Michael Totten

On the Bleeding Edge of the West

Israel isn’t the only country in the world where the East meets the West, but it’s the only place where you can walk from Western Civilization to the Arab world in just a few minutes. Much of East Jerusalem is Arab — Palestinian — and the southern parts of East Jerusalem don’t even look like they’re in Jerusalem. They’re what neighborhoods in Baghdad might look like after a decade of economic growth and good government.

Over the summer I could walk from my apartment in West Jerusalem’s German Colony to the Begin Center near the Old City in about twenty minutes, and from there see the security wall Israel built during the Second Intifada to keep out the suicide bombers. That wall is where the West ends, more or less, and it concentrates the minds of those who spend time in its proximity.

My colleague David Hazony and I recently discussed this, among other things, in a Jerusalem coffeeshop. He and I both write for the Commentary magazine blog Contentions, and he commissioned a story from me years ago about Iraqi Kurdistan when he was editor-in-chief at Azure magazine. (You can read a preview of it here, but the rest is behind a pay wall, alas.) Just a few weeks ago, his first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life was published by Scribner.

Our conversation began, though, with something everyone in Israel has been thinking about since early 2009.

David Hazony

MJT: The American-Israeli alliance has been strained for more than a year, but it seems to be getting a little bit better right now. Am I wrong?

David Hazony: During the Biden flap a lot Americans were saying that Israel begrudges American friendship, but it’s not true. Israelis are desperately looking for it, and they know what signs to look for. When Bill Clinton wanted to get Israelis on his side, he only had to say a few words. He just needed to make it clear to the average Israeli that he was fundamentally on their side. This is exactly what Barack Obama did not do and still hasn’t done—whether it’s his refusal to visit the country or sending signals to Israel’s enemies that he’s fundamentally on their side. There are a whole lot of things Obama could have done to convince Israelis that he’s on their side, but what he did was drive the vast majority of Israelis into an antagonistic position. And he did it from Day One. It actually started during his campaign when he retracted his declaration that Jerusalem should remain a unified city.

Israel had its election just a few months after Obama was elected. We had Benjamin Netanyahu running against Tzipi Livni. She was saying ‘vote for me because I’m moderate and know how to deal with the new administration.’ Netanyahu said ‘vote for me because I will protect Israel from the new administration.’ Israelis voted overwhelmingly for the parties that would bring Netanyahu to power, knowing full well that’s exactly what they were doing.

Washington has been softening its posture toward Israel, however, and Israelis deeply appreciate it.

MJT: So Israelis have noticed.

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu

David Hazony: Absolutely. And I think that’s part of what has led to the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has let down its guard. This is a country that has gone through some really tough experiences, not only against its enemies, but also with its friends who have a very different idea what’s in Israel’s best interests.

Many American commentators think Netanyahu’s coalition is fragile, but it’s not fragile. Netanyahu has perhaps the strongest coalition of any government I’ve ever seen.

MJT: Really? And you’ve been watching Israeli politics for how long?

David Hazony: I’ve been watching Israeli politics from up close for seventeen years, and from not-so up close for my entire life.

MJT: The centrists in Kadima aren’t part of the coalition.

David Hazony: But they could be.

MJT: And aren’t they still fairly popular in Israel?

David Hazony: Their popularity has dropped significantly, but Kadima has a large natural constituency. For the last decades, a lot of people who identified as leftists have abandoned the peace dream, yet for all sorts of cultural reasons could never in a million years vote for the Likud. So Kadima became a place they could go and effectively vote for right-wing politics without voting for the right-wing culturally. But if you look at who is actually in the Kadima party, it’s mostly a spin-off of the Likud.

There has been a real awakening, or disillusionment. The dream that said if we give the Palestinians what they want and we’ll have peace once and for all has been abandoned by the majority of Israelis as a direct result of our experience. We had the collapse of the Oslo Accords followed by the failure of Taba and Camp David. This was huge for a lot of Israelis on the left.

A month after the Second Intifada started, perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of the classic Israeli peace dream happened in October, 2000, when Israeli Arabs joined with the Palestinians and engaged in violent protests.

MJT: There wasn’t much terrorism from Israeli Arabs, though, was there?

