The Future of Israel and Western Civilization

Offering a prognosis for the future of Israel and Western Civilization, while reviewing two books and a Commentary magazine essay on them addressed to the same topic

The West is in retreat. The European Union is beset by seemingly insolvable economic problems, a burgeoning, indigestible Muslim population and a near total loss of confidence in its Christian foundation. The English-speaking countries (the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) are also plagued by pending fiscal calamities, bloated governments that sap individual liberty, moral decay and declining confidence in the merits of their traditional “English way of life.” Latin America never really signed on to the program; the nations of the East – although some flirted with Western style societies – move increasingly to authoritarianism, and the Middle East and Africa are awash in a radical Islamism that abhors Western Civilization.

However, the principle subject of this essay is the future of the tiny outpost of Western Civilization known as Israel. Receiving increasingly tepid support from its allies in the West; ignored if not disdained by disinterested parties in Arica, Latin America and the East; reviled and marked for death by the Muslim world; the beleaguered state of Israel faces a daunting task in trying to preserve its independence, prosperity, indeed its life. Thus it is legitimate to ask: What is its prognosis?

Purported answers are offered in two timely books, Israel: The Will to Prevail, by Danny Danon and The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength, by Daniel Gordis. In addition, an extremely keen analysis of both books may be found in the December 2012 issue of Commentary Magazine, namely, Israel, the Will and {Promise, by Stephen Daisley. In these three venues, the prognosis for Israel is unrealistically optimistic in the two books and essentially avoided in the review. I will take a stab at a more realistic appraisal here.

As Daisley explains, Danon expresses a strong opinion on three major points: (i) the so-called Arab Spring does not represent the dawn of democracy in the Arab world, but rather the “eclipse of the forces of liberalism” and the ascendance of Islamism; (ii) Israel is too subservient to American paternalism and must take a more independent, nationalistic stance; and (iii) the notion of a Palestinian state is anathema to Israel – the solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem must be found in a pre-1967 configuration, i.e., Gaza back to Egypt and the Arab peoples of the West Bank, but not the land, back to Jordan. So according to Danon:

In terms of dealing with Arab nations, many Israelis today have gone back to the warrior mentality of Ben-Gurion. We’re sick of hollow accords and grand ceremonies done for the camera’s sake. More of us are awakening every day to the fact that it takes more than a lovely ritual at the White House, with the accompanying smiles and handshakes and photo ops, to get anything real accomplished. Ben-Gurion was willing to pay a price for the security of Israel in international opprobrium, and so it is with a new generation of Israeli leaders. We also understand the necessity of shaping our fate by our own hands. If we have to pay a price with the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, so be it…What I am proposing here is a three-state solution. This would entail a regional agreement with Jordan, Egypt, and Israel that would give Palestinians land and other rights across these three areas — not land to form a distinct Palestinian state but land within the borders of these states as they exist now…A strong sense of Israeli nationalism must prevail if the state is to successfully overcome the current chaotic situation—even if that means contravening the wishes of U.S. administrations. Israel needs a new vision and direction; we need to take control of our own destiny and dictate our own history.

Daisley assays Danon’s three opinions thus: he essentially agrees with (i); views (ii) as shortsighted and self-defeating; and (iii) as naïve and unrealistic. Turning to Gordis, Daisley correctly points out the vast difference in the nature of the two authors. While Danon is a politician and his book reads like that of one laying out a position paper in anticipation of the next election, Gordis is a philosopher and theologian who writes with penetrating insight, originality and eloquence. His book is elegantly crafted and cogently argued.

Gordis’ breathtakingly original idea is as follows: Inspired by the carnage that they inflicted upon themselves throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and reinforced by the omnipresent, menacing threat to safety posed by the Cold War, the Europeans (with the English-speaking nations eventually coming along) decided that the cause of the strife was to be found in the divisiveness inherent in the nation state structure of the continent. The separate entities, grounded in ethnic identification, religious particularism and capitalistic frenzy were inevitably in fierce competition with each other leading to conflict and war. The nation state concept had outlived its usefulness and a more comprehensive form of government (a more universal world order) needed to be established. Thus the European Union to start.

