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Over the centuries of exile and dispersion, the Jewish people have mainly been portrayed as a weak, defenseless people, subject to the varying whims of inimical rulers and to the vagaries of time and society.
To a great degree, this characterization was of necessity an accurate one. Alone and outnumbered, persecuted by dogmatic faiths and jealous hatreds, the Jewish people survived by an inner strength and belief in the justice of their cause, the truth of their beliefs and an unswerving commitment to their better tomorrow.
This inner strength, more powerful than any weapon of destruction, was reflected by the words of the prophet Zecharia who long ago proclaimed: "Not by strength nor by might, but rather by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts."
But the Jewish people became restless under the yoke of servile acceptance of the abuse and suffering heaped upon them. What the Jewish world was willing to accept because they had no choice in the Middle Ages in Europe, it was less willing to accept in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Zionism was built upon the bedrock of Jewish power and strength. Jewish participation in the revolutionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries - Communism, Socialism, Anarchism, etc. - was founded more or less on the famous dictum of the great murderer Mao Tse Tung: "Power comes from the end of the barrel of a gun." This change of attitude was a radical departure from traditional Jewish thought and attitude over the years of exile. In my opinion, this was one of the greatest changes that Zionism wrought within the Jewish society and how Jews began to think about themselves and their future, vis-a-vis their enemies and foes.
Over the long years of exile, Jews were always taught to have a low profile, never to provoke, confront or antagonize the non-Jewish society they lived in. The destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust provided a painful opportunity to reassess this behavior pattern and attitude. The new idea of Jewish power and physical strength, of no longer accepting indignities, discrimination and abuse, took hold in the Jewish communities of the United States and the Land of Israel in the latter half of the 20th century.
In the United States this was a matter of legal battles, public education for equality and a Jewish sense that the US was different from all other places of exile - that eventually a realization that a Jew could be accepted as an American without compromising one's Jewishness would take hold. In the Land of Israel this new Jewish attitude of assertiveness took on the form of armed conflict and power from the barrel of a gun. The success of Israel in all of its wars changed the image of the Jew in much of the world. The accusation of servility and being parasites now was changed into the canard of Jewish aggression and unwarranted use of its military might. Just look up the UN resolutions against Israel to understand the world's changed perception of us.
But just as abject servility was no answer to the "Jewish problem," unrestrained use of strength and power has also proven to be an unworkable long-term solution. This is especially true, since the exercise of physical strength and power sadly expunged God's spirit and Torah values from many of those who wielded this newfound strength and power. The Israeli statement that "when strength doesn't work, try more strength" has not really achieved much in our social lives and in the diplomatic arena of the world.
The Torah is a Torah of balance, of the balancing of contradictory ideas and philosophies. Not exercising power is suicide for Israel and the Jewish world in today's world of terrorism, profound danger and existentialist threats. But a nation without spirit and tradition, without rituals and common observances, cannot triumph on the basis of physical power and strength alone. The values of a secular society alone, devoid of Jewish content and tradition, and fully reliant solely on physical power and strength, will prove insufficient to carry us past the difficult challenges that yet await us. By not emphasizing the idea of "My spirit" in our society, not in its politics, on its roads, in the everyday conduct of its citizens, we do a great disservice to ourselves and to future generations. Strength and spirit were meant to be applied and used wisely and in consort one with another.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).
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