Being alone is something that we Jews are used to. From our inception, we walked a different path as outsiders to the larger religious, cultural, and national identities. Our tradition taught that it might be, or according to some ought to be, our destiny. Centuries of anti-Semitism have made being alone our second nature. The recent ascent of Israel de-legitimization in many parts of the world is thus familiar and fits in with what we have come to expect.
Being alone has its advantages. It has created a Jewish culture of moral and spiritual aspirations that sets its own standard and is never satisfied with what others do, never content with simply being a nation like all others. On the negative side, beyond the psychological price of loneliness, it can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair and itself undermine any aspirations which involve others. When everybody is your enemy, one neither tries to make friends nor attempts to earn friendship. In the end, this isolationism undermines moral and spiritual excellence as one institutionalizes deafness toward the words, suggestions, and criticisms of others.
Two remarkable things happened recently which, due to our mentality of aloneness, slipped by relatively unnoticed. The first was the consistent actions of the Greek government, and even to some extent the French and Turkish, to prevent the embarking of the flotilla to Gaza, which regardless of its outcome would have further isolated Israel in the eyes of the world community. The second was the extensive cooperation afforded Israel in cities across Europe to prevent pro-Palestinian activists from boarding planes to Israel and creating a public relations nightmare, which would have again isolated our country.
When the world acts against us we often nod toward each other, as if to say, “What else do you expect? We were alone, we are alone, and we will always be alone.” However, when the opposite is the case, we seem to lack the categories with which to absorb it. Our personal “tuners” seem to be unable even to pick up the frequency. As a result we both lose the opportunity and fail to learn lessons for the future.
It does not serve us well when we conflate criticism with rejection, and disagreement with some of Israel’s policies with de-legitimization. We have enemies, and there are many who want our demise, but we also have friends who are searching for ways to maintain and give expression to that friendship.
Israel can be a vehicle for Jewish isolation, the sole haven for Jews who are perceived to be by definition at risk in the world. It can, however, be a bridge to the world, its creation the decision of the Jewish people to be a part of the world, to engage it and to be engaged by it. While public relations are critical, there is no substitute for good policies.
When Israel stands for its legitimate rights to be free and secure, and at the same time ensure that we fulfill the values of our tradition and the moral laws of the international community, we encounter a world eager to engage us. When we lead with ideas instead of merely responding with force, and when we base our policies on values instead of self-righteousness, we are a country with which others are willing to align.
Israel is a real country, and our decision to ensure its security requires a commitment to reality and a willingness also to function within the realm of realpolitik. However, we need to begin to realize that we can also shape this realm.
One of the lessons of Jewish survival over the centuries, against all odds, is that power is not the sole determinant of realpolitik, but values and ideas as well. One of the lessons of being alone over the centuries has been to commit ourselves to a politics of innovation, morality, and respect for others. One of the gifts of the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st is that such politics can undermine our aloneness and create true foundations for friendship with others.
Let us look at these recent events not as aberrations or the result of clever diplomatic maneuvers, but rather, as a model for what might be. An Israel that innovates diminishes its alienation and enhances its security. An Israel that leads will find many who want accompany it. We need not always be a nation that lives apart. It’s time for us to begin to believe it and enable that belief to become the guide for our policies and a new self-fulfilling prophecy of our relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, and the world.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem