Our Stake in the State of Israel

by Reinhold Niebuhr | February 4, 1957


The tragic epic of the people of Hungary has so enthralled the imagination of the world that we are in danger of being indifferent to another drama of history, which is invested with a peculiar pathos and which may end in tragedy because of our blindness.

To appreciate the full flavor of the drama of the state Israel one must recount its history from the beginning, and even from the beginnings before its birth. The calendar beginning of Israel was the United Nations resolution, which sanctioned the new state, and the heroic battle which the nascent nation waged against the Arab nations, sworn to throttle Israel in it's cradle. Thus the state's birth was both a gift from the world community and an achievement of the redoubtable army which the little nation was able to organize. It will be remembered that the Arab nations defeated in that conflict were then, as now, without unity or effective discipline, and that a young lieutenant of the Egyptian army, by the name of Nasser, was so moved by the shame of the defeat that he resolved on the overthrow of the corrupt Farouk monarchial regime, which symbolized the impotence of Egypt so perfectly.

But there were other beginnings before this calendar birth, without which the obvious beginning would not be explicable. Among those there was the dream of the young Jewish intellectual, turned Zionist, Theodore Herzl, who conceived of a homeland for a homeless nation; and the dream of a British Jewish scientist, Chaim Weizmann, who persuaded a reluctant British Government, holding a mandate in Palestine, to commit itself after World War I to the Balfour Declaration which promised to provide a'"homeland" for the Jews in Palestine. Nationhood was not promised, but the declaration permitted a more generous Jewish immigration to Palestine though the rate of immigration was a constant source of friction between the Jews and Britain. The British naturally hoped to contain the Jewish homeland within the bounds of their imperial system and to guard the rights of the indigenous Arabs in a bi-national state. Indeed there were religious, rather than political, Zionists who thought that such a state would furnish the best solution for the problem of justice between Jews and Arabs. The famed Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. and the late rector of the Hebrew University. Judah Magnus, were proponents of this plan, though it was probably unrealistic to expect an Arab majority gradually to accept a minority status, particularly when its loyalty would be divided between the pull of kinship and the pull of traditional homeland in Palestine.

Actually this modus vivendi was overwhelmed by the events which followed in the wake of the catastrophic fate of the Jews in the Nazi period. One hopes that the nascent anti-Semitism of the present period will be somewhat assuaged by a remembrance of these events, by a reminder of the fact that millions of Jews perished in the gas ovens and concentration camps of Hitler's Germany, and that the remnant found the continued insecutiry of a corrupt Europe intolerable. Jewish immigration flooded Palestine and the uneasy conscience of the world as a result of the Nazi atrocities, and the humanitarian interest in finding security for the Jews of Europe, together with the sheer necessity of the Jews, created political forces which finally resulted in invalidating the British mandate, in prompting the United Nations to grant statehood to the nascent nation, and in assuring the new country of the passive sympathy of the non-Jewish world and the active sympathy of the Jews of the world, particularly the most numerous and prosperous Jewry of the United States.

Since then the new state has opened it doors to Jews from all over the world, has integrated them into a new community, whether they be from backward culture of Yemen or the most advanced European cultures. It brought the most advanced techniques into the service of the new community, irrigated the deserts in order to create orange groves and built a healthy industrial life through the skills of its people. Of course these miracles of integrations and creativity would not have been possible without the continued financial support of world Jewry and particularly of the Jews of America, through critics who emphasize this face usually do not consider that the oil roylaties which flow into the Arab states exceed in value even these generous subsidies. But only a trickle of this oil wealth is used for raising the miserable standards of the moribund Islamic nations.

The history of the new state of Israel is thrilling in many respects. It represents a remarkable co-operation of "capitalistic" European and American Jews with the essentially socialist Jews of Israel. For the prevailing political ideology of Israel was determined by the Polish Jewish socialists, turned Zionists, so completely typified by the robust Prime Minister of today, Ben-Gurion. The collective farms or "kibbutzim" are, in fact, based upon rather doctrinaire socialist principles of the 19th Century, and are probably too consistently collectivist in their attitude toward family life to satisfy our robust individualism. A witty Jewish Oxford don, a friend of Chaim Weizmann, has given it as his opinion that Israel is served by the German Jews, who became honest and skillful "bureaucrats" and scientist, and by the Polish Jews who furnish the ideology and the political skill of the new state. Certainly the effective leadership of the state is divided between the German and the Polish Jews.

