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One of the most arresting passages in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) occurs in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Numbers.

The stage is set in Numbers 22. The Israelites, on their way to the Promised Land, have camped out in the plains of Moab—in what is now Jordan, just across the Jordan River from what is now Israel. They’re a vast multitude, and Balak, king of Moab, sees them and is deathly afraid.

So Balak summons a Moabite prophet, Balaam, and asks him to “curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me….” Balaam eventually agrees, but with the proviso that “the word that God putteth in my mouth, that I shall speak.”

In Numbers 23:9, referring to the people of Israel both in the singular and the plural, Balaam pronounces:

For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.

This, then, is not a “curse” but something God has put in Balaam’s mouth. Yet it seems to imply some sort of splendid isolation, a separate and unique fate.

Yet other, no less resonant statements in the Bible suggest that Israel’s destiny is very much connected to that of other peoples. In Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, God says Israel’s mission is to be “a light unto the nations”; and in Isaiah 60:3: “And unto your light, nations shall walk, and kings unto the brightness of your rising.” In Genesis, God tells Abraham three times, and Isaac once, that “In thee shall all nations [or 'families'] of the earth be blessed.”

That theme—or contradiction?—of splendid isolation while having much to offer other peoples runs throughout Jewish history, and is very much present in Israel today.

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Is Israel an isolated country? Many think so. The Israeli left regularly warns that, if Israel doesn’t somehow “make peace” and clear out of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), its isolation will only worsen until it truly becomes a leper.

Recently Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center think tank at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, published an article challenging that view. Inbar begins by acknowledging that:

The bad news is clear. Israel’s right to exist is questioned by many, and its ancient and present capital, Jerusalem, is unrecognized by all but a few states. Israeli leaders are sometimes compared to leaders of Nazi Germany, and Israeli actions against the Palestinians are described as Nazi-like policies…. Opponents and critics portray the Jewish state as the world’s worst violator of human rights, United Nations resolutions, and international law.

And with Jews “historically conditioned to sense isolation and delegitimization,” it all has a clear effect on Israelis:

An August 2010 poll showed that 56 percent of Jewish Israelis subscribed to the view that the “whole world is against us.” Even a larger majority, 77 percent, thought that it made no difference what the Israeli government did and how far it might go on the Palestinian issue: The world would continue to be critical regardless of the facts.

And yet, says Inbar, the situation on the ground has actually changed dramatically for the better.

Since 1991, Israel’s international status has greatly improved as many states decided to upgrade or to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, partly due to the emergence of [Israel’s foremost ally] the United States as a hegemonic global power…. [A]ll former states of the Soviet bloc and most Afro-Asian states have opted for diplomatic relations and have maintained them ever since.

Inbar also cites

a high level of friendly relations toward Israel and the Jewish people within the two most populous and dynamic states on the world scene: India and China, rising powers in every sense of the word. Both are old civilizations that have not been burdened by anti-Semitic baggage as has Europe.

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As for Europe, Inbar allows that it is “an entirely different matter.” Its pacifism, anti-Americanism, and “latent, traditional anti-Semitism that singles out the Jews as responsible for the problems of the world” all dispose it against Israel. Indeed, “a large portion of the European intelligentsia is anti-Israeli and even denies Israel’s right to exist.”

Yet, at the same time, Israel’s relations with all three of Europe’s power centers—France, Italy, and Germany—are flourishing. And “in 2011, the EU was Israel’s largest trading partner with annual trade amounting to 29.4 billion euros—an increase of 45 percent from 2009; and this came in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis in Europe.”

Along with the post-Cold War hegemony of Israel’s ally, the U.S., Inbar attributes the change to the fact that Israel has more and more to offer—in intelligence, counterterrorism, military equipment, high-tech, agriculture, medicine. “All of these accomplishments have created international admiration and keen interest in bilateral exchanges and trade relations.”

Or, one might say that the nations of the world find themselves blessed by Israel’s cutting-edge prowess, inventions, and innovations.

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And yet…

Israelis love to go on foreign junkets. Ben-Gurion International Airport tends to be jam-packed with long lines for outgoing flights, especially in summer—and this at a time of protests over the high cost of living and the economic strains faced by middle-class families.

A glance at Israel’s immediate environment helps explain this urge to escape and take a breather. Gaza and the Arab-populated areas of the West Bank—even as “peace” is supposedly being negotiated—are hotbeds of anti-Israeli hatred. Although Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, few Israelis go to these countries because of that same problem. As for the other immediate neighbors, Syria and Lebanon, they remain hostile states in every regard.

The statistics bear this out. A Pew poll in 2009 found 97% in the Palestinian territories, 97% of Jordanians, 98% of Lebanese, and 95% of Egyptians “express[ing] an unfavorable opinion of Jews.”

Where to go, then, in leapfrogging this depressing encirclement of animosity? Turkey was once a popular destination—but not in recent years as hatred has risen under Prime Minister Erdogan’s Islamist government. An alternative is Greece—if Israelis want to overlook the facts that last year the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party won 7% of the vote, and that Greek media tend to be fiercely anti-Israeli with sprinklings of anti-Semitism.

So Israelis mostly go to Europe. But that too is complicated; some Israeli families, once disembarked in France or Belgium or Holland, cease speaking Hebrew for fear of prompting the dangerous hostility of Arab and Muslim immigrants there—or even terror attacks or kidnapping attempts.

And it’s not only those immigrant populations. In Europe, Israelis “vacation” in a continent where high percentages of the population overall—including 48% in Germany—believe Israelis are essentially Nazis waging “a war of extermination” against the Palestinians.

Also worth mentioning is a global opinion poll last year where Israel came in with Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea as the four most unpopular countries. Anti-Israeli ratings were particularly high in Spain (74%), Germany (69%), Britain (68%), and France (56%). Even in China and India, which Inbar described as Israel-friendly countries lacking an anti-Semitic tradition, Israel scored poorly.

If you can put together the money for the trip, it’s better in the U.S., which—along with Nigeria and Kenya—was one of only three countries in that poll registering a favorable view of Israel. But the overall effect is that the “people that dwells alone” feeling gets into your bones.

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How Israelis feel toward the “dwelling alone” paradigm has political implications. The more they’re to the left, the more they’re likely to insist that Israel brings the animosity upon itself—by perversely refusing to end its “occupation” of the West Bank and perversely rejecting an Arab hand that they always perceive as, somehow, outstretched in peace.

That isn’t, of course, my view. Even if the charges were justified, it would hardly explain how Israel—a vibrant democracy and member of the world’s leading democracies-only club, the OECD—could be ranked with Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea by most of the world’s peoples. And to hear Nazi analogies you have to go far out to Israel’s loony-left fringe.

So the mainstream-Israeli perception of an irrationally inimical world, which can’t really be swayed by supposedly improved Israeli behavior, has a real basis. It may jibe with traditional notions about Israel and the nations, but it is not simply produced by them.

Dwelling alone, but radiating light. Perhaps, after all, something about this fate is deeply inscribed on reality.

Also read: Israel: Leper or Light Unto the Nations? Part 2: That Bird Could Be a Mossad Agent!