David Hazony: Only a little bit. There were a few arrests. More important was the violence at the protests—including live weapons fire—that basically caused a great number of Israelis on the left to say, “wait a second, we Jews are on our own here.” If Israeli Arabs aren’t with us in this conflict, then there are real problems with their entire vision of what Israel might one day become.

We tried a last gasp move in 2005 with the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The center-left said, “if we can’t make peace with the Palestinians, we’ll make peace without them. We can make unilateral moves toward what everyone seems to believe the final status would be. And that ought to help.”

Yet people on the right said, “don’t do it. Whatever benefit we’ll get from bringing our soldiers home from Gaza will be lost by creating an Iranian-backed Hamas regime on our southern doorstep. It will just become another Hezbollahland.”

Hamas poster in Gaza

MJT: And they were right.

David Hazony: In this case, they were totally right.

MJT: Ariel Sharon made it happen, though. It wasn’t the left. He was firmly right-wing.

David Hazony: Sort of.

MJT: Sort of? He’s certainly perceived that way outside Israel. He’s a big fist.

David Hazony: He was a big fist, but he was a big fist who culturally came from the left. He wasn’t the peace left, he was from the classic bulldozing socialist Zionist left.

MJT: He was once the leader of the settler movement, so how do you explain his radical change late in life?

David Hazony: There are different theories. Some think shifting toward the political center was the best way for him to preserve his career. The majority of Israelis were in favor of it at the time. He could preserve his bulldozing image by unilaterally making peace.

Israelis are willing to give up a lot in exchange for peace, but at the same time they’re skeptical that it will work. The Palestinians will have to make some extraordinarily difficult choices. They’re going to have to give up some serious long-held demands.

MJT: Like what? I mean, there’s the right of return, obviously.

David Hazony: That’s the obvious one.

MJT: What about the other ones? Jerusalem? Settlements?

David Hazony: Israelis are willing to dismantle a lot of the settlements, but they’re not willing to dismantle huge areas that are major Jewish population centers.

Israeli settlement Neve Daniel in the West Bank

MJT: Many of them are contiguous to Israel.

David Hazony: They’re at least plausibly contiguous to Israel.

The biggest test is whether Palestinians are able to stop the incitement against Israel in their schools. To me that’s the most obvious indicator as what their intentions are.

What could make the Palestinians do such a thing? Well, one of the most interesting developments over the last few years is the effort by the Palestinian Authority under Salam Fayyad to create the basis of a civil society, of a middle class, of economic growth, of real local policing, of a court system, and so on. If there’s anyone who can do it, it’s him.

The moment they have a functioning society with interests, economics, and a desire for the welfare of its own citizens, that’s potentially a game changer.

Tzipi Livni (left), former Israeli minister of foreign affairs, and Salam Fayyad (right), prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority

MJT: That was the American theory in Iraq. Middle class Iraqis were given micro grants and micro loans to set up small businesses so they’d have an economy and something to lose. No one will tolerate car bombs on a street they’ve invested in.
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David Hazony: I don’t know a lot about Iraq, but a very smart person once wrote an article about giving the Kurds their own state.

MJT: [Pause.] You’re talking about me?

David Hazony: Yes. I was very interested in running that piece. For years I wanted somebody to write that for Azure.

MJT: I wanted to write it for a long time, so it worked out, didn’t it?

David Hazony: Yeah. I first got into it because there was this awful Seymour Hersh story in the New Yorker where he quoted an unnamed German foreign ministry official who said the worst thing we could possibly do is create an independent Kurdish state because it would be like having another Israel in the Middle East.

MJT: That’s what a lot of Arabs say. Many Kurds see it that way, as well.

David Hazony: My sense was that any Iraqi state that the Americans created that didn’t send an ambassador to Israel had missed the point. The antipathy need not be so deep. Antipathy toward Israel serves a purpose. Polls that I’ve seen from the Arab world show that Arabs care less and less about the Palestinians over the years, but the antipathy toward Israel is indicative of whether they have politics driven by politicians’ needs to shift the blame toward foreign enemies in order to justify their own brutal rule, or whether political leaders are trying to earn the allegiance of their citizens by implementing a just rule. Obviously I believe in democratic institutions, but I’m willing to compromise on that and support a monarchy like Jordan’s that accepts us and makes a serious effort to be decent to its own local citizens.

