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Everyone remembers Israel’s wars – in 1948, 1967, and 1973 – against the Arab states that vowed to destroy it. Its wars against the terrorist regimes embedded on its borders – Fatah and then Hizbullah in Lebanon and, most recently, Hamas in Gaza – are now memorable largely for the protests they provoked from liberal and anti-Zionist critics.
But perhaps Israel’s most tormenting – and enduring – conflict is its internal struggle over the meaning of legitimacy in a Jewish state.
Within six weeks after its proclamation of independence, Israel experienced violent internal discord. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was convinced that Menachem Begin, his right-wing political opponent, was preparing a putsch to overthrow the government. He ordered the Haganah and Palmach to sink the Altalena, an Irgun ship filled with fighting men, weapons and munitions that were desperately needed to combat invading Arab armies.
In blazing gun battles at Kfar Vitkin, near Netanya, and on the Tel Aviv beach, Israeli soldiers from rival political factions shot and killed each other. Memories of the Altalena, like Banquo’s ghost, still haunt Israelis.
The current conflict over legitimacy began in November when a handful of Hesder soldiers, who combine religious study with military service, displayed a banner declaring they would not expel or evacuate Jews from settlements in Judea and Samaria.
Similar displays by other religious soldiers, torn between their loyalty to the Israel Defense Forces and the strength of their religious faith, followed. They were pilloried in secular circles for challenging the legitimacy of the state. Haaretz condemned their “insolent defiance.” The Jerusalem Post warned religious soldiers not to emulate Samson and “pull down the temple pillars upon us all.” Defense Minister Barak, not known for subtlety, declared: “We intend to use an iron fist to limit this phenomenon.”
In late November Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his controversial ten-month freeze in settlement housing construction. Touted as a peace gesture to Palestinians, it was widely recognized as blatant – even craven – capitulation to demands from President Obama.
Settler protests, with strong rabbinical support from the Hesderyeshiva movement,roiled Israeli politics for weeks. Israelis were forced to confront fundamental political questions: What defines legitimacy? Who decides?
Into this contentious struggle plunged Ehud Barak. The defense minister was eager, as always, to display state power and, not incidentally, to shore up his feeble Labor Party base. Nothing succeeds with his constituency like forcing a showdown with religious Jews – as he demonstrated a year ago with his forced expulsion of Jews from Jewish-owned property in Hebron.
After Rabbi Eliezer Melamed expressed support for the protesting religious soldiers, the defense minister summarily expelled his Hesder yeshiva from the roster of religious institutions associated with the IDF. (Yet Barak had remained silent when hundreds of university professors petitioned soldiers to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria.)
Rabbi Melamed responded pointedly: “Can it be that in the democratic state of Israel, a rabbi cannot think and speak with honesty?”
Barak seemed determined to exacerbate – and exploit -the undeniable tension that exists between state power and Jewish law. Like Ben-Gurion at the time of the Altalena crisis, Barak is prepared to apply military force to stifle domestic political opposition, while bending it to his own political advantage.
A Defense Ministry document, leaked to the press, indicated the army planned to enforce the settlement housing freeze with nothing less than six military brigades, the Border Guard, Shin Bet, police and intelligence forces, IDF reserve units, and Air Force helicopters and drones. Barak was preparing for war against his own people.
Ruhama Arbus, whose young husband served 20 days in a military jail and was expelled from his unit for raising a “Don’t Evacuate Homesh” sign, tried to explain: “He wanted to perform the mitzvah of protecting his people. Still, even if a Jewish king tells you to do something against halacha [Jewish law], you have to refuse.”
Barak, palpably infuriated by any challenge to government authority – especially from religious Jews – asserted that obedience is “the true basis of democracy.” He stated bluntly: “Tremendous force will silent any opposition.”
Undeterred, two-hundred 12th graders from all over Israel recently informed the defense minister that while they wished to perform military service they would not obey orders to expel Jews from their homes.
Their petition stated: “We consider the use of the army for political purposes and the war against Jews as a danger that can ruin the army, especially when it is involved in a grave sin against settling the Land. We declare that our faith in the Torah comes before any other law or order.”
Against this backdrop, memories of the Altalena were revived from a watery grave – not as the unmitigated tragedy it surely was but, astonishingly, as the preferred Israeli model for suppressing dissent.
