Golda Meir, Israel's most celebrated model of straitlaced probity, once gave a pep talk to 15 diplomatic probationers at the Foreign Ministry whose head she was in 1958. Clearly wishing to take our measure, she leaned leisurely into her chair, combed back her bunned hair with the fingers of both hands, lit up a cigarette, and eyeing us through the flame of the match, said in a Hebrew filled with Milwaukee-sounding pronunciations, "Are you sure you greenhorns want to join the Foreign Service? Representing the Jewish state can be a very lonely experience. I'll tell you why: When I'm at the United Nations I look around me and think to myself, we have no family here. Israel is entirely by itself in the international community, less than popular, and certainly misunderstood. All we have to fall back on is our own Jewish, Zionist faith."
Whereupon, her tone gritty, her fists balled, she proceeded to ask herself, "Why should this be? Why such solitude? Why is it that we are the one country in the world that is Jewish? Why are we the one country in the world whose language is Hebrew? Why is it that we have no independent kith and kin, or any historic relationship with any other state, or group of states, or cultures, or religions, or languages, as do say, the Anglo-Saxon nations, or the Christian nations, or the Muslim nations, or the Nordic nations, or the Slav peoples, or the Francophonic nations, or the Spanish-speaking, or the Arabic-speaking, or the Chinese-speaking peoples?"
HERE SHE paused to rummage inside her copious black leather handbag, from the depths of which she extracted a handkerchief with which she blew her bulbous nose, and then, shoulders stooped, face glum, voice pensive, continued, "Everybody in the world has sovereign and cultural family except us. Everybody in the United Nations is grouped into blocs bound by a common geography, or religion, or history, or culture, except us. They vote in solidarity, like family. We belong to no family. Our most natural regional allies - our Arab neighbors - don't want anything to do with us. Indeed, they want to destroy us. So we really belong nowhere and to no one except to ourselves, impelled by our own Jewish, Zionist faith."
With that, the foreign minister stubbed out her cigarette and brooded over the ashtray, clearly pondering her next thought. When it came her voice was mulish: "Since we have no blood ties to stand by us in solidarity we suffer severe diplomatic consequences. Nobody recognizes Jerusalem as our capital city. We have no membership in any international regional alliance. We have no membership in any trade area. We enjoy no international recognition of our national medical emblem, the Magen David Adom. We have no accredited membership in any United Nations regional grouping. Consequently, we are the only UN member that has no prospect of ever becoming a member of the Security Council.
"Of course," she added with a pious smile, "there is one important exception - our natural blood ties with our fellow Jews in the Diaspora. But everywhere they are a minority, and nowhere do they enjoy any form of national or cultural autonomy, let alone sovereignty."
Thus spoke this extraordinary woman, then in her early sixties, making no attempt to answer her own earth-shattering question: why, indeed, was the Jewish state without any sovereign kith or kin in the family of nations? Why was Israel the odd state out?
Years later, when she was prime minister and I a member of her staff, I discovered she had an aversion to analytical, conceptual discourse of any sort. A tough character with a domineering streak, Golda Meir knew to ask the right questions but was wont to simplify the most complex issues and go straight to the crux of the matter for a practical answer. Impatient with the convoluted theorems favored by academics and seasoned career diplomats, she wanted bottom-line answers. And, for her, "Jewish, Zionist faith" was a bottom-line answer.
THIS ENIGMA, of Israel's diplomatic solitude, once came up for discussion at the Bible study circle which Menachem Begin regularly hosted at his home when he became prime minister in 1977. Every Saturday night 20-odd people, among them Bible scholars of repute, would seat themselves comfortably around the couch on which Mr. Begin sat, and for an hour or so would zestfully delve into an attention-grabbing biblical text.
On the Saturday night in question the chosen text was from the Book of Numbers, chapters 22 to 24, in which the Bible records how, 38 years after the children of Israel embarked on their Exodus from Egypt and two years before entering the Promised Land, the heathen prophet Balaam was coaxed by the Moabite king Balak to curse the advancing Israelites and thereby devastate them.
However, Balaam, impelled by God's command, and much to Balak's fury, found himself involuntarily blessing them profusely instead.
The discussion that evening centered primarily on the evocative verse nine of chapter 23, in which Balaam foretells with remarkable prescience the future destiny of the Jewish people, predicting that "this is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations."
Reading the verse out loud, prime minister Begin fixedly peered at the page of his Bible as though studying a museum manuscript and, sounding a mild chuckle, said, "One does not have to be a mystic for the imagination to be stirred by such an improbable vision of a nation 'dwelling alone.' What Balaam said is a startlingly accurate prophecy of our Jewish people's experience in all of history."
Professor Ephraim Urbach, a rotund, semi-bald scholar of refinement, wit and brilliance, cited classic commentators to suggest "dwelling alone" really meant voluntarily setting oneself apart. In other words, the Jewish nation distinguished itself from other peoples by virtue of its distinctive religious and moral laws, and by the fact that it had been chosen by God as the instrument of a Divine purpose within the family of nations.