The question is, where does the legitimacy for the regime come from? Does it come from fighting a war against other people? Does it come from resentment and the willingness to commit violence? Or does it come taking good care of its citizens? To me, that’s it. You can look at how a regime behaves at home and know whether or not it’s possible for that regime to make peace with Israel or the U.S. in the long run.

I think that what’s happening with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is the emergence, to some degree, of a self-legitimizing regime instead of an inherently hostile regime.

MJT: I’ve seen recent polls that show that Hamas in Gaza is now despised by the majority of the population, but it’s still popular in the West Bank. Maybe this will change over time, but it hasn’t yet.

David Hazony: Public opinion follows momentum. It was like this during the Cold War, too. What changed between the Carter years and the Reagan years? The United States invaded Grenada. Why did the United States invade Grenada? It was the first step in shifting momentum, and global politics follows momentum. The world’s peoples will magnetically move toward whoever they think is winning.

MJT: Sure.

David Hazony: This is why the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon is absolutely intolerable even if they never use it.

MJT: Yes. That’s how the Middle East works. It’s the strong horse principle, which Lee Smith has written about very well.

David Hazony: The narrative is the war. In the West people think there’s a war and a narrative, but the narrative actually is the war in the Middle East.

One could reasonably argue that Saddam Hussein lost the first Gulf War, but he emerged as this great victor. If you can plausibly argue that you bravely held the fort against overwhelming odds, then you’re a hero.

I assume that in Lebanon a lot of people don’t buy this, however.

MJT: They don’t. Some people think this way and take Hezbollah’s declaration of “divine victory” seriously, but most don’t.

David Hazony: But they do take it seriously in other places, and that’s where Iran’s reach is. That’s where their audience is.

MJT: It’s even taken seriously in Israel.

David Hazony: Yes.

MJT: A surprising number of Israelis think they lost the war in 2006. I see it as a draw. Nobody won.

David Hazony: It’s easy to think you lost a war when your prime minister explicitly says the goal is to defeat Hezbollah.

MJT: Yes, but the two sides are being judged by different standards. Hezbollah says it won because it’s still standing, but Israel is also still standing. So if you use the same criteria, the war is a draw. But Hezbollah was hit much harder, so in that sense, at least, Hezbollah lost. Lebanon was damaged much more than Israel. I know. I watched the war myself and photographed the destruction.

Destruction in Haret Hreik, Hezbollah's de-facto capital in the suburbs south of Beirut, after the 2006 war with Israel

David Hazony: We have a much lower tolerance for damage. We don’t like having to go into bomb shelters.

MJT: But you have bomb shelters. I’ve never seen so many bomb shelters in my life, and they make a huge difference. Hezbollah has all kinds of tunnels and bunkers and whatnot, but civilians in Lebanon don’t have anything like the bomb shelter infrastructure that Israel has.

David Hazony: I’d like to draw a line of connection between all this and my book. You’ve probably seen the interview online?

MJT: Yes, and it’s really interesting.

David Hazony: You know the English philosopher Roger Scruton? He once described American religion as Christian in form and Hebraic in content.

MJT: What did he mean by that, exactly?

David Hazony: American Christianity—and to a lesser degree English Christianity, as well—is heavily Protestant, and as such has a heavy respect for the Old Testament, perhaps more so than the Catholic Church traditionally has had. And the Old Testament is all about affirming life in the real world and not abandoning this world. The Old Testament has virtually no reference to the afterlife, to Heaven or Hell. There is a powerful sense of spirituality, but it’s all about this world, not the next world. It says that every single person has the ability and the obligation to get up in the morning and make the world better.

That’s the core message of the book I wrote.

I tried to capture what I call the spirit of redemption. My claim is that Western civilization is the inheritor of two spirits. The first is the spirit of reason, which comes from ancient Greece. It brilliantly says that if you give everybody freedom of inquiry, discourse, and economics, you will naturally create a positive discussion that will lead to good answers.

Alongside that is the spirit of redemption, which says that every human being is a bush that burns, but is not consumed. There is a fiery spirit in there that says, I can get up in the morning and take action to make the world better, starting with the world that’s immediately around me, my friends, my family, my children, and building outward from there.

