unreason trumps rationality and where survival is routinely dependent upon accepting what is evidently absurd. No change of power in Washington or Jerusalem can ever change any of this.
Sisyphus fully 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 finally 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 still it must struggle to push upward. It must continue to labor against the ponderous weight, if for no other reason than simply to continue.
For Israel, true heroism, and perhaps even true fulfillment of its unique mission among the nations, lies in recognizing something beyond all normal understanding: Endless pain and insecurity are not necessarily unbearable, and must sometimes be borne with faith and equanimity. Failing such a tragic awareness, the government of Israel will continue to grasp at illusory peace prospects, and thus to usher in repeatedly false dawns.
Israel is not Sisyphus, nor is there any reason to believe Israel must necessarily endure without experiencing personal and collective satisfactions. Ever aware that its titanic struggle toward recurring summits may lack even a definable moment of “success” – that these summits may never be truly scaled – the Jewish state can still learn that the struggle itself may carry incomparable benefits. Even a seemingly absurd struggle can have its notable accomplishments, its unheralded blessings, and its more or less palpable rewards.
Newly tolerant of an almost intolerable ambiguity, and consciously surviving without any “normal” hopes of completion and clarity, the people of Israel could potentially achieve both spiritual and survival benefits in their personal and collective lives. Importantly, their now enlarged lucidity could immunize them from the demeaning, and possibly lethal, lures of more “ordinary” nations.
Israel’s understandable but fevered search for a solution has led it down a path of despair, and perhaps even toward a genuine “sickness unto death.” For Israel, all basic truth must ultimately emerge from paradox.
In the end, to survive into the future, Israel’s only real choice will be to keep rolling the rock upward.
Unlike Sisyphus, Israel and its people can still enjoy great achievements and satisfactions along the way. But, like Sisyphus, all of Israel must ultimately recognize that its individual and collective life may require an authentically tragic and unending struggle.
For Israel, there is a hidden but sincere consolation in all of this. True tragedy does not denigrate. It exalts.
About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.
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