Necessity is the mother of invention. Throughout Jewish history, whenever economic or social restrictions have been applied against Jewish populations, those same targeted Jews have responded by finding means to succeed despite the hurdles placed in their way.
In notable instances, the “invention” itself has become problematic. By excluding Jews from a range of guilds and thereby denying them the right to participate in the broader economic life of the community, medieval Europe pushed Jews into marginal occupations. One such occupation was moneylending, which created a dangerous dynamic that helped define European Jewish existence for hundreds of years. Existing in a bleak place between the power of the aristocrats and dukes, on the one hand, and the rage of the peasant mobs, on the other, Jews were forced from one place to another in part because of the economic role they were forced to play in society.
More cheerfully, our ancestors understood that learning was an intangible asset that no ducal dictator or antisemitic horde could take away. Continuing the tradition of study practised by for generations, the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, saw Jews turn their minds to secular studies like sciences and the humanities. In a modernizing world, this proved a tremendous advantage. Much of the success enjoyed by Jews today is founded on the collective dedication to learning that began in ancient study halls and continues this very week as Jewish kids return to classrooms all over the world.
Zionism is a natural descendant of the theory of necessity and invention. For hundreds of generations, Jews prayed for a return to Zion and Jerusalem. But when, after the Middle Ages gave way to Enlightenment and emancipation, the place of Jews in Europe still proved precarious, as Theodor Herzl concluded during the Dreyfus Affair, the idea of Jewish self-determination as a national political movement took flight. Necessity increased in the first decades of the 20th century and Zionism went from a somewhat obscure idea to one almost universally accepted by Jews, though its realization would be too slow to save six million lives.
Attacked by its neighbours at the moment of its birth, Israel was forced to pull together a military defence. The alternative was unthinkable, and the generation faced with that reality during the War of Independence had learned just a few years earlier the danger of complacency and unpreparedness.
Facing existential threat once more in 1967 with the Six Day War, Israel again triumphed. The Eichmann trial, still fresh in the collective Jewish memory from earlier in the decade, created a stark awareness in Israeli and Diaspora minds about the precariousness of Jewish existence and the determination of those who would seek to destroy us.
Since 1967, there has been no doubt that Israel is a regional military powerhouse. This truth is axiomatic. If Israel were not a regional powerhouse, it’s likely Israel would not exist. This is what makes uncategorical criticism of Israel for its militarism so infuriating, as it fails to even acknowledge that the “invention” was made necessary by the world’s unquenchable antisemitism.
And so, it seemed, this was among the messages Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was trying to convey in a speech last week adjacent to Israel’s nuclear research centre, home of the country’s unacknowledged nuclear weapons program. He made some stark statements about the dangers of weakness.
“The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive,” he said. “The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and, in the end, peace is made with the strong.”
Some have made the case that Netanyahu’s bluster and warnings to enemies are un-Jewish, that acknowledging power, and reveling in the benefits it presents, is antithetical to Jewishness. Perhaps.
Yet, we should also realize that we are in a time of changing paradigms. In the vast scope of Jewish history, the decades since the establishment of the state of Israel are the blink of an eye. We are still recalibrating what it means to be Jewish in an age of Zionism. As Jews in the Diaspora and as Jews in the Jewish homeland, we are redefining our identities and connections in a time of incredible flux. What does Jewish mean now? How do we accommodate and respond to power? What measures must we take to redefine our relationships with non-Jews, including the leaders of other countries, in a time when we have the power to defend ourselves and no longer rely on the ephemeral kindness of strangers?
As Rabbi Irwin Kula (who will speak in Vancouver this month; see page 5) says, we who are alive in this time of extraordinary transition can be a part of “one of the great adventures in the human drama right now.”
Given an option, we may have chosen to live in duller times. But we are here now – and that necessitates us inventing ways to thrive in the world we have inherited.