 

The co-operation between the religious Jews and the essentially secular idealists in the new state is equally worthy of note. Zionism is a political dream of religious origin, and before the Nazi period it was nourished only among those who were poor and orthodox, rather than among the "liberal" and assimilated and prosperous Jews. Hitler's persecutions changed all this and made Zionism popular in the congregations of liberal Judaism. From a, religious standpoint one might say that it became too popular because the liberal rabbis were as preoccupied with Hitler for two decades as they are now with Nasser, so that even a Christian, with sympathies for Zionism, such as the present writer, can appreciate the protests of the anti-Zionist "Council for Judaism," which believes that political and nationalistic preoccupations of the rabbis imperil the religious substance of Judaism as a monotheistic faith.

It is a fact, however, that liberal versions of Judaism have found no lodging place in the new state of Israel. The religious Jews are orthodox and to such a degree that, if they would have their way, they would fasten upon this essentially secular community political standards directly derived from the book of Deuteronomy, which would, among other embarrassments, make the life of a modern woman intolerable. During the meeting of the World Council of Churches, held in Amsterdam in 1948, one of the members of the council was approached by an orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem with the suggestion that the religious Jews of Israel would like the support of Christians for their effort to create a religious state. He was very much surprised to be told that this Protestant assembly had just condemned religious political parties, that it avowed secular politics for the sake of religious principles and that it abhorred a sacerdotal state.

It is a matter of face one of the marvels of the new state that a religious party (informed by an archaic piety) and a secular party (informed by a rather self-conscious secular enlightenment) could co-operate in building the new nation. This miracle con only be explained by the force of the overarching national loyalty, the different interpretations which Ben-Gurion and the orthodox rabbis place upon the traditional liturgies and festivals of the Jewish faith, which are undoubtedly religious but are susceptible to political and cultural interpretations. A shrewd Israeli journalist informed the present writer that the chasm between the two groups prompted abandonment of the plan of writing a constitution of the new state. It was a wise move because the chasm could not have been bridged by any legal arrangement by only by the pressures and creativities of actual history, It must be counted as one of the achievements of American liberal religious Jews that they have not allowed either the doctrinaire secularism or the archaic religion to dampen the ardor of their support of Israel.

In any event it is apparent that no nation has ever come into being through a confluence of so many political and cultural and religious factors as this new state. The economic and spiritual investments in int by the West are very great. So also is out strategic state. For Israel is the only sure strategic anchor of the democratic world. particularly since Khrushchev and Nasser have proved that Islam is not as immune to Communism as had been supposed, but is, rather, an almost ideal group for the growth of nationalism posing as Communism and Communism posing as nationalism.

 

The question for us is how we can save the state from annihilation, for it is still the sworn intent not only of Nasser but of the whole Arab world to destroy it. There is in fact a real pathos in the fact that the Jews should have exchanged the insecurity of Europe for the collective insecurity of the Middle East. The West did not reckon with the depth of the Arab spirit of vengeance, nor did it appreciate that his technically efficient democracy would exacerbate the ancient feud between the Jews and the Arabs. For Israel is an offense to the Arab world for three reasons:

1. It has claimed by conquest what the Arabs regard as their soil; and Denis Brogan may be right (NR, Dec, 17, 1956) in declaring that this is one modern state which as been brought into being by force of arms. The West and the Jews may claim the previous Jewish right to the soil of Palestine, but we tend to forget that this right evaporated some thousands of years ago and that the Arabs are not impressed by the prophecies of the Old Testament, at least now by the political relevance of these prophecies. So strong is this Arab feeling that no Arab leader has yet promised to confer with Israel directly about any mutual problem.

2. This enmity has been increased by the problem of the refugees whom the Arab state will not resettle and whom the Jews cannot absorb except in small numbers without imperiling the security of their nation, because the refugees are sworn enemies of the new state. I do no pretend to judge between the Arab claims that they were driven out and the Jewish claims that they fled or were called out during the war. Both claims may be partially true or true in some sense. The point is that the refugees are a constant source of anti-Israel animus in the region.

3. The third cause of trouble is even more potent. The state of Israel is, by its very technical efficiency and democratic justice, a source of danger to the moribund feudal or pastoral economics and monarchical political forms of the Islamic worlds and a threat to the rich overlords of the of desperately poor peasants of the Middle East. It is also a threat to those Islamic religious people who delight in the "organic" quality of this ancient life and who know that modern techniques would certainly destroy the old way of life in the process of lifting the burden of the poor.

The sources of enmity are in fact so many that it is idle to expect to pacify the region by even the most ambition plan for the development of the economic resources of the whole region. All such proposals do no gauge the depth and th breadth of the Arab spirit of vengeance correctly. It is of such proportions that even an erstwhile pro-Zionist may be permitted to doubt whether it was right for the Western world to push its unsolved problem upon the Middle East where there was so much tinder for conflagration. Zionism was, of course, unthinkable without the original religious impetus, even though the statesmanlike achievements of the modern state are purely secular. But perhaps these qualms are irrelevant, for it is not possible to toll history back, and it has been proved that we cannot wean the Arabs from their passions by equivocation in regard to Israel.

