A DOSE OF NUANCE: Their revolutions, and ours

As Syrians continue to slaughter each other and Egyptian democracy fades into memory, Israelis have good cause to reflect on...

Free Syrian Army members370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Free Syrian Army members370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Syrians continue to slaughter each other and Egyptian democracy fades into memory, Israelis have good cause to reflect on – and to take pride in – the exceptional nature of our own revolution some 65 years ago.
What was extraordinary about the Zionist revolution was not only that a viable, democratic state emerged, but rather, that the Jews of the Yishuv, bitterly divided over the nature of the country we sought to create, created one Israel without killing each other.
We were hardly alone in being so divided.
As Joseph Ellis, the lyrical historian of early America, writes in Founding Brothers, “With the American revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended.”
Part of the miracle of Israel’s creation has been that although the Jewish state has been at war since before its re-creation, internal political violence has been, albeit with a few tragic exceptions, virtually nonexistent. Ellis, again: “In... the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, as well as the multiple movements for national independence in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the leadership class of the successful revolution proceeded to decimate itself in bloody reprisals that frequently assumed genocidal proportions.” But there was no wave of bloody reprisals in the American Revolution, Ellis notes, and we Israelis often point with pride to the fact that we, too, have avoided that kind of bloodshed.
If we’re to be honest, though, we must acknowledge that this narrative is a bit over-simplified. Commencing with the assassination of Jacob Israël de Haan, who was murdered in 1924 apparently by the Hagana for offering the Arabs a deal in which Jews would give in to their demand for sovereignty, and continuing with the murder of Haim Arlosoroff in 1933 (possibly for his negotiations with Nazi Germany) and the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, our internal divisions have resulted in more blood being shed than we might like to admit.
But “political murder is not civil war,” it will be said. True, but we’ve had a brief taste of civil war, as well. For in the Altalena affair (June 1948), about which we like to say that civil war was narrowly avoided, there was shooting between (former) Hagana men and (former) Irgun Zva’i Leumi fighters, on the ship, in the water, on the beach and in the city. Sixteen IZL men died, as did three from the IDF; dozens were wounded and hundreds were arrested. It was shortlived, thankfully, but it was, as Menachem Begin would later call it, “civil war with the enemy at the gates.”
Thanks largely to Begin, the Altalena incident did not spin out of control. But his influence at that moment aside, what has been the secret of our not having succumbed to the vicious bloodletting of other revolutions? Was it the fact that we were just emerging from the Shoah, and that whatever our differences, we knew we could not afford more carnage? Was it the Jewish intellectual tradition of probing discourse in which irreconcilably opposing views coexist on the same page of Talmud, with both opinions seen as sacred? Was it, as Begin put it, that there were “enemies at the gates,” which meant that we could not both kill each other and still win the war? It was all of these, probably, and undoubtedly more, much of which still eludes definition.
IN THESE post-Tisha Be’av days, as we emerge from a three-week period of intense mourning, it is tempting for us to look at French and Russian history and to say, “But not us.” It is tempting to glance with derision at Syria and Egypt, and to note how different we are.
But are we really as immune as we might like to believe? When a rabbi at the United Talmudical Academy in Spring Valley, New York, teaches his ninth-grade students that “In Israel, they have a government that is against religious freedom, and because of that we want to explain to the children that [Zionism] is against our religion, [and that] we are Jewish and they are not Jewish,” is the Jewish people not inching closer to a line we must never cross? When haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who have the courage to ignore public rebuke and enlist to help defend the Jewish state against its sworn enemies are attacked in haredi neighborhoods, and when the rabbis of those communities do not speak out against the violence, are we not becoming much more like those who surround this country than we might like to imagine? When the images on posters in haredi neighborhoods smack of the rhetoric used by Nazis about Jews (an IDF soldier crashes through a stone wall while pursuing three frightened haredi boys who are crying out for their mothers, while at the top of the cartoon, a crocheted kippa morphs into a cockroach), are we really that far from descending into the violence to which we are witnessing all around us? Are we nearly as immune as we might like to believe? Let us not pretend not to know what we do know. The violence has started, and our government has shown itself utterly unwilling or unable to invite haredim into our universe, and at the same time to use the iron fist needed to make it clear that whatever our divisions, their violence will not be tolerated.
When an Arab in the West Bank attacks a Jew, the security forces find him or her, usually very quickly. But when Jews attack Israeli soldiers, in flagrant violation of everything our revolution was meant to stand for, how many are arrested? How many houses are searched? How many rabbis who encourage the behavior are called in for questioning, jailed, or have their yeshivot shut down? Almost none, as it turns out.
Joseph Ellis is right about America’s bloodless aftermath, but there’s a coda to that story. America may not have descended into bloody reprisals right after 1776, but its days of agony were not over. Some 80 years later, the great unresolved issue of American life – slavery – erupted into Civil War, nearly destroying what would become the greatest nation on earth.
Were it not for Abraham Lincoln, a man of resolve and courage coupled with a wise temperament, matters might have ended very differently.
We Israelis, too, more than half a century into our own independence, have yet to resolve the great unaddressed question our Founders chose to overlook in 1948.
We, too, are witness to the first rounds of violence, and we, too, know that it could well get much worse.
The parallels are both extraordinary and disturbing. But perhaps most worrisome is that fact that there is no Lincoln in our midst, no matter where one looks, as far as the eye can see. ■
The writer is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem.
His most recent book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, was named by Jewish Ideas Daily as one of the best Jewish books of 2012. His new book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, will be published by Nextbook in 2014.