Alas, the Jews, based on their perceived self-impotence in the face of the Holocaust, decided exactly the opposite. They needed their own state in order to be able to live in safety and to pursue their own destiny. As time has progressed since the creation of Israel, the West has grown more fervent in its belief that the ethnic nation state must be superseded and tiny Israel flies in the face of that goal. It becomes an affront to the West and hence loses its support. But Gordis goes further – namely, the West is wrong and Israel is right. That is, without the ethnic nation state as the basis for organizing the world’s population, the world will lose its humanity, its people will lose their freedoms and human empathy and solidarity will evaporate in a haze of sameness. Thus, according to Gordis:

This book makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the ethnic nation-state—a country created around a shared cultural heritage. This is what has the West so put out with Israel. Israel has lost its once-charmed status in the international arena, I argue, because of a “conflict over this very idea.

What is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not merely the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it. The idea that human freedom might be at risk in today’s battles over Israel might seem far-fetched or hyperbolic. This book will argue that it is not, and that human beings everywhere thus have a great stake in what the world ultimately does with the Jewish state.”

Today’s infatuation with the notion that human difference ought to be papered over is not the first time that the world has embraced a dangerous and dead-end philosophical fad. In the past century alone, humanity has lived through infatuations with unfettered socialism, then with communism, and even with the belief in the nobility of imperialism. But Israel is a reminder to the world that there are moments when someone—be it a prophet in biblical times or a nation-state in today’s international community—has to speak truth to power and insist on what is right and true, regardless of how unpopular the idea is. Israel represents the argument that the nation-state is not a fad, but rather an ancient and still compelling vision for humanity.

Rather than pretend that all human beings were essentially the same, the Jews, thanks to their new country, would celebrate their differentness. In defiance of the world’s insistence on the denial of difference, Israelis chose … their own heritage over some imagined universal culture. Israel was a choice of difference over the ideal of sameness, a preference for the particular over the global, and for the Jews’ own story over some anemic panhuman narrative. But in making that choice to be different, the Jews—even though they could not then have fully anticipated how this might come back to haunt them and their young state—were embarking on a path that was destined to put them at odds with the prevailing ethos of Europe and much of the rest of the world.

In the inimitable words of Rabbi Sacks, ‘There is no road to human solidarity that does not begin with moral particularity—by coming to know what it means to be a child, a parent, a neighbor, a friend. We learn to love humanity by loving specific human beings. There is no short-cut. Identity and particularism are not obstacles to caring about others; they are the road to empathy, and from there they are the path to partnerships that labor for freedom.

Daisley neither endorses nor rejects Gordis’ thesis. He is obviously impressed with the originality, scope and potential impact of what Gordis suggests. Daisley opines: “Gordis’ work is a small book with a big idea, and he should be commended for that. The public discourse is wanting for big ideas, particularly on Israel…Thus [according to Gordis] Zionism becomes not just a movement for Jewish national rights but a rear-guard action against cultural relativism and the self-immolation of the West.” But while heaping praise on Gordis for his originality and depth of thought, Daisley offers no evaluation of the chance of success of implementing Gordis’ scheme, much less an opinion on its intrinsic merits. He just seems to be pleasantly surprised that anyone could have an original thought on the overworked “Israel problem.”

Western Civilization is in a battle for survival – a contest in which it doesn’t seem even to recognize that it is a combatant. Only Israel is aware of the contest – because its very survival is constantly and manifestly at stake. What has been its strategy to survive? What should it be? What is the prognosis?

Israel played offense from the end of the Second World War until the Six Day War in 1967. It girded itself to bring the State into existence, no matter the odds or the cost, then defended it vigorously in the aftermath and unabashedly expanded it when presented with the opportunity. But then it rested on its laurels and its game plan became more defense than offense. It announced to the world that in light of its historic victory, it should be clear – especially to the Arabs – that Israel was here to stay, that it would succeed and prosper, and that the Arabs, the Muslims, indeed the world should accept it as a permanent member of the community of nations. The Arabs/Muslims did no such thing – and the rest of the world (especially the West, for reasons explained by Gordis) is increasingly rejecting Israel’s assertion as well. Maybe it’s time to go back on offense.

