Many wonder why Israel as a nation appears to be so aggressive, to invade Gaza and Lebanon when attacked, to bomb Syria, Iraq and possibly now Iran when threatened by the Iranian nuclear bomb program. In general many question the way Israel violently reacts to provocation. The answer may lie in the sad history of the Jewish people. Growing up Jewish, one of the 15 million in a world of 7 billion people, is growing up feeling like a survivor of so many historical massacres, lucky to be alive and stay alive. Given our history it is not surprising that there would be a slight “paranoiac” tone to the experience on real or perceived threats. And this is not to always justify Israel’s behavior, as I think that Israel as a nation is not doing itself a favor with some of the most aggressive intervention. For example I personally support having bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactors but not attacking the Turkish ship headed to Gaza when just towing it away would have sufficed. And historically many innocent people have died as a result of Israel’s quick trigger reactions.
Still, contrary to what many believe, Jewish-Arab conflicts have killed far fewer people than Muslim-Muslim conflicts. For example the civil war in Syria these days, or the Iraq Iran war, or the Lebanon civil war or many other Muslim against Muslim conflicts that have been far more lethal than Israel’s conflicts. Just looking at the Wikipedia casualty lists of these wars I estimate for every Muslim killed by a Jew there are 100 Muslims killed by other Muslims. And there are many more Muslims killed by US and EU armies than by Israel as well. But still even one non combatant death is too many and should be avoided, so let’s try to understand why Israel responds so violently to aggression, sometimes crossing acceptable boundaries.
Israel is so aggressive because the history of Judaism is a history in which us Jews get killed for being Jewish again and again. And the few times we were spared, we celebrate it as a holidays. As one Jewish friend put it, a Jewish holiday can be summarized as “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. So we have Passover for when we saved ourselves from the Egyptians, and today, February 24th, we celebrate Purim, another survival celebration. This time we celebrate how we prevented a holocaust in Persia when Jews were deported from present-day Israel to present-day Iran. But then of course there was the very sad time we did not win, and that was the Holocaust, a systematic elimination of Jews, where nobody saved us and around a third of the Jews of the world were massacred by the Nazis. As a result, while the population of the planet has tripled, there are the same amount of Jews now as there were in 1900. And this is very much in the mind of the current generation of Israeli leaders who grew up right after the Holocaust. These leaders are haunted by the ever present question of why Jews didn’t defend themselves effectively in the Holocaust, by a conviction that if we don’t defend ourselves nobody will. And that’s why they see that their primary mission as leaders is to prevent a new Holocaust. This mission is not helped when Israel’s Sharon returns Gaza hoping for peace and Hamas who has a stated mission to eliminate Israel wins the local elections and starts an ongoing conflict with Israel. Or when Iran itself says that Jews should be thrown out of their country or exterminated. As these events unfold, Israeli leaders think “never again” and act, sometimes judiciously, sometimes not.
So given the history of the Jewish people, which could be summarized as the history of a people who tried to stay alive among Christians and Muslims and did quite poorly, a history of a people that are now only one in 500 of humanity as a whole, not one in five as Muslims or one in three as Christians, the Israeli fear is more understandable. Especially in a world in which other nations like the USA go much further in committing what I would call human rights violations (i.e use of drones) in order to defend itself. The intervention of Europe and the USA in the Arab world in the last few years in Afghanistan and Iran has resulted in far more deaths than all the Israel wars with Arabs combined, yet even these invasions seem more accepted by general public opinion around the world than Israel’s policies. So as Jews, myself included, celebrate Purim today, I hope this commentary helps to put the issue in perspective and helps non-Jews understand why Jews will always be quick to react to attacks like the rockets Hamas frequently fires into Israel.
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