Few biblical verses are more commonly misquoted than Isaiah 49:17, in which the prophet promises Israel that they have not been forsaken, that the day will come when “your destroyers and despoilers shall leave you.” But the Hebrew words that mean “shall leave you” – mimech yetzei’u – can also be easily translated as “will come from among you.” Taken out of context, therefore, Isaiah’s promise of a secure future can be read to mean, “Those who destroy and despoil you will come from amongst you.” And though it’s not at all what Isaiah meant, the mistranslation still rings true.

Much has been written about the latest confrontation between Im Tirzu (“If You Will It,” an obvious reference to Herzl’s famous phrase), an organization of Israeli students committed to combating what it sees as post-Zionist or anti-Zionist forces in Israeli society and on Israeli campuses, and the New Israel Fund (NIF), which Im Tirzu accuses of funding many of the left-wing organizations that contributed to the findings of the Goldstone Report.

As in most such cases, both parties may have overreacted. Im Tirzu’s shameful ad depicting Naomi Chazan (president of the NIF) sporting a horn was in exceptionally poor taste, evoking the caricatures of Jews once common in Nazi publications and ubiquitous in today’s Arab press. But the NIF’s efforts to promote democracy in Israel, without question a laudable goal, also need calibration.

For any good to come out of the vicious battle of words between Im Tirzu and the NIF, certain elements of the Jewish world must recognize a plain truth that they would rather ignore. That truth is this – the Jewish People is at war.

There were decades in which the Arabs believed that Israel could be destroyed by standing armies. But that, even our enemies understand, is not about to happen. Since 1973, no standing Arab army has dared attack Israel. In subsequent years, the Arab world tried economic boycotts and terrorism. But neither destroyed the Jewish state. Having failed on those fronts, therefore, the Arab world has adopted a new strategy – the delegitimization of Israel. In this, it is joined by countries and individuals far from the Middle East.

OUR ENEMIES are winning this trial in the court of international opinion. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Jimmy Carter, Richard Goldstone and British courts issuing arrest warrants for Tzipi Livni are only the best-known witnesses. The real list is much more extensive. One does not need a vivid imagination to envision a scenario in which the world simply imposes a binational solution on this region. If one is not absolutely committed to Jewish sovereignty, that solution actually makes some sense. Thus, this war over Israel’s legitimacy is one that we cannot afford to lose.

Nor is the State of Israel all that is at stake. American Jewish life as we now take it for granted would not survive the loss of Israel for very long. It would take only a few years after Israel’s demise for American Jews to lose the confidence and optimism that they now take for granted. After all, what is different about the Spanish, French and Italians, on the one hand, and the Basques, Chechnyans and Tibetans on the other?

All six nations have rich histories, cultures, languages, religious traditions and more. But three help determine the course of history – because they have states – while the latter three are peoples to which history simply happens. Israel is what puts Jews in the former category rather than the latter. And the transformation from our being the objects of history to shapers of history has been so thorough that most Jews simply cannot imagine the profound change in Jewish life that would ensue were Israel a vestige of the past.

Because this is a war of words with potentially lethal consequences, words matter more than ever. Thus, those who believe that territorial concessions might bring about peace must do more than simply say that. They must ask whether now, as the international community creeps steadily closer to deciding that the re-creation of the Jewish state was a grave mistake (and as Iran makes constant progress in its quest for a nuclear weapon virtually unfettered by Western sanctions), is the time for Jews to ascend the steps of Capitol Hill to convince congressmen and women to put more pressure on Israel.

Similarly, few thoughtful people would deny that Israel’s democratic institutions need strengthening, or that as long as Israel’s Arabs remain in Israel, Israel ought to provide them greater economic opportunity and increased inclusion in Israel’s democratic processes.

BUT COMMITMENT to our democracy must not come at the cost of commitment to our survival. No country at war maintains the same freedoms of speech or action that countries not facing existential threat can permit themselves. Since the Jewish people is at war, it must think as a people at war must think.

One can understand some American philanthropists’ eagerness to support the Israeli-Arab organization Adalah, which purports to “promote and defend the rights of … Arab citizens of Israel.” Yet instinctive support for a vision of greater democracy isn’t sufficient in this day and age. Harder questions need to be asked. Adalah’s proposed Israeli “Democratic Constitution” calls for ending Israel as a Jewish state. Is that a proposition that American Jews should be funding, however indirectly? Adalah’s Web site discusses the “Israeli attack on Gaza,” offering no indication that Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, whatever one might think of its conduct, was a response to years of shelling from Gaza. Is that the perspective that American Jews, regardless of their political dispositions, ought to be funding as the world inches closer to declaring Israel a pariah state?

Im Tirzu is not the issue. Nor is the NIF, or Naomi Chazan. The issue is what a people at war for its very survival can allow itself. The issue is whether as the world’s noose tightens around the very notion of Israel’s legitimacy, Jews can allow themselves the liberties we might otherwise permit ourselves were we not fighting for our very existence. As the fate of Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us, it takes only a few words to move from a vision of a secure future to one in which those who could destroy us come from our very own midst.

The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent book Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End (Wiley, 2009), was recently awarded a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org.

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