Israel may learn from history.
Volume III of Plutarch’s “Sayings of Spartain Mothers” reveals the Spartan mother as one who rears her sons for sacrifice on the altar of civic necessity. Such a mother was altogether pleased to learn that her son had died “in a manner worthy of his self, his country, and his ancestors.” Spartan sons who failed to live up to this particular standard of sacrifice were reviled.
One woman, whose son was the sole survivor of a disastrous military engagement, killed him with a tile – the correct punishment for his apparent cowardice. The 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing Plutarch, described a certain citizen-mother as follows: “A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot (slave) arrived trembling. She asked him for the news.
“‘Your five sons were killed.’
” ‘Base slave, did I ask you that?’ The slave responded: ‘We won the victory.’ The mother ran to the temple and gave thanks to the gods.”
Why recount these tales from ancient Sparta about sacrifice? What have they to do with the current Islamic threat of war and terrorism to Israel? Today, the threat to Israel originates, at least in part, from cultures that embrace similar views of sacrifice. In these cultures, however, the purpose of sacrifice goes well beyond civic necessity. In these cultures, it is an expression of religion and the presumptively “sacred.” Here it goes to the point of personal death, to realizing the otherwise terrifyingly elusive promise of immortality.
For Israel, the survival implications are profound. Convinced that particular forms of violence against Jews and the Jewish state will lead to martyrdom, the agents and expressions of certain Islamic cultures cannot be deterred by ordinary threats of reprisal and retaliation. This means that effective measures additional to deterrence are now indispensable to Israel’s security.
It would at first appear that self-sacrificing terrorists are utterly fearless of death. In fact, however, it is precisely their profound terror of death that leads them to “martyrdom.” Paradoxically, because dying in the act of killing Jews (it is always “Jews,” never Israelis) is believed to buy freedom from the penalty of death, these enemies of Israel seek to conquer mortality by committing suicide. Such efforts are not an example of ordinary political violence, but of deeply religious sacrifice.
While Israel’s mortal enemies calculate one way, the Jewish state calculates another. In the fashion of many of its enemies, Israel imagines, for itself, life everlasting. But unlike these enemies, Israel does not see itself achieving immortality, individually or collectively, by killing others. Rather, it sees its collective survival as the product of diplomatic agreements. It is altogether well known that these agreements portend critical territorial surrenders and the creation of a 23rd existentially hostile Arab state called “Palestine.”
Israel and its Arab/Islamic enemies have decidedly different orientations to “peace.” This asymmetry, however much more humane and decent is Israel’s posture, puts the Jewish state at a catastrophic disadvantage. While Israel’s enemies manifest their expectations for immortality by the doctrinal slaughter of Jews, Israel’s Jews display their particular expectations for collective immortality by sacrificing vital territories.
In the end, the inevitable clash between Islamic believers in violence and Israeli believers in diplomacy will surely favor the former. In the end, unless the prevailing asymmetry is replaced by a new and far-reaching Israeli awareness of disaster, the believers in diplomacy will be forced to exit, yet again, from the Promised Land.
Nor should it be presumed that Jews outside of Israel are immune to Islamic hatred or that Israelis are hated merely because they are “occupiers.” Israelis are despised because they are Jews. End of story. In the words of a recent article published in Al-Ahram: “The first thing that we have to make clear is that no distinction must be made between the Jew and the Israeli…. The Jew is a Jew, through the millennia…. in spurning all moral values, devouring the living and drinking his blood for the sake of a few coins. The Jew, the Merchant of Venice, does not differ from the killers of Deir Yasin or the killers of the camps. They are equal examples of human degradation. Let us therefore put aside such distinctions (Jews and Israelis) and talk only about JEWS.”
In a current Egyptian textbook of “Arab Islamic History” (a textbook in a country “at peace” with Israel), new teachers are informed as follows: “The Jews are always the same, every time and everywhere. They will not live save in darkness. They contrive their evils clandestinely. They fight only when they are hidden, because they are cowards…. The Prophet enlightened us about the right way to treat them, and succeeded finally in crushing the plots they had planned. We today must follow this way and purify Palestine from their filth.”
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and publishes widely on world politics and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press in New York City.