Good can come of this conflict. But it’s only as likely as Israel makes it.

bronze medallion, depicting the founders of the Jewish state
“ISRAEL: A Dream Fulfilled” bronze medallion, depicting the founders of the Jewish state. For sale on Ebay.

This is not a political blog. It is supposed to be about events that occurred thousands of years ago and how they relate to the writing of historical fiction. But some of those events, specifically the narratives we have created about them in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran, have the power to arouse passions in billions of people today. In hundreds of thousands of believers, those passions are so overwhelming they can lead to lethal violence. So I do have something to say here about what has happened in the past week, and what may occur in the coming months, despite the distance between that subject and biblical archaeology.

First of all, however, I want to be transparent. I have been pretty far to the political left in all three countries in which I have lived: the U.S., Israel, and Germany. In fact, my life could be held up as an example of idealism. I was born and raised a New York Jew by two other New York Jews, and my New York Jewish grandfather briefly served in WWII. And yet I moved to Germany, married a non-Jewish German, learned to speak German fluently, and had a German child. And as an American who grew up during the Cold War, I counted communist East Germans among my very best friends for years. My mother and her second husband, who was an Israeli political scientist, had frequent professional and collegial interactions with Palestinians; when my stepfather died thirteen years ago, a Palestinian friend paid a long and warm condolence call.

And yet I am more afraid now of the American left, and their willingness to stigmatize one minority in the name of supporting another, than I have ever been in my life. The story of the Stanford professor telling students that Jews are “colonizers” froze my blood. I don’t remember a time before Israel existed. But I was in middle school during the 1973 war, and certainly do remember a feeling of desperation at the thought of losing the Jewish homeland. Most of the commentators I have read do not believe that Hamas can destroy Israel. I disagree. Hamas cannot destroy Israel militarily, perhaps; but they don’t have to. They can cause Israel’s destruction by manipulating us into choices that wipe out the goodwill we enjoy in the U.S. Once that goodwill is gone, Israel will not last another five years. Our defense is too dependent on the largesse of Congress. Iran will not waste a golden opportunity to strengthen Hezbollah’s ability to take on Israel’s northern defenses, nor Syria the chance to reconquer the Golan Heights. And if the north goes, the populous middle — Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — will not be far behind.

I truly believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is arrogant and selfish enough to make choices that will doom Israel’s future in order to save his own skin. His government, composed largely of men whose lethal passions are channeled through narratives in the Hebrew Bible, would push him in that direction even if he didn’t have the tendency already. His failure to rebuke Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for calling Palestinians “human animals” is only the latest indicator of his utter lack of a moral compass. His failure to stop settler rampages in the West Bank and to hold the perpetrators criminally accountable is another recent example. The actions of these gangs were no different from those of the Nazis who attacked Jewish businesses on Reichspogromnacht (which is a German word meaning “Pogrom night of the Reich,” and is the accepted modern substitute for the more famous term Kristallnacht). The Jewish state should be the last place in the world to indulge such terrorism, rather than allowing it to flourish with impunity.

And now Netanyahu stands on the brink of making yet more horrifying decisions. If the death toll among Palestinians in Gaza rises too far, the clamor in the rest of the world is likely to grow deafening (and rightly so). Netanyahu is only one in a long line of Israeli and Arab leaders, including the current heads of state in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as Mohammad Abbas of Fatah in the West Bank, who have either actively oppressed everyday Palestinians or passively enabled their oppression for their own political convenience. But the Israeli Prime Minister’s moves over the next few weeks will determine whether Israel ever reaches its centennial, as well as the fate of world Jewry. Where will I go if my synagogue is firebombed and young people hail the act as a blow against “the colonizers”? Should I counsel my child, currently in college, to avoid their campus Hillel at Chanukah for fear of an assault by students who believe that Israel has forfeited its right to exist?

Normally, democratically elected leaders are as much constrained and guided by their electorates as they are movers and shakers in their own right. It is the totality of their actions that really matter, much more than specific policies. But at certain inflection points in history, the people in the room where a few crucial choices are made can determine the future for generations. A handful of Zionists and government heads in Washington and London were in that position in 1948. They were put there by the vast constellation of German anti-Semites and Jewish dead that had repulsed the world in the years prior, and their decisions led to an incredibly unlikely outcome: the establishment of the state of Israel. This does not justify what the Nazis did, or redeem the murdered six million. But there is no question in my mind that, without those endless piles of poisoned, emaciated, half-burned bodies, and absent international disgust and guilt at sharing a species with Hitler, Israel would never have come into being. It was not at all inevitable that the mammoth evil of the Holocaust would lead to the great if not unadulterated good of a Jewish homeland — but David ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir successfully navigated that narrow path. Netanyahu, his newly-incorporated rival Benny Gantz and their temporary unity government, which unfortunately includes Gallant, are at a similar crossroads now.

On Friday night, my rabbi exhorted us to cling to our tradition’s great values of justice and peace. Hamas wins, he warned us, if we allow our ideals to be smothered in the name of vengeance. I am praying for a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, although I do not accept the literal truth of the Hebrew Bible narratives and therefore do not supplicate the god portrayed therein. But in my prayers is a thought that I have yet to hear expressed in the media. Israel’s emergency government could give meaning to the worst day in Jewish history since the Holocaust by finally — finally! — facilitating the creation of a thriving homeland for the Palestinians. The dancers, the kibbutzniks, the grandmothers and babies, the young soldiers in their underwear, the captives — their deaths and their suffering could bend the arc of history towards shalom, salaam . . . if Netanyahu and Gantz make the right decisions, as the founders of Israel did before them.

In those razors’-edge days when the future of the Jews was in their hands, the founders’ bedrock was a willingness to make sacrifices for a just peace. This must become our goal once more if the Jewish state is to remain in existence.

4 thoughts on “Good can come of this conflict. But it’s only as likely as Israel makes it.”

  1. Hi Bonnie,
    You have fantastic insight. Your views are beautifully expressed and helpful to my understanding of this madness. I love the simplistic way you’ve broken down and compared the current situation to the creation of Israel. You should be a commentator for CNN.

    1. OMG! Your comment reminds me of the old Woody Allen line: I would never want to join a club that would have me as a member. And definitely not the POTUS club! But thank you for the kind words.

  2. Howard Ehrlichman

    I am afraid Iran and Hamas are better chess players than the Israelis. The are three steps ahead. They knew showing the carnage and massacres would bring out the call for vengeance in Israel and would produce a response that would eventually turn world opinion against Israel. As horrific as the Hamas slaughter was, the support for Israel will shift when images of starving Gazans replace images of slaughtered Israelis. I have no doubt this has been Iran/Hamas’s plan all along. Cutting off electricity, food and water is pure stupidity and plays into the Iran/Hamas playbook. My only hope is that Biden is strong enough to force a change in the current Israeli plans before the world turns against Israel.

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