A woman in her fifties raised a finger for attention. She was fairly tall and lean, her face equine, her dress an unfussy nut brown, her beret a plain gray, her shoes sensible, and her eyes brilliantly intelligent. This was Nehama Leibowitz, famous for her profound biblical scholarship and for her immensely popular weekly Torah discourses, composed in a comprehensive and highly comprehensible style, graspable even to laymen.
Deftly, she drew attention to the verse's grammatical structure, elaborating upon and reinforcing Professor Urbach's comment, explaining that the verb yit'hashav, generally translated in English to mean reckoned - "this is a people that shall not be reckoned among the nations" - was here rendered in the reflexive form [hitpa'el], meaning, "this is a people that does not reckon itself among the nations."
As an aside, she pointed out that this form of that particular Hebrew word - yit'hashav - occurs but once in the whole of Scripture.
Professor Ya'acov Katz, a slight figure with dour features and a deeply analytical disposition, broke in to refer to the eminent talmudist Marcus Jastrow. Citing Jastrow's talmudic sources, Katz showed the hitpa'el of the root word hashav, ["reckon"] signifies "to conspire," meaning that Israel "is a people that dwells alone and does not conspire against other nations."
Another participant, whom everybody knew simply as Srulik - a ginger, bushy-haired archeologist and Bible prodigy in an emerald-green yarmulke which he had picked up at the door - provocatively remarked that whatever which way one interpreted Balaam's prophecy it stamped the Jewish people as an eternally abnormal nation within the family of nations. This flew in the face of the classic Zionist creed which expounded that Zionism's aim was to normalize the Jewish people so that it should become a goy k'chol hagoyim - a nation like other nations.
Indeed, the central thesis of the Zionist theorists and thinkers of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries was that once Jews possessed what every other normal nation possesses - a country of their own - they would automatically become a normal nation within the international community. And the consequence of that, so the classic Zionist theory went, would be that anti-Semitism would wither and die.
TO WHICH Dr. Haim Gevrayahu, chairman of the Israel Bible Society, and involved in one way or another in many high-profiled Bible study circles throughout the country, added words to the effect that, in making their confident predictions, one wondered in hindsight what led those brilliant secular Zionist founding fathers of yesteryear to believe that Jewish self-determination would, of itself, lead to national normalization and put an end to anti-Semitism. Indeed, were Jews to become a normal people they would cease being Jewish. But that could never happen because nothing could ever put an end to anti-Semitism. In fact, one thing to be learned from the biblical portion under review was that the so-called prophet Balaam was the archetype anti-Semite. His whole intent was to curse the Jews, not to bless them. The blessing was God's doing, not his.
This triggered off a firestorm of controversy because some of the scholars present took the Bible as a paradigm of God's own writing, while others related to it secularly as a piece of extraordinary literature.
LISTENING attentively, Mr. Begin lowered the temperature by saying in an earnest voice that it could hardly be denied by any reading of the text that the Jewish people did, indeed, live separate, apart, and often alone. And to prove his point he picked up a volume called A People That Dwells Alone. This was an anthology of the utterances of Dr. Ya'acov Herzog, confidant of several prime ministers, and universally admired for his remarkable gifts as a diplomat, philosopher, talmudist and theologian. Scion of a famous rabbinic family, he was the son of Israel's first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Isaac Halevy Herzog, and younger brother of Chaim, who was to become Israel's sixth president. He died in 1972 at the age of 50. To me, he was a mentor, counselor and tutor.
The prose of Ya'acov Herzog's anthology reads like a great rolling stone, accumulating intellectual threads and philosophic concepts as it gathers momentum and accelerates deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Jewish identity and eternity. And it was one such concept that Menachem Begin chose to quote that night to the members of his Bible study circle. He read:
The theory of classic Zionism was national normalization. What was wrong with the theory? It was the belief that the idea of a "people that dwells alone" is an abnormal concept, when actually a "people that dwells alone" is the natural concept of the Jewish people. That is why this one phrase still describes the totality of the extraordinary phenomenon of Israel's revival. If one asks how the ingathering of the exiles, which no one could have imagined in his wildest dreams, came about, or how the State of Israel could endure such severe security challenges, or how it has built up such a flourishing economy, or how the unity of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora has been preserved, one must come back to the primary idea that this is "a people that dwells alone." More than that, one must invoke this phrase not only to understand how the Jews have existed for so long; one must invoke it as a testimony to the Jewish right to exist at all in the land of their rebirth.
"So there you have it," concluded Begin, closing the book with a resolute air. "Cease 'dwelling alone' and you cease to exist. What a conundrum!"
The writer served on the staff of five prime ministers, including Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. firstname.lastname@example.org