The simple fact is that all schemes for political appeasement and economic co-operation must fail unless there is an unequivocal voice from us that we will not allow the state to be annihilated and that we will not judge its desperate efforts to gain some strategic security) by holding on to the Gaza Strop and demanding access to the Gulf of Aqaba, for instance) as an illegitimate use of force. The fact is that our new pacifism, which seems to avoid the danger of becoming involved in the ultimate global war by disavowing all local wars, actually exposes us to the danger which Chamberlain overlooked at Munich. That is the danger of abandoning strategic fortresses in the interest of "peace in our time" only to be forced to fight in the end without those fortresses. It is risky for our nation to declare that we regard the security and integrity of Israel as important to our national interest. But it is not more risky than the statement we made about the Baghdad Pact nations. Meanwhile it will be well to remember that the Russians are as anxious as we are to avoid the ultimate conflict. They are more likely to yield to an unequivocal word than to respect vacillation. Their own troubles might drive them to desperate ventures. But the disintegration of their empire has proceeded rapidly enough to make it quite certain that a general war would not unify but would destroy whatever unity they still have. That is why strategic shrewdness is more important now than the lofty platitudes on which Nehru and Eisenhower seemed so fervently to agree. We always have the problem of the uncommitted nations of Asia and Africa. But we dare not forget that in the Middle East we have the problem of a direct strategic intervention by Russia in the so-called uncommitted world.

The location of the state of Israel may have been a mistake; though the confluence of historical forces has made it unavoidable. The birth and growth of the nation is a glorious spiritual and political achievement. Its continued existence may require detailed economic strategies for the whole region and policies for the resettlement of the Arab refugees. Bu the primary condition of its existence is our word that we will not allow "any nation so conceived and so dedicated to perish from the earth." Nehru, representing India, is a bridge between the East and West. Ambiguous words from him may be proper. But we are not a bridge, but the great hegemonous power of the free world. Equivocal words by us are highly improper. Life and death depend upon a clear policy.

The ultimate in strategic confusion was reached in the United Nations Assemble resolution of January 19. The usual, fashionable majority of Russia, America and the Arab-Asian bloc decreed that the Israelis must leave the Gaza Strip and the Gulf of Aqaba, and censured them for not obeying the "forthwith" resolution of some weeks ago with the speed which Mr. Krishna Menon and his able lieutenant, Mr. Cabot Lodge, desired. The Israelis were tardy in heeding the wishes of the United Nations resolution because they wanted guarantees about the passage of the Israeli ships through the Suez Canal and they also argued that the emergency force of the United Nations would have to take over the Gaza Strop and the approaches to the Gulf of Aqaba if they were to have any security against further Egyptian raids and if the port of Elath was to be freed for commerce. The freeing of that port would, incidentally, permit an alternative oil pipeline to the Mediterranean and so make the West less dependent upon Nasser. But our strategy is more intent on wooing the monarchs than on establishing alternative routes for the vital oil, the possession and transportation of which gives Nasser and the monarchs such a power over the economy of Europe and the UN's strategy.

The Assembly discussed the possibility of the deployment of the emergency forve for such a purpose, but Menon warned that this would have to be negotiated with Nasser. The prospect of success was so remote that the Assembly gave up and simply ordered the Israelis out. Subsequently the Arab-Asian bloc has proposed economic sanctions if they do not obey. The Western Europeans nations regard this spectacle of strategic confusion with increasing contempt. The same powerful nation whose President seeks stand-by authority to resist Communist aggression in the Middle East is meanwhile confused in co-operating with the pawns of Russia to destroy our only secure bastion in this troubled area. One wonders whether this strategic confusion can be quite as stupid as it seems to be. Could the British be right when they suggest that American oil interests, particularly in Saudi Arabia, whose monarch is presently paying us a visit, are determining this policy? That might make some kind of sense out of what seems otherwise a policy of complete strategic nonsense.

Perhaps the footnote should be added that a Washington official expressed disappointment about Nasser's continued intransigence. Evidently it was dealt that gratitude should have moderated his excessive demands. If this be the calculation, the State Department does not know how Nasser as well as he knows himself. Just as Hitler before him, he achieved all his ends by inordinate demands. Why should the sentiment of gratitude deter him from his triumphant course, particularly since we seem so intent on removing any road blocks to his progress?

This article was originally printed on February 4, 1957.

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