The spirit of reason pushes you toward a universal kind of love and says irrational loyalties are a bad thing. The spirit of redemption says the opposite, that real love begins with redeeming your world. It begins with loving yourself, and it expands to include others. We build tremendously powerful bonds with those who are closest to us, and it then expands outward to include your community and your people. And the Ten Commandments, in my mind, are an encapsulation of that. So I show how each one is a building block of the spirit of redemption. You don’t have to believe that the Bible is God-given in order to appreciate the argument.

Every single instance that God appears in the Hebrew Bible, it’s exclusively to the extent that he intervenes in the well-being of mankind. We don’t have descriptions of God hanging out with angels. It’s all about God intervening for humanity. And the same thing is true of the Biblical heroes. Every single Biblical hero is an intervener, a redeemer, somebody who takes action, or says something to a king or his people, to make the world better. Take the story of Jonah. Was he willing to get off his butt, go to Nineveh in what today is Iraq, and get people to change their ways or not?

Nineveh, Iraq

That’s why I make the claim that the Ten Commandments themselves are not fundamentally about faith.

MJT: The first one is.

David Hazony: I claim it isn’t.

MJT: How?

David Hazony: God, as a figure in the Bible, is a figure to be emulated. That’s the intent. And the way we know this is from the phrasing in the First Commandment. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

There are a million different ways he could have introduced himself. He could have said, “I am the God who created the universe,” or “I am the God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, ” or “I am the God who laughs as you stupid human beings concerned yourselves with worldly things,” or “I am the God who is perfectly good.” There are all sorts of things he could have said. Instead, he chose the one thing that presents him as a source of emulation. He’s the God who intervenes in history, and therefore you should, too.

Redemption, I believe, is the core principle upon which everything else rests. You want to know which God is your God? The one who took you out of Egypt. That’s your God, that’s who you emulate, and that’s what you are capable of doing yourselves.

Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets and smashed them. To me, that’s the most amazing thing in the Bible because God didn’t tell him to do it. He smashes the tablets entirely on his own. God tells him, “Look at what they’re doing, they’re worshipping the golden calf, go do something.” But God didn’t tell him what to do. And Moses goes down and does the most counterintuitive thing you could possibly imagine. He destroys the word of God.

Moses breaks the tablets

MJT: Why did he do that, anyway?

David Hazony: It doesn’t say why. He just got angry and smashed the tablets. He did a lot of things, but the most amazing thing he did was smash the tablets. If he had to come down from Mount Sinai and essentially win people over by saying, “Look, I’ve got these Ten Commandments, come with me,” they’d say, “well, we have this golden calf.” He couldn’t have won that argument. The only thing that could have made them snap out of it was for them to witness an incredible act of brazenness, the chutzpah of destroying God’s word. That’s what man could do. It’s what man has to do. Okay? If you want to be worthy of really counting yourself among the followers of this amazing God, you have to be strong, creative, powerful, and amazing yourself.

It’s an incredible message, and it’s one that forms the foundation, I believe, of humanism, including secular humanism. By what right does a secular humanist put humanity above all else? Why is humanity greater than rubble, or even other forms of life? Because we believe there’s something special about human beings. That’s what the Hebrew Bible teaches, that we were created in the image of God. We are at the peak of the whole creative process. All of us are basically gods. All of us.

Atheists like Christopher Hitchens are always humanists.

MJT: Yes, always.

Christopher Hitchens

David Hazony: They take it one step too far, I believe, but they give credit to humanity, and that is, to my mind, the Biblical message. And I really believe that I back this up in the book. I don’t believe there is anything in the Bible that is truly otherworldly.

I come from the secular world. I grew up secular. I don’t think faith is the most important thing in the Bible. Wisdom and good action are more important.

MJT: That’s much more Jewish than Christian, isn’t it?

David Hazony: Yes.

MJT: I’m not religious, but I grew up Christian, and the church I went to as a kid said the only thing that mattered in the end was what you believed. There was no emphasis at all on what you’re talking about here. It really seems like Jews have a much more argumentative relationship with God and the Bible than Christians do.

David Hazony: Yes. Look at Abraham. He haggled with God. Look at Jacob. The name Israel means “wrestles with God.” At one point, Moses freaks out. The Israelites were bitching and moaning about being taken out of Egypt and into the desert.

Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent: and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased. And Moses said unto the LORD, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people alone, because [it is] too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.

Okay? Moses is going to God and saying, “Go to Hell.”

