A few months ago, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a sprawling epic piece for The Atlantic about the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities next year. More than half the Israeli decision makers he interviewed believe Jerusalem will stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions by force before July.
I don’t have any inside information about this, and as far as I know, neither does he, but I, too, believe Israel is more likely than not to do something drastic to prevent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei from acquiring the worst weapons ever invented. Even if Iran never uses them—and my guess is that Iran never will, though that’s just a guess—a terrible sword of Damocles will hang over Israel and the Jewish people, as Daniel Gordis explains in the pages of Commentary.
What must be understood is that the threat to Israel is not that Iran will one day use the bomb. No, Iran merely needs to possess the bomb to undermine the central purpose of Israel’s existence—and in so doing, to reverse the dramatic change in the existential condition of the Jews that 62 years of Jewish sovereignty has wrought. The mere possession of a nuclear weapon by Iran would instantly restore Jews to the status quo ante before Jewish sovereignty, to a condition in which their futures would depend primarily on the choices their enemies—and not Jews themselves—make.
For hundreds of years, Jewish life in Europe was a matter of either hoped-for toleration or a struggle to survive against the periodic outpourings of violent Jew-hatred. During the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the Spanish Inquisition some 200 years later, the state-encouraged pogroms that would sow terror in Jewish communities across the continent intermittently in the centuries that followed, and the culmination of all this hatred in the Nazi death machine, there was little Jews could do in the face of the onslaught. Oh, there were episodic (and largely ineffective) pockets of resistance, and powerful liturgical, poetic, exegetical, and literary traditions emerged from the tragedies; but the Jewish experience in Europe was fundamentally one of defenselessness. What happened to the Jews was whatever their enemies determined should happen to them.
The creation of the State of Israel fundamentally changed not only that reality but also the self-perception that accompanied it. It was in pre-statehood Palestine, after centuries of utter passivity, that the Jews finally took up arms to defend themselves. Unlike the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, one of history’s most moving acts of hopeless defiance, the newfound Jewish willingness to fight was not destined to defeat, and the Jewish willingness to die was not merely symbolic. Against what seemed to be insurmountable odds, ragtag warriors—outmatched and outgunned—defeated the numerous armies that most people expected would drive the Jews back into the sea and actually expanded the borders of their newly created state. The creation and survival of the Jewish state in the late 1940s ended a millennium of abject Jewish vulnerability and brought to an astonishing close a long and anguished history in which Jews were assigned the role of victim-on-call.
Many people are put off by the Israeli national affect, which they take to be a mix of arrogance and bravado. This is a misperception of an attitude that is born, in truth, out of collective relief: We Jews no longer live—and die—at the whim of others. That sense of security would evaporate the minute Iran had the weapon it seeks. Even if Israel does possess a second-strike capability, and even if the U.S. could be counted on to punish a nuclear attack on the Jewish state, the existential condition of the Jews would still have reverted to that experienced in pre-state Europe. It would mean that Jews by the tens of thousands could die because someone else determined that it was time for them to do so. No action that Israel could take in response would change that fundamental reality.
To be sure, Israel boasts a flourishing Jewish culture, a renewed Hebrew language, and an impressive array of Jewish accomplishments that could not have happened without the state. But all that, impressive as it is, is insufficient. For the first commitment of Zionism has been to provide safety to Jews. So far, it has more or less succeeded. But the minute that Iran possesses its long-sought nuclear weapon, Zion becomes not a haven for the Jews but a potential deathtrap.