Golda Meir’s bodyguard, Adam Snir, told reporters that Israel’s then-prime minister during the Yom Kippur War rejected her defense minister’s suggestion that Israel use a nuclear weapon to defend itself against attacking Arab armies. “That’s the last thing I need,” Meir told Moshe Dayan, according to Snir. Supposedly, Israel had committed to America not to use its nuclear arsenal unless its very existence was under threat. In the first few days of the Yom Kippur War, it seemed to Dayan that Israel could be looking at its end.
The Yom Kippur War wouldn’t have been Israel’s first time facing an existential threat, but it would be its last. From its very inception, and arguably before, Israel faced multiple Arab armies who outnumbered them and potentially could’ve defeated Israel. In 1948, 1956 and 1967 Israel faced looming threats, went to war, and successfully defended itself. After its successful defensive victory in 1973, Israel never again faced an existential threat.
In 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was told that Iraq’s nuclear program was designed to be a weapons program and could be used against Israel. In 2007 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was told the same news about a Syrian nuclear reactor. Both Prime Ministers understood that if either country attained nuclear weapons, they would be used to end Israel. Instead of waiting until the nuclear threat was realized, both Prime Ministers preemptively bombed their enemy’s nuclear reactors and ended the threat before it began.
Israel has faced years of fedayeen attacks from Egypt, two intifadas, tens of thousands of rockets, thousands of terror attacks and boycotts, all aimed to scare Israelis out of Israel and end Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians began campaigns of delegitimization to ostracize Israel in the international community, accused it of occupation, apartheid, war crimes and even the grotesque slander of harvesting Palestinian organs. They recruited the United Nations to their efforts, all to shame Israel and have it face pressure from the international community to turn their Jewish state into a Palestinian state. All these attacks and efforts failed. Today, Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon with the explicit aim of annihilating Israel. To date, Israel and its allies have kept Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but Iran is still trying. Currently, there are no enemies that pose an existential threat to Israel.
The lack of an existential threat should give Israelis a sense of security, but it’s becoming clear that Israel is facing an existential threat of a different nature. Only by studying Jewish history can we understand the existential threat Israel currently faces. The end of Israel’s second commonwealth, when the Roman Empire destroyed the second Temple and exiled the Israelites from the land of Israel, was brought about by baseless hatred between groups. Baseless hatred is difficult to identify; anyone accused of baseless hatred is bound to justify their hate by claiming their hate is warranted.
This past Rosh Chodesh a horrific scene played out at the Ezrat Yisrael section of the Western Wall. Conservative Jews held a prayer service which included a bar mitzvah. Some charedi Jews, opposing an egalitarian service with mixed seating, attacked the worshippers. I won’t recount exactly what the charedi attackers did, but antisemitism expert Deborah Lipstadt wrote, “Had these acts been anywhere else in the world, they’d be considered antisemitism.” Around the world, people couldn’t help but be shocked at the hate filled scene at the Western Wall that day.
The existential threat Israel faces today doesn’t come from an external enemy but from internal division. Nothing is more corrosive for a functional and healthy Jewish nation than internal division. Healthy debate over important issues always produces a better society – usually through compromise. When healthy debate turns into hateful division, society begins to fall apart and violent scenes, like the one at the Ezrat Yisrael section of the Western Wall, begin to occur.
Creating unity between different groups of our people doesn’t require uniformity in thought or policy. It requires respect and a healthy dose of nuance. Listening to other groups of people doesn’t validate their positions or declare your agreement with them. Hearing other viewpoints demonstrates a willingness to come together and stop unhealthy divisions and the threat it brings.
The mission of Zionists must be to build internal bridges among our people. Zionists must improve the infrastructure of our society just as much as they improve the physical infrastructure of the land. The focus of the Jewish people, from the charedi to the secular, from Reform to Orthodox and anywhere in between, must be to move past division and focus on the issues that unite. To ensure this third commonwealth succeeds and develops into something even greater, Zionists must work hard at uniting the Jewish people. The first step is listening to one another.