MJT: [Laughs.]

David Hazony: He’s saying, “Why are you doing this to me? Just kill me!”

MJT: [Laughs.]

David Hazony: He’s like the ultimate Jewish mother. And this isn’t the only place he does it. The Jewish disposition is totally different from what you grew up with. In the Jewish tradition, man is elevated this close to being on par with God. God’s children aren’t four-year olds. They’re more like rebellious eighteen-year olds. He fights with us, and we bitch back at him, but at the end of the day he’s still proud of us.

Israel is right on the border of Western civilization. You know that as well as anyone else. If you can look just over the fence and see another civilization, you learn to appreciate more deeply the core principles of your own civilization.

MJT: I do feel that way when I’m in the Middle East. Israel is right on the line. It runs right through the center of Jerusalem. And I feel this acutely in Lebanon where East and West mix without even having a line dividing the two. I never feel so Christian as when I’m in the Middle East. I don’t feel at all Christian when I’m home because I’m not religious.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

David Hazony: Part of it is the preservation of freedom, but there other things, too. There’s a mental presumption about what a good life looks like. In Western countries, the good life is one in which we have prosperity, longevity, creativity, health, and positive life values.

I wrote in my book about the quality of judges. The Bible has a huge emphasis on having good judges who judge justly, who don’t favor the rich over the poor or take bribes, and so forth. In many parts of the world, judges are just another part of the power apparatus.

MJT: That’s how it is in every dictatorship.

David Hazony: It’s not just about which laws we have on the books. Fundamentally, it’s a cultural issue. People in the West are brought up to genuinely and honestly believe in fairness, such that when we need to hire people for our courts, we’ll want to hire people who are fair, and the population will know how to recognize fairness when they see it. They’ll know how to give feedback and say, “that was a good choice.” A society needs a concept of fairness where it doesn’t matter who’s stronger.

In order to live freely, we have to be able to have honest relationships with other people. We have to be able to sign contracts that we both believe in and will uphold and that will be protected by the society. This doesn’t exist in many other societies.

As soon as you have a culture where everything is a function of what is or isn’t going to get a person killed, you don’t have a minimally functional society. Terrorists are just an extreme example, like when Hezbollah said the Jews love life while they love death.

MJT: That kind of talk scares the hell out of a lot of Lebanese people. There was an advertising campaign all over the country a few years ago. Billboards were put up everywhere in areas that aren’t controlled by Hezbollah that said, simply, “I Love Life.” If billboards like that were put up in the United States or Europe, they would be pretty innocuous, but in Lebanon they were controversial. Hezbollah was furious and denounced the people who designed them as racists.

David Hazony: Was it coming from the fundamentally Christian part of Lebanon?

MJT: I know the people behind the campaign, and many of them are Christians, but not all of them. And the billboards went up in non-Christian areas, in Sunni and Druze areas, and they weren’t controversial there. The billboards did not go up in Shia areas, though, because Hezbollah wouldn’t allow it.

David Hazony: It scares me to think that Lebanon might have to go through a massive civil war to clean out Hezbollah.

MJT: I don’t see any way that Lebanon can come through the other side without war, whether it’s a civil war or another big war with Israel. Lebanon will have to pass through a great and terrible gate unless the Syrian and Iranian governments are somehow replaced.

David Hazony: But who among Hezbollah would say, “okay, now we’ll give up our weapons?” if the Iranian government is replaced?

MJT: No one in Hezbollah would say that, but they’ll have to become a lot more cautious. They’ll be extremely nervous without their patron , and they’ll have to make some adjustments. It wouldn’t mean Lebanon and Israel are off the hook all of a sudden, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Hezbollah to find another sponsor. They’re militant Shia sectarians, and no Arab state other than Syria will support that. Not even Iraq with its Shia majority would do it after its own recent experience with militias.

David Hazony: If there’s a revolution in Iran, Syria will find itself completely alone.

MJT: And Assad would have to run his calculations again. It’s useful for him to be the second biggest jerk in the Middle East, but it’s dangerous being the biggest.

Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad

David Hazony: It’s not clear how he could survive if he broke away from Iran. Where does his regime’s legitimacy come from?

