In My Own Write: Seeing is believing, most of the time

You'd think that being there would be enough to establish the fact you exist. Not for some people.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
Here's a number - 5,230. What does it represent? There's no earthly reason why anyone would know, offhand, so I'll tell you. It's the number of times "Does Israel have a right to exist?" appears on the Internet - often as the headline of an opinion article - as I found out when I typed the query into the Google search engine. It seems a lot of folks out there are posing that question, even though, on the face of it, it's an odd, even ridiculous one. To appreciate just how odd and ridiculous, substitute the name of any other established, functioning, breathing country. Does Britain have a right to exist? France? Russia? Ghana? Ivory Coast? Morocco? Jordan? Egypt? Syria? Google gave five results for France; one each for Britain and Russia. Morocco got none. Same for Ghana. It put me in mind of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" - a premise most sensible people wouldn't waste their time disputing. In the same way, surely, a country exists, and therefore is? THIS line of thinking was somewhat validated by my next move. Just for fun, I typed in: Does North Korea have a right to exist? I had forgotten to establish the parameters of the question by putting quotation marks around it - so the bulk of the hits I got still dealt with Israel, a common variation being "Does Israel really have a right to exist?" But I did come across this exchange from an August 1, 2003 press conference by John R. Bolton, then US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, at the US Embassy in Tokyo: Question: "Does Kim Jong-il's government in North Korea have a right to exist?" Undersecretary Bolton: "I think the government does exist. In the great world of characterization of foreign policy species within the American government, I'm a realist and that's the basis on which we and everyone else in the region and the world are dealing with it." In other words: This is a regime that teeters at the very end of the line of regimes acceptable to the US; but it's there, it exists in the world, and we need to accept that. And about whether North Korea, the country itself, has a right to exist - well, who would ask a silly question like that? Or, equally, about Iran? MENACHEM Begin was a realist too. He understood the Jewish reality. He saw the birth of the State of Israel as a country no less legitimate than any other, and maybe more legitimate than some. He personally witnessed something akin to the prophet Ezekiel's awe-inspiring vision (37:1-14) in which a valley of dry bones - post-Holocaust Jewry - became clothed with sinews, flesh and skin, had breath put in their lungs, stood up on their feet as "a multitude" and proceeded to build a bustling, modern state in their biblical homeland. In June 1977, speaking to the press on his first day as prime minister of Israel, Begin smelled malice but was restrained in his answer to a British reporter's provocative question about Israel's right to exist: "Traditionally, there are four major criteria of statehood under international law. One: effective and independent government. Two: effective and independent control of the population. Three: a defined territory. And four: the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations. "Israel is in possession of all four and, hence, is a fully- fledged sovereign state and a fully accredited member of the United Nations" (From "Sniffing the foul air of prejudice" by Yehuda Avner, The Jerusalem Post, February 17, 2004). But the exchange had rattled Begin considerably, and, as Avner recalled, that led him to make this addition to his prepared speech to the Knesset several hours later: "The right to exist? Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for its people recognition of its right to exist? Their existence per se is their right to exist!" The new premier went on to detail the Jews' "historic, eternal and inalienable right to Eretz Yisrael" in an oration that had MKs rising to their feet "in full-throated acclaim." Begin subsequently refused to be drawn into any kind of debate over Israel's right to exist. There was simply nothing to discuss. ONE can only conjecture how Begin - a proud Jew with "an all-encompassing grasp of Jewish history" whose "memory instinctively went back thousands of years and his vision forward thousands of years," as Avner wrote in another piece two years later - would have responded on learning that the question of Israel's right to exist has been publicly raised many thousands of times. What can be said is that far too many Jews and Israelis today lack anything approaching Begin's "surfeit of both Jewish self-respect and Jewish memory." And that's tragic, because if you aren't familiar with your own legacy and as a consequence are wobbly on Jewish individual and national self-respect, how can you affirm the Jewish right to exist in this land? When your own history is a blank to you, the vacuum is easily filled by someone else's rewriting of it; which has happened with too many Jews here and abroad, infected by an insidious and unrelenting propaganda assault that undermines their right to statehood in their own Jewish country. TALKING about Jewish self-respect propels me back to summer 2007, when I accompanied a group of 10 Israeli travel agents on a trip to Taiwan. Now I didn't discuss Jewish history or culture or politics with any of them, and so cannot express an opinion of their views. They may consider themselves - and may indeed be - Israeli patriots. But their behavior during a pre-trip briefing and dinner at the Tel Aviv residence of Taiwan's highest-level representative in Israel puzzled and dismayed me. As we gathered around the oval dining table in the elegant apartment, this senior diplomat took smooth charge of the placement. His No. 2, my contact via the Post and a strict Buddhist vegan whose pre-ordered meal was already on the table, was seated first. Then the Representative looked at me and indicated a plastic plate piled high with rice and deep-fried something. Smiling affably, he announced: "Journalist - kosher food." I took my place. "Everybody else" - another smile - "not kosher." Laughing, the rest of the party sat down and dug into the splendors of Taiwanese cuisine. Was it my fancy, or had the Representative's words been tinged with bafflement over this near-wholesale abandonment of Jewish mores? During the meal, he several times began to express his great admiration for the Jewish people, talking about its abilities and achievements, which he considered superior. Oh no, said my dining partners, cutting him off each time, we Jews are just like everyone else. Nothing special about us, nothing at all. That isn't an exact quote; but it was the gist of their response; and I couldn't understand it. I KNOW that many Israelis don't keep kosher. But when you're "representing" Israel in the presence of a foreign diplomat who praises your nation for merits he sincerely believes it possesses, to contradict him and imply, like Uriah Heep, that you're "ever so 'umble" seems more than regrettable. A Post colleague, an observant Jew, scolded me for being too harsh on these fellow Israelis. "Consider the weight of the Jewish legacy!" she cried, going on to express her understanding of some people's overpowering need to get out from underneath it. Yes. Jewishness carries weight. It is a formidable endowment that some Jews would prefer to ditch. But, as we've seen over and over, the world won't let us - not nationally, not individually. When we fail to assert our Jewishness, the world asserts it for us. So if Jewishness is inescapable, ineradicable - why not take some pride in it? At the very least, we'll be better positioned to stand up to those who challenge our right to exist.