Without the possibility of Israel, Judaism is pointless

Does it matter if the Jews as a people or nation continue to exist? Once this was the sort of question I played with at university over cups of bad coffee in the early '60s. Were the Jews a race, a religion, a culture, a tribe? Whatever we were, we were living a good life in Britain, the United States and the West in general. In those simple, heady days, the state of Israel was seen as a heroic little country.

Nothing essential about Israel has changed since then, but the zeitgeist has changed and, about 30 years ago, Israel went out of fashion. This has created an irony that the early founders of Zionism never foresaw. Israel was established to spare Jews physical danger and anti-Semitism. The irony is that nowhere in the world does being a Jew carry a higher price tag than in Israel.

The question that now begins to force itself is one we have tried to avoid: Is this grim scenario of killings and bombings and endless warfare worth it — to the world and, on a personal level, to our children? I think the answer is yes, but there are persuasive arguments to be confronted.

The reaction of much of the media and many commentators to the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister has been a lightning rod for this hostility to Israel. "Is Ariel Sharon Israel's Milosevic?" asked the Los Angeles Times. The Independent's Review section led with a front that described Sharon in oversize type as a man whose "name is synonymous with butchery."

One can take the view, legitimately, that Israel is a disputed land with two peoples each believing it is theirs, and that it is difficult to say who is right or wrong. What is immoral and illogical is to talk about international law, rights and wrongs, and then blithely disregard every rule, whether it is the United Nations resolution establishing Israel, the Oslo accords, laws against targeting civilians in terrorist attacks, or using civilians as shields for military attacks. This is like refereeing a boxing match and letting your favorite contestant take a submachine gun into the ring, while shrilly pointing out any rules broken by his opponent.

The Israelis are exhausted by it all. The country has been in a state of war that started five hours after it came into being in 1948. This low-level war of 52 years has been interspersed with armed truces, but it has never ceased and it is predicated on one simple fact: the rejection by the Arab world of the U.N. vote to partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state in the Middle East.

You can argue whether or not this rejection is justified, and I have some sympathy for the arguments of the Arabs, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust in Europe that gave impetus to the establishment of the state of Israel in their midst. But the fact of their non-acceptance is undeniable. Even Egypt, signer of the first peace treaty with Israel, has never established anything more than a cold-war accommodation with its Jewish neighbor.

Once you face the fact that what exists in the Middle East is a war, the futility of trying to judge individual acts is obvious. The world judges the warring parties anyway, according to the spirit of the times. There was a time when, perhaps wrongly, every Palestinian act was considered one of terrorism and similar Israeli acts were never condemned. That lasted until the end of the 1960s. Now the climate is such that only Israelis are judged.

Arab rejectionism is more obdurate than ever because it is closer than ever to succeeding. Morale in Israel is low. Emigration is an option when the computer age makes it feasible for labor to be mobile. You can as easily do your job in Cincinnati as Ramat Gan and not worry about a bomb going off on a bus. The Arabs are many, the Israelis few. As the Muslim world has said, we can outwait you and we will prevail.

Islam is on an upswing throughout the world. I come from a British Jewish family that was all but assimilated. I barely understand a word of Hebrew or Yiddish, yet my personal pride comes from my Jewish identity. Given this, how can I fail to understand how strong the tribal sense of belonging must be to those among the Arab and Islamic world, many of whom are devout, highly religious and brought up with a narrow perspective on the world compared with Western notions of liberalism?

The problem with nationalism — or tribalism and deism — is that those who are immersed in it generally oppose everyone else's version, while those who are distanced from it don't understand the power of such notions and blithely bash on, trying to build happy multicultural constructs.

What many sentimental or left-wing Jews, both inside and outside Israel, dream of is a multicultural Israel in which Jew and Arab live together in harmony in one land under a flag flying both the red crescent and the Star of David. Nice stuff if you could get it.

Would it really matter if Israel ceased to exist? For the extraordinary achievements of its 52 years alone, it deserves to exist. But, in the years since the end of World War II, the actual necessity of a Jewish homeland seems to have progressively diminished.

Certainly, Jews appear to have given the Western world disproportionate gifts in the arts, literature and sciences. But one of the great unknowables is whether an unassimilated group makes more or less of a contribution than assimilated peoples.

While organized anti-Semitism has been eliminated in the world today, the situation of the Jews hasn't fundamentally changed. Notwithstanding the moderating forces of liberalism and the fact that we can live peacefully anywhere, the same forces that turned Germany into Nazi Germany still exist. Any people such as the Jews, who do not have a country of their own, may forever be at the mercy of any virus that takes hold.

Only the Israelis can make the decision on whether to keep up the fight for their country. All they really want is to be accepted by their neighbors as a nation like any other. If that were genuine, all the squabbling about holy places, settlers and borders could easily be resolved. Israelis want to be able to travel from A to B without fear of ambushes. They want to stop worrying whether or not their children will survive military service — a requirement that is not simply a year or two of some discomfort and disruptions, but a lottery in which their sons and daughters may not come out alive.

Without Israel, it is hard to see how all Jews in the diaspora could avoid assimilation. Jews have survived more than 2,000 years in the single, unshakeable belief that one day their dislocation would end with their return to the Promised Land. This is the central underpinning of Judaism. "Next year in Jerusalem" is the single phrase every Jew hears and remembers from the moment he can speak. If, this time, Israel is destroyed and the Jews leave, whether through progressive absorption into an Islamic state or bloody warfare, there seems little chance of a Third Temple and a return.

Without the possibility of Israel, Judaism becomes pointless.

The Israelis will make their decision whether to carry on the draining struggle for a Jewish state, but all Jews, even the anti-Israel Jewish journalists in the West, may yet bear the consequences of that decision.