Israel is a state that – with all its economic and cultural achievements – continues to struggle for survival in a region that is hostile towards its very existence. The very notion that the Jewish people, as a people, have the right to self determination and a state of their own in the only region in which they were ever sovereign, was opposed from the outset. Israel’s ability to survive and even thrive amidst the surrounding hostility has been the result of its ability to identify the threats to its survival and to respond to them decisively.
Immediately upon its establishment – within hours of its declaration of Independence – Israel was threatened militarily. The mobilized armies of seven Arab armies were to be the means of its physical destruction. Fighter planes, tanks, guns and soldiers were mobilized again and again in an effort to rid the region of a Jewish state in its midst. And Israel, through the sacrifice of many of its best young men and women – repelled them again and again. Israel responded to the existential threat posed by Arab armies by building one of the world’s mightiest military machines. War after war, attack after attack Israel managed to demonstrate to the hostile armies around it that it would not be defeated by force. Twenty-five years after Arab armies first mobilized against Israel, the bloody and terrible 1973 Yom Kippur War was to be Israel’s last conventional war. Within the course of a generation Israel won the military battle for survival.
For its enemies – armies would not be the means of Israel’s destruction. But Israel’s enemies did not give up on their goal – they merely changed the arena where their wars were fought. Beginning in the 1970’s, international and domestic terrorism, as well as a petro-dollar driven Arab boycott, were the new tools of attack. The people of Israel were to be terrorized and economically strangled to submission. In response, Israel developed substantial skills in combatting terrorism – both international and domestic, and developed one of the world’s most innovative export-based economies. Contrary to most countries in the world, Israel’s economy does not depend on the region and survives as a virtual island. Victory was not immediate, but by the end of the 1990’s the Arab boycott failed and was dissolved, and Israel’s economy surpassed even those of the oil-rich states of the region. In the past decade international and domestic terrorism were also put at bay, and even though attempts at attacks continue, terrorism no longer represents a strategic threat to Israel and its citizens are not terrorized.
But as in the previous rounds, Israel’s decisive victories in one arena merely forced its enemies to search new arenas where Israel is vulnerable. The new arena is one of ideas and images. In a bizarre return to ‘square one’ Israel is currently being attacked for its foundational idea. It is an attack on the idea that the Jewish people, as a people, have the right to self-determination and their own state in the only land in which they were ever sovereign – an idea without which there would be no Israel. Each one of the elements of this idea is under attack: the existence of the Jewish people as a people, rather than ‘just a religion’ is being questioned and dismissed. The idea that the Jewish people should therefore have the right to self-determination and a state of their own is rejected. The historic relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is also being denied. This attack on the ideas that underpin Israel – the attack on its very legitimacy as a state – is taking place in a variety of forums, from international forums such as the UN and its various bodies, to courts, to academia, to the media, the NGO world and social networks. And so, with the failure of physical attacks, an intellectual attack is being mounted. While this attack does not appear at first to be dangerous and lethal as the others, it is no less threatening as it is targeting the very thing that makes Israel strong – its unique foundational idea.
Israel’s ability to survive and thrive depends again on providing a strong, smart and definitive response to this attack. First, the importance, severity and nature of the threat must be acknowledged. While several years ago, calls to head this issue seriously were dismissed by some as “fluff,” compared with ‘serious’ physical threats, the leadership of Israel and the Jewish world is now firmly behind this issue. Second, the same kind of resources and structures that were mobilized in previous wars and battles should be put to work in this case. Just as we have the IDF – the Israeli Defense Forces, we should now have the IIDF – the Israeli Intellectual Defense Forces, committed to the intellectual defense of Israel. These structures should also reflect the nature of the threat and the arena – diverse and dispersed. Rather than hierarchical closed structures we should have global, open and dispersed ones that allow for anyone who want to serve in Israel’s defense – whether they are members of parliament who believe in Israel’s foundational idea, international legal luminaries, or 15 year old kids with a creative minds and a laptop – to contribute to the effort.
Third, a battle doctrine should be developed that includes several key principles such as: don’t just engage in defense – go on the offensive. For too long Israel has merely responded to the attacks, but there is no reason why Israel should not mount its own campaigns. The absurdity of Israel being repeatedly attacked on human rights issues by some of the world’s greatest offenders should not go unchallenged. Another principle should be not to leave any arena unattended and to not allow any lie to fester. Even the most ridiculous charges and the most obscure place need to be countered. Fourth, we should remember that the world does not consist only of European courts and west coast university campuses. Most of the world lives in the east. China and India are rising to world prominence. They do not have a complicated history with the Jewish people. On the contrary, there is tremendous sympathy for the Jewish people and the story of Israel. These are the places where we need to invest the most in building relationships and support for the future.
Finally, some of the traditional key messages need to be changed. Israel should not try to compete on victimhood. Any effort by Israel to show the world that we are greater victims that the others and that we suffer more is bound to fail. As a proud Zionist, I don’t want to win in the competition of who is the greater victim. We did not build an independent state in order to arouse pity and wallow in misery. Our message should be one of responsibility – this is our strength and this is where we can challenge the other side – on their actions, decisions and responsibility for the historical outcomes.
While victory in this battle, as in others, is not likely to be swift, with the proper resources, organization, and determination it is within reach. After all, if there is any battle that the Jewish people should be able to win, it is the battle of the mind.