Their Revolutions, And Ours (Jerusalem Post)

revolutions2As 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 sixty-five 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 non-existent. 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 about ourselves is a bit over-simplified. Commencing with the assassination of Jacob Israël de Haan, who was apparently murdered in 1924 by the Haganah for offering the Arabs a deal in which Jews would give their demand for sovereignty, and continuing with the murder of Haim Arlossorof in 1933 (possibly for his negotiations with Nazi Germany) and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, z”l in 1995, our internal divisions have shed more blood than we might like to admit.revolutions3

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) Haganah men and (former) Etzel fighters, on the ship, in the water, on the beach and in the city. Sixteen Eztel men died, as did three from the IDF; dozens were wounded and hundreds were arrested. It was short-lived, 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 could not afford more carnage? Was it the Jewish intellectual tradition of probing discourse in which irreconcilably opposing views co-exist on the same page of Talmud, 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 B’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, NY 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?

revolutions1When Haredi 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 knitted kipah morphs into a cockroach), are we really that far from descending into the violence to which we are witness 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 first needed to make it clear that whatever our divisions, their violence will not be tolerated. When an Arab on 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 yeshiva’s shut down? Almost none, as it turns out.revolutions5

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 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.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

10 Comments on "Their Revolutions, And Ours (Jerusalem Post)"

  • ARTH says

    “Egyptian democracy fades into memory..”
    What substantiates that meaningless statement: The Egyptian people have, during the past 2 1/2 years diposed two Presidents via street demonstrations.

    Do Israelis demonstrate in such force and in such numbers? Do Americans?

  • I am a very passionate Jewish supporter of Israel but I am secular. I go to the synagogue only Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashonah.It is imperative for Jewish people to be tolerant of all the ideas put forward by Jews both relgious and secular because both are needed for the state to be perpetuated. Without the religious the state would not justifiably call itself Jewish and without the secular many of the people needed to make the state succeed might leave.We need wise leaders whose main preoccupation is to the benefit of Israel.

  • david a. cuttner says

    The Morsi regium, although elected by a majority,was not ‘democratic in its rejection of the Egytian Constitution, the firing of its supreme court, and marginilizing its secular, female, minorities. The military did what it could only due to remedy the situation. Maybe Turkey will be next!

  • Moishe (Thomas) Goldstein Toronto Canada says

    We are – we must be – our own leaders!

    Only as individuals and leaders can we manifest our choices ethically and responsibly.

    Searching for leaders – so passé.

    שבת שלום ומברך


  • Glenn Becker says

    Mr. Gordis is satisfied that an Arab who assaults an Israeli will be identified and dealt with quickly. He calls upon the Government to deal as resolutely with Haredim who violently defy the law.
    He says nothing about Price Tag terrorists acting with impunity, confident that Netanyahu will continue to shrink from dealing with their lawlessness. This omission says much about Gordis; or was it a mere oversight?

  • Evelyn says

    When an Arab in the West bank attacks a Jew the security forces usually find him or her fairly quickly.Is that so? I would say it’s the other way round. If a Jew attacks an Arab (usually after great provocation) it’s the Jew who is “found” by these forces and punished. I don’t know where you are living or what newspapers you’re reading but you have no idea of the West Bank at all!!

  • Fred says

    Arlossorof was not killed by Jews. He was killed by Arabs hired by the British.

  • Glenn Becker says

    Yes, Evelyn, Israeli prisons are notoriously crammed full of Price Tag terrorists (all of whom were nabbed responding to the heinous provocations of Palestinians tending to their olive orchards), while Shin Bet has almost never managed to arrest Palestinians and may even now be desperately rounding up a few dozen so Netanyahu will have some prisoners to release!

  • An interesting and important commentary.Disagreeing without violence is a habit that must be cultivated, and that takes teaching and, when there is a government, action. The moral failure of far too many rabbis to teach and admonish their students and kehillot not to disagree without violence is glaring and sickening. Those rabbis and praying Jews everywhere continually pray for peace. God will not give us peace if we do not practice peaceful co-existence among ourselves and our neighbors. Remember that according to the hachamim sinat Hinam was responsible for the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Has two thousand years of exile taught certain of our rabbis nothing?

  • Joshua says

    Interesting article. Roughly 80 years is the lead time before inherent divisions in newly-created nations erupt into full-scale civil war. The US is the classic example. We’ve still got about 15 years before the secular-religious tension erupts into a full-scale bloody conflict. Our so-called leaders aren’t capable of doing better than pussyfoot around this hot potato.
    Remember, you heard it here first.

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