Zionist Idea of Security Blocks Path to Peace

Although Israeli leaders insist they want a secure peace with all their neighbors, their frustrated desire for security is now blocking the path to peace.

As the latest round in the Israeli-Palestinian battle nears its one-year anniversary, the violence mounts with no end in sight. Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has yet to offer a clear vision of how it might end. Perhaps he is in no rush to sketch a final peace settlement because security, not peace, is Israel’s paramount goal.

Israel’s concept of security came from the founders of Zionism, who began promoting a Jewish state in the late 19th century. When they spoke about security for the Jews, their intention was just as much psychological as political. This legacy goes a long way toward understanding Israeli policy today.

The first great Zionist writer, Leo Pinsker, set the pattern in 1881. Anti-Semitism “can never die,” he maintained. Wherever Jews live among foreigners, they will be hated. But he charged that the Jews themselves were the real problem. After centuries of anti-Semitism, they had “no real self-love and no national self-respect.” They would feel good and right about themselves only when they took control of their own fate by creating their own nation.

Pinsker’s followers agreed there was something abnormal about Jewish life. Two millennia of political powerlessness had taught the Jews to accept and even embrace their weakness, the early Zionists lamented. Jews had learned to accept insecurity as a permanent fact of life. The Zionists aimed to overcome that psychological infirmity by making the Jews a “normal” nation. For them, that meant not merely having a land and government of their own, but exercising a “normal” degree of national power on the stage of world history. They expected that power to bring psychological as well as political security.

The horrors of the Holocaust underscored their argument. Never again, Jews vowed, would they be victims. Perhaps more importantly, never again would they let themselves feel like victims. In Israel’s early years, its schoolchildren were taught to be ashamed of the Holocaust, because it was the height of Jewish powerlessness. They were urged to show the world that this shameful era had ended forever. Yet even the great Israeli military victories of 1967 and 1973 did not set the psychological fears at rest.

The renowned Holocaust theologian Emil Fackenheim once told an audience that Israel might be destroyed by its enemies. Still, he said, Zionism would have fulfilled its goal because then the Jews would go down fighting. Today, many Jews continue to see a show of power as the only route to “real self-love” and “national self-respect.”

Five Israeli-Arab wars and 34 years of Jewish rule over the Palestinians have proven that when Israel fights, it will not “go down.” Militarily, its existence is secure against every plausible threat. Yet the old idea of insecurity still triumphs over present reality. The early Zionists assumed that Jews in conflict with non-Jews would always be insecure. They could not imagine a Jewish state with such predominant power that its existence would be absolutely assured, even if it remained in conflict with its neighbors. Most Israeli Jews today, haunted by a fear of powerlessness, still cannot believe in that assurance.

Surely not all Israelis seek a sense of security and normality through the exercise of power. But the majority, who do, block the path to peace. The Palestinian people want a fully sovereign and viable state on the West Bank and in Gaza. When the former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, went to Camp David in the summer of 2000, many Israeli Jews wanted him to meet that demand in return for peace. But most did not. They saw it as a surrender, a return to political powerlessness, and thus a fatal blow to their psychological sense of security and self-worth.

Barak knew that a meaningful peace deal would have meant political suicide. So he offered the trappings of sovereignty and the appearance of a viable state. When it was clear that he would, or could, move no further, the Palestinian uprising (intifada) broke out again. For Israel, the only alternative to real compromise was to show more power. The tanks and missiles we see on our TV screens, bearing the Star of David, show clearly the choice that Israel has made. The foundations of Zionist thought made that choice predictable, if not inevitable.

The history of Zionism helps explain why so many Israeli Jews can feel secure only when Israel is demonstrating its power. That history helps explain why so many support their government’s use of military power, even when the rest of the world cries out that genuine compromise is the only safe course — the only road to peace — and that only peace will bring genuine security.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.