The Audacity of Nope

For too many, the miracle of Israel has faded, and we cannot secure our future if we do not believe in it ourselves.
Dr. Tal Becker is a Vice President and Senior Faculty of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker served, until recently,

There is so much anguish these days in the Jewish discussion about Israel. The sheer ugliness of the attack by a group of settlers on an army base last week brought home for many the distance between Israel as it is and Israel as we want it to be. Whether we are debating internal issues (like controversial laws in the Knesset or ultra-Orthodox measures to exclude women from public spaces), or external challenges (like Iran or the “peace process”) our language is often tinged with a sense of essential pessimism about Israel’s fate.

For too many, the miracle of Israel has faded. It has crashed against the rocks of prolonged conflict, the harsh reality of the Middle East, and the interminable power struggles between competing groups within Israeli society. The redemptive promise of Israel and its incredible achievements have given way in the eyes of many Jews to Israel as a source of worry and disappointment, and for some, of embarrassment and despair.

There is for too many this sense of inevitability about the negative direction the country is headed. The term “existential threat,” whether from external danger or internal strife, has become a staple of our conversation. And many speak as if it is only a matter of time before the next war, only a matter of time before peace becomes impossible, only a matter of time before demographic realities render a Jewish and democratic state unsustainable.

It is as if this alarmist language ignores our capacity to influence events, ignores the repeated tendency of our history to surprise us with unexpected changes and new opportunities. The debate seems to have settled on the depressing conclusion that time is inexorably against us, when it is surely more accurate to say that time is primarily against those who do not use it in their favor.

Even if one believes, as I do, that Israel faces immense challenges, the net effect of allowing this kind of doomsday rhetoric to dominate Jewish discourse is profoundly harmful and often misleading.

It is time to realize that the public obsession with the precariousness of Israel’s existence can only strengthen those who seek to threaten it. People like Khamenei in Iran and Nasrallah in Lebanon thrive on the idea that Israel’s presence in the region is temporary, that wiping Israel off the map is somehow a realistic objective. Belief in our invincibility, and projecting that sense across the region (alongside concrete measures to enhance our deterrence) is critical to undermining the extremists, as well as to assisting more pragmatic forces in the Middle East to make the case that dreams of destroying Israel are fanciful and self-defeating.

As dangerous as Israel’s predicament may be, we are surely in a better place strategically than we were before 1948 or on the eve of 1967. We are not going anywhere. There are many compelling reasons to be confident in our ability to protect ourselves and advance our interests even if the challenges are complex and grave. Israel is strong economically and militarily and it has a reservoir of human talent and a record of achievement that would be the envy of most nations. In the era of Jewish sovereignty, we have the responsibility and capacity to initiate solutions to our problems, not just complain about how severe they are.

Countering this defeatist language is also critical to nurturing the moral fiber and national character of the Jewish people and to cultivating a conversation about Israel that is rich and serious. There are, of course, advantages to concentrating on our vulnerability – not least in the appeal for world sympathy, as well as in the ability to spur Jewish unity and philanthropy. But we pay a high price for this message. We pay it in a young generation that seems increasingly disconnected from engagement with Israel which is too negative and too focused on survival for survival’s sake. We send a demoralizing message to Israel’s citizens and soldiers that its leaders lack faith in its future. We produce a shrill, unhealthy debate in which opposing sides demonize each other by essentially arguing that, since we are on a knife’s edge, the standard rules of respectful and pluralistic debate cannot apply.

From a Jewish perspective too, this approach is deeply counterproductive. The Jewish people are 3,500 years old. We have seen it all. Our tradition believes that human history is ultimately a story of human progress (even if that progress is uneven). And our record as a people is testament to the enduring truth of the idea that “??? ????? ?? ????” – “the eternity of Israel will not lie” (Samuel 1, 15:29). Naturally, we can never afford to be complacent about our future, but we have little chance of securing it if we do not believe in it ourselves.

Jewish leaders can, through their example, dampen this fatalistic tone and discourage the sense of inevitability and the “can’t do” attitude that is so contrary to the Zionist spirit. This does not mean that the challenges and threats facing Israel are not genuine or daunting. But we need to realize that our attitude and self-belief are not simply reactions to the reality we face, they are themselves central factors in shaping that reality, and in determining our chances of improving it.

As we approach Hanukah – where we celebrate the improbable triumph of the few against the many – we need to reclaim the spirit of the Maccabim. Those “ancient Zionists” refused to succumb to fatalism, to the “audacity of nope,” and not only sought to regain control of Jewish history, but also believed in their ability and their duty to do so. Our tradition, our potential and our interests oblige us to do the same.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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