Over the last few years the focus of Israel’s security policy has shifted away from the Palestinian occupation to Iran’s nuclear program. However, the narrative of the Jewish state being under constant threat has not altered despite Israeli military power being stronger than ever. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent address to the US Congress underscored this shift. As Passover, and the Israeli election, fast approach it seems an apt time to examine the Jewish preoccupation with persecution. Moreover, we need question whether the state of Israel has constructed an identity so firmly around perceived persecution that it has actually become counterproductive to its security and a way to justify unpalatable policy decisions.
The persecution suffered by Jews in the Holocaust featured strongly as justification for the founding of the state of Israel. When the state was formally declared on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and Israel’s first Prime Minister, announced that, ‘The Nazi Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the reestablishment of the Jewish State.’ While there were some earlier Zionists, such as Yitzhak Epstein, who saw a peaceful future in Palestine based on co-existence with the existing population, the Holocaust produced an immediate and tangible need in the mainstream yishuv to provide postwar Jewish refugees with exclusive safety. Unfortunately, this in part led to what Israeli revisionist historians have labeled the ‘transfer’, ‘expulsion’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Palestinian inhabitants of what became the state of Israel.
Since it’s founding the Jewish state has maintained and nurtured the argument that it is a small state surrounded by enemies intent on its destruction. While this premise may well have been justified in times past, it is arguably no longer realistic. Although Israel has a relatively small standing army, it has the ability to call hundreds of thousands of reservists at short notice. The Israel Defense Force outnumbers all its immediate neighbours in sheer military capacity, except possibly Egypt. It is undoubtedly more experienced and better resourced and trained than any of them, including Iran. As it has proven on many occasions, it certainly has the ability to target those that defy it as well as destroy others the state deems a security threat. These include specific members of the PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas as well as other states. Israel’s military capacity has been demonstrated by its strikes against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and more recently chemical weapons facilities in Syria.
The persecution narrative Israel has constructed around its identity began to be questioned more widely by the international community as a result of the disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians as part of the second intifada in 2000 . With each subsequent flare-up and Israeli government proclamations of defense despite the death tolls and damage, the disingenuousness of the foundational persecution narrative has grown. The latest round of violence in Gaza in 2014 not only killed over 2100 Palestinians and over 70 Israelis but also brought virtually catastrophic destruction to the Gaza Strip far in excess of any security need. The continuing closure and restriction of movement and goods to and from the Strip has also been called ‘collective punishment’ and ‘counter-productive’ to Israel’s stated goal of security by many in Israel’s own academic, military and intelligence community. Now, the European Union mulls sanctions against Israel for its ‘punitive measures against Palestinians’. It is becoming increasingly clear that Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, not only during active conflict, are not simply defensive and do not lead to greater security, despite government protestations to the contrary.
The perceived threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program is but the latest incantation of fear invoked by the Israeli government. Arguably, this conscious pivot in Israeli security policy away from Palestinians and the occupation is a direct result of its recent paucity. Netanyahu’s recent address to Congress on the topic proposed an emotional, existential argument that attempted to create fear in order to drive and influence US policy and the current round of nuclear talks. Netanyahu attempted to portray Iran as an irrational actor who, should it obtain a nuclear weapon, would have no hesitation in launching it at Israel. This is a false picture that Netanyahu is attempting to draw, in no small part aided by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his well-known inflammatory rhetoric. The recent release of Mossad intelligence cables by Al Jazeera contradicts Netanyahu’s argument that Iran is an imminent nuclear threat. Despite an official stance of ‘nuclear ambiguity’ Netanyahu’s argument also rings false because it is clear that Israel itself has nuclear weapons capabilities. Hence, even if Iran were to acquire a weapon, the most likely endgame between the two is probably detente.
Next week Israel will go to the polls and a few weeks later Jews the world over will celebrate the high holiday of Passover. At its core, the Passover story can be seen as the cornerstone of the Jewish persecution complex. The biblical story of Exodus tells how the Israelites were oppressed under the Pharaoh and how Yahweh liberated them from bondage by sending ten plagues against the Egyptians and parting the Red Sea to facilitate their escape. The tale is told not only each year as part of the Passover Seder, but is remembered every day in Jewish prayer as a way to affirm God’s devotion to the Jewish people and vice-versa. Unfortunately, the Passover tale has created, and reinforced, a foundational myth in Judaism of animosity between Israelites and Arabs that has endured to the present day and only been consolidated since the founding of the state of Israel.
Some would argue there have been times past where Jewish and Israeli persecution justified affirmative or offensive policy choices, but that argument is no longer relevant: Israel is one of the best equipped and most able countries in the world to defend itself as well as attack its enemies. In fact, arguably the well-being and greater security of the state of Israel would be better served by being the ‘light unto the nations’ God commanded the Israelites to be in the aftermath of their freedom from bondage in Egypt.