MJT: He gets his legitimacy as a secular non-Muslim Alawite by championing the Arab resistance. He buys himself a lot of street cred that way, but he needs Iran’s help. In a way, he’s the ultimate appeaser. He’s riding the radical Islamist tiger so that it won’t eat him.

David Hazony: Like I said earlier, strategic global struggles follow momentum. The only thing that’s going to stop the clash between the radical Islamic world and Western civilization is the same thing that stops any war—when both sides are convinced that there is more to gain from cooperating than by fighting.

So if the narrative is that radical Islam is spreading all over the world, then moderate Muslims will necessarily be drawn toward the radicals. It’s a magnetic pull. This is what’s missing in Western discourse.

Everything is always moving. Either the West is on the rise, or it’s on the decline. For many years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was democratizing–the Latin American countries, the Eastern European countries. Some people foolishly thought progressive democratization was inevitable or inexorable.

The word inexorable is one of the most comforting words in the world. As soon as you think something is just happening, you don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to worry about it. You can just live your life. But the truth is, if you don’t defend democracy, you’ll lose it. There will always be people with something else to offer.

I really truly believe that Europeans in general love Europe, and that at a certain point—and that point may be coming quite soon—they will recognize that they’ll have to take action to defend Europe.

We have to remember that civilization is a bubble. You can love your civilization and enjoy it, but if you don’t have any walls around your bubble, or if you don’t man the walls around your bubble, you could lose it. You might say, well, that won’t happen in my lifetime, but part of what keeps civilization going is the belief in something multigenerational. We have to think about our kids and our grandkids. We have to think seriously about what our grandkids will be facing. We can’t just dedicate our lives to preserving what we have.

MJT: I can understand why you think in these terms. You Israelis are right on the edge of it here. We can walk twenty minutes down the street from this café and look at the wall. It’s right there.

The Israeli security barrier in Jerusalem

David Hazony: Look. Israelis have an incredibly powerful sense of who they are. There’s this underlying melancholic Eastern European Woody Allen-like streak here that says Israel might not even exist in fifty years, but we don’t mean it. The likelihood that Israel will exist 100 years from now is greater than the odds that France will exist 100 years from now.

France was once part of the Roman Empire. It has been part of other regimes. Today it’s part of the European Union. They might be able to preserve their French culture without French sovereignty. The European Union is basically a self-conquest by Europe.

Israelis have a powerful sense — and it comes from our Jewish heritage — that we are unique and that our survival is absolutely not a negotiable item. No one will ever convince us to join the European Union. Some people on the far left love the idea, but most Israelis would never accept it once they understood what it really entailed.

MJT: I don’t blame you.

David Hazony: Israel is leading an incredibly positive civilization life. Read Start-up Nation and you’ll recognize that the cultural antecedents of Israeli business success are certain kinds of creativity, independence, and initiative that also manifest themselves in Israeli art, music, and literature.

We’re always trying to go beyond mere surviving. We have to survive because what we have to bring to humanity is really important. So we go about building a great economy and leading creative lives, but in order to do it, we have to send our kids to the army, even if it means they have to use violence against people who are trying to kill us. We’re doing that, but we’re doing it for a larger purpose. That’s the source of the internal debate over the morality of the army.

If you push most Israelis into a corner and say, “why not just nuke them from space,” or “why don’t you do what the Russians did in Chechnya,” Israelis on both the left and the right will say no. We have a higher agenda. We’re here for a reason, and it’s not just to survive. And it makes survival so much more important.

Tel Aviv, Israel

I mean, why should we survive? Humanity would go on without us in all sorts of different forms. The reason we need to survive is because we have something to contribute. That’s what Judaism has always taught. That’s what caused Jews over so many centuries to persevere. It’s also one of the sources of anti-Semitism. Non-Jews say, “why can’t you just be like normal people? Why do you have to do all these weird things and stick to your wacky religion?”

Some of us were converted to other religions by the sword, but there were always enough of us who weren’t. Somewhere in the back of every Jew’s mind is the absolute belief in the importance of preserving something, something ancient, something that goes back to the Bible. No one on earth can force us to give that up, even if they promise to kill us.

David Hazony has written for the New Republic, The Forward, Commentary, Moment, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Chronicle, the New York Sun, and Jewish Ideas Daily. He is a regular contributor to Contentions, the Commentary Magazine blog. Purchase his book The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life from Amazon.com.

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