Even the distinguished Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri, writing in Haaretz, praised Ben-Gurion’s “ruthless determination” in 1948 to preserve the army’s “monopoly on the legitimate use of force.”
But the cannon that sunk the Altalena on that tragic June day fired the first salvo – literally and symbolically – in a struggle over legitimacy that has tormented Israel ever since. One Altalena tragedy was enough. The State of Israel must not, yet again, set Jews against their Jewish brothers.
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Starting next week, Professor Beres’s column will be on summer hiatus until September. * * * * * In June 1998, Prof. Beres, following publication of an op-ed article in The New York Times, was invited by then-Swiss Ambassador Thomas Borer to present personal testimony before the specially-constituted Swiss Commission on World War II in [...]
Israel is a country that understands security concerns. Many civil rights have been sacrificed in the name of security and Israelis are used to being checked every time they enter a shopping center, a large store or any public building. Americans recently learned that they, too, are subject to many checks on their most private activities.
Without a clear worldview, it is impossible to coherently deal with the challenge of the strategic changes taking place throughout the world – and particularly in the Middle East. Before our very eyes, a worldwide and local revolution is unfolding; their significance is greater than both World Wars combined.
No one can envy President Obama’s current dilemma over Syria.
His decision to begin arming the Syrian rebels challenging Bashar Assad’s regime drew charges that the rebel forces are driven by jihad movements, particularly al Qaeda. Further, many rebel spokesmen have regularly denounced Israel and suggested that once in power they will end Mr. Assad’s policy of not rocking the boat with Israel. How, then, critics ask, could the president align the U.S. with the rebels?
In a gushing report on the election of Hassan Rohani as Iran’s new president, The New York Times began with this: “In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters…overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world.”
Last month in this space we noted that the New York State Assembly was considering legislation that would prohibit domestic insurers from including on their financial statements investments in companies that engage in investment activities in Iran. These financial statements are relied upon by the state to determine whether the company is solvent and able to pay claims. That bill has since passed the Assembly, but the New York State Senate is balking at passing it as well.
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If the eyes are the window to the soul, then children’s eyes are the window to the Almighty Himself.
Adding Turkey to the list of volatile states would mean even more uncertainty for Israel.
Is there no one who remembers this recent history?
Making Rouhani the president was a brilliant strategic move for Khamene’i.
Noone, least of all me, wants to see any Arab child suffer, God forbid.
The Sanctuary was built with an ezrat nashim, a separate area for women.
One of my searing early memories from Israel is a visit nearly four decades ago to the Ghetto Fighters Museum in the Beit Lohamei Hagetaot kibbutz. The world’s first Holocaust museum, it was built soon after the Independence War by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Nearly sixty-five years ago Israel declared its independence and won the war that secured a Jewish state. But its narrow and permeable postwar armistice lines permitted incessant cross-border terrorist raids. For Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the mere existence of a Jewish state remained an unbearable intrusion into the Arab Middle East. As Egyptian President Nasser declared, “The danger of Israel lies in the very existence of Israel.”
For anyone with historical memory the expulsion of Jews – by the Romans, English, French, Spaniards, Nazis, and Muslims – instantly evokes tragic episodes in Jewish history. Now the state of Israel expels Jews from their homes. Something is amiss in Zion.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist who would wrestle with the plight of Jews amid the enticements and dangers of modernity, felt trapped. For his son’s sake he considered conversion to Christianity; to solve the vexing “Jewish Question” he even fantasized the mass conversion of Jews.
The recent kerfluffle over Israeli government video ads and billboard posters, designed to entice wayward yordim to return home, instead exposed the troubled psyche of American Jews.
In the good old days, Forest Hills, New York – where I grew up between 1939 and 1951 – was a shtetl for assimilated American Jews. Like my parents, all our neighbors were American-born offspring of Eastern European immigrants. A generation removed from their identity conflicts, we children knew that Forest Hills, liberated from Judaism, was our promised land.
With Sgt. Gilad Shalit safely returned in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and murderers, celebration – propelled by wishful avoidance – spread throughout Israel.
In May 1967 Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook spoke to his former Mercaz HaRav students at their annual Independence Day reunion in Jerusalem. Usually a festive day of celebration, this year was different. Rabbi Kook sorrowfully recalled his feeling of despair nineteen years earlier, when the State of Israel was born: “I was torn to pieces. I could not celebrate.” Suddenly he cried out: “They have divided my land. Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem? And our Jericho – will we forget them?”
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