Sovereignty poses tough problems, as last week amply showed; but lack of sovereignty poses worse ones.
By any standard, the past week has been terrible. We buried three kidnapped teens after 18 days of hoping against hope that they were alive. Rocket and mortar barrages from Gaza escalated to levels unseen since November 2012. An Arab teen was horrifically murdered by Jewish extremists, sparking the worst Israeli Arabs riots since October 2000. And the situation could yet deteriorate in countless ways.
Take, for instance, the Arab riots. Rumors about Jews abducting and/or killing non-Jews have sparked riots for centuries, and as recently as the first half of the last century, such riots routinely produced scores of dead Jews. Prominent examples include the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, which killed 47 Jews; the 1946 Kielce pogrom, which killed 42; and the 1929 Arab riots in British-ruled pre-state Israel, which killed 133.
Far more remarkably, however, no lethal anti-Jewish riots have occurred anywhere in recent decades – and that isn’t because the rest of the world has become so civilized; sectarian and ethnic massacres happen almost daily in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. Rather, it’s because there’s now a Jewish state ready to take in any Jew threatened by such violence.
Even today, when most Diaspora Jews live in “safe” countries, Israel’s role as refuge remains very much alive. Consider, for instance, this remarkable May 28 report by New York Times contributor Masha Gessen about her first visit back to Russia after emigrating to the US.
A new kind of conversational shorthand has appeared in Moscow: “What’s your month?” people ask one another. They mean the month for which you are signed up for an interview at the Israeli embassy to receive initial immigration documents. The nearest available slot for people booking an appointment now reportedly is in November, but most of my friends have appointments in August or September. Even getting an appointment is an ordeal: The embassy’s phone lines are so overburdened that getting through to the right department can take hours. And according to a recent, leaked picture, inside the embassy, it is a mob scene reminiscent of 1990-91, the peak years of the Soviet Jewish exodus.
This was at the height of the Ukraine crisis; if it dies down, most of those Jews will likely remain in Russia. But they want the reassurance of having somewhere to flee if necessary. And only Israel can give them that.
No country can promise 100 percent security all the time. America couldn’t prevent a neo-Nazi from murdering three people at Jewish sites in Kansas City in April; Belgium couldn’t prevent a jihadist from murdering four at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May; France couldn’t prevent a jihadist from murdering a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012; and Israel couldn’t prevent Hamas from kidnapping and killing the three teens. Throughout Jewish history, some people have sought to murder Jews just because they are Jews, and as long as such people exist, sometimes, they’ll succeed.
We may wait far too long to exercise this option, or make a mess of it once we do; both are true of successive governments’ responses to the rocket fire. But these are our choices, which means we can change them. And even our abysmally inadequate response to date, consisting mainly of civil defense measures, is an improvement over millennia of powerlessness: Such measures have decreased rocket casualties by an estimated 86%; as a result, very few Jews are either fleeing or dying in southern Israel.
That Israel still falls so short of our aspirations isn’t surprising; 66 years old is young for a country. America at that age was rent by a bitter divide over slavery that ultimately produced a devastating civil war; Germany and Italy were under Fascist rule and preparing to launch World War II; Yugoslavia just seven years away from a civil war that tore it into five separate countries.
For the first time in 2,000 years, we have the ability to exercise self-defense and provide a haven for endangered Jews worldwide. True, sovereignty has brought a whole new set of challenges: Jewish hate crimes, terrorists launching rockets from amid civilian populations, international condemnations. But we should never forget how privileged we are to have these challenges rather than those of previous generations. They’re vastly superior to the choice between fleeing and dying.