And that is exactly what Danon and Gordis prescribe, although – as we have seen – with different strategies in mind. Now, Daisley obviously has no faith in Danon’s plans; and he takes a pass on the merit of Gordis’ strategy. Actually, there is an unmistakable undercurrent of disbelief, in Daisley’s essay, that anything worthwhile could come of Gordis’ ideas. Indeed, Daisley is correct. Both strategies – that of Danon and of Gordis – are unrealistic. Danon is correct that Israel’s acquiescence to a 23rd Arab State on the West Bank would be tantamount to suicide. It is totally obvious that the main objective of the Arabs who reside in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (and elsewhere) is the destruction of Israel and the murder or expulsion of its Jewish inhabitants. After that, whether those Arabs become an independent state or merge into a union with Jordan and/or Lebanon and/or Syria is of no consequence. The West does not care; it expects Israel to agree to the creation of such an entity. Even if this were not so, Danon’s plan requires the cooperation of Egypt and Jordan – and that is absolutely not forthcoming.

Gordis’ plan is even more ludicrous. It requires tiny Israel to convince the Western World that the ethnic nation state is a force for good in the world at exactly the moment that the West has reached precisely the opposite conclusion. This is beyond wishful thinking; it is hallucinatory. Talk about spitting into the wind. Were Israel to embark on a PR campaign along the lines suggested by Gordis, its standing among the western nations would plummet even further than it already has.

So what is Israel to do? If neither of the offensive strategies of Danon or Gordis is viable, should it continue to play defense? Well, one plays defense either to protect a lead – which is clearly not the case for Israel – or to bide one’s time until conditions change allowing one to go on offense. Israel has been and apparently remains committed to continue to wait for two things – only one of which it articulates to itself: (i) the Muslim world will accept the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East; (ii) the Western World will regain its footing and resume its leadership of the civilized world. Regarding (i), Vladimir and Estragon had a better chance of Godot showing up. There is absolutely no indication that such an occurrence could be expected in any remotely near time frame. As for (ii), it may be premature to write the final obituary for Western Civilization, but the trends of the last two generations have not been encouraging.

So Israel should perhaps jettison its defensive strategy and go on offense. How exactly? I wish I knew! Certainly if it believes that the West is not doomed, then Israel needs to work aggressively to convince the US and Europe that it is foolhardy and against their better interests not to back Israel 100%. Surely the West must come to the recognition that Israel is a kindred spirit, a bulkhead of freedom and a vital security asset. (As Alexander Haig once famously said: “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”) Israel should receive the West’s total backing against the reactionary, fundamentalist, anti-democratic and bigoted forces abreast in the Arab/Muslim world. Moreover, as the day draws near when the West will no longer rely on Middle Eastern oil, the incentive not to recognize Israel’s value decreases. Israel needs to be much more proactive in making its case along these lines. But if the West cannot see the validity of that reasoning, then it is a sign that Western Civilization is indeed doomed and Israel needs a Plan B.

If the West is in fact doomed, then what shall unfold in the world in the not too distant future is one of: (i) a new dark ages marked by anarchy, chaos, violence and poverty; or (ii) a balance of power between a small number of contending forces, like China, Islam, perhaps Russia or India or Brazil, and maybe the US – leading to some world stability, albeit without liberty or widespread prosperity; or (iii) Islamic domination of the planet; or (iv) something else.

Now how in the world can Israel plan for that? It would probably continue to play defense. But I suspect that to survive in any of these four unappetizing scenarios, some offense will be required. Its form at this moment is highly undetermined. But continuing to “lay back” and expect the world to accommodate the most starkly ethnic nation state on Earth is perhaps the most unrealistic plan of all. So let us pray for America and the West to regain their footing. Israel can play a positive role in such a renaissance.

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