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The Burning Issues Confronting World Jewry and the Jews of Israel

Pluralism
Politics
Zionism

This article is based on a speech delivered by Amb. Halevy at the opening dinner of the Schechter Institute Groundbreaking Celebration, Israel Museum, November 27, 2006.

The year 2006 was not only marked by the war in Lebanon which ended on an uncertain note; it has also been the year in which, for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, its Jewish community has become the largest in the world. This most recent development highlights the unique responsibility that Israel now bears not only for its own security and well being but no less for the future of Jewry worldwide. This responsibility carries with it a degree of authority: ultimately what Israel will do or fail to do will determine the destiny of the entire Jewish People in the twenty-first century.

This is a time for clearly stating the facts: Israel came into being fifty-nine years ago in response to a clear necessity to offer a national and territorial solution for the Jewish People that had wandered in the Diaspora for close to two thousand years

Initially, the idea of a Jewish State was an option adopted by a minority of the Jewish People; the majority elected not to come to the Holy Land and not to join the Zionist Movement. Indeed, many of those who came to these shores at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, soon left because of hardships encountered in the then desolate land of Israel – Eretz- Yisrael. Jews from Safed found their way to Washington D.C. and to Perth in Western Australia and others settled in Europe and Asia. The Jews of Palestine sought and received much material support from their brethren scattered in all four corners of the earth. “Babylonia” was the richer and the more enlightened of communities; “Yerushalyim” was quite far behind.

For more than half a century the Jews of the Yishuv strove to create a new society here in the Middle East; to promote revolutionary ways of collective life, to reclaim the land that lay destitute for centuries, to establish centers of study, science and learning and to evolve a sense of nationhood that would serve as a powerful inspiration for a supreme effort to obtain national independence. From day one, it became imperative to forge a credible and potent defense capability to protect the fledgling entity as it grew and hoped to prosper. We also created a system of government, a truly democratic one, almost from day one, long before we knew if we were to achieve independence, let alone when this might come about.

After World War Two, after the trauma of the Holocaust, we were a bare half a million souls in what was then Palestine; less than five per cent of the remaining number of the Jewish People. It was from this narrow base that the leadership of the Jewish community in the Holy Land took the daring decision to go straight for national self rule, for a full- fledged state. And, at the time, it was clear that the neighborhood would initially reject this move and would go to war to destroy us at the very outset.

These were the odds; these were the circumstances that surrounded the minority Jewish community in the days of 1947 – 1948.

Out of these points of departure were born the concepts that shaped Israel’s approaches and policies when David Ben Gurion issued the Declaration of Independence on 15th May 15th, 1948. It is essential that we recount them as we look to the future.

1. The People of Israel believe in our inalienable rights to the land of our forefathers. These rights extend to the entire land, whether it be along the coastal strip or in the heartland, bordering on the Jordan river.

2. Given the presence on this land of others, who have accumulated rights, a solution must be found whereby they and we could coexist in one form or another.

3. There will have to be compromise, and this compromise will reflect not only the legitimate rights of both sides, but no less the relative strength and capabilities of the sides to what rapidly became an extended conflict.

4. The Jewish People in the Holy land could not dream to secure their independence and survival without creating a critical mass of numbers of Jews in the newborn state and a formidable and invincible security and defense arm to assure existence.

5. Whatever the success in augmenting the numbers of Jews in Israel, we would always suffer numerical inferiority. We would have, constantly, to bridge the gap through maintaining excellence in science, technology, economics and culture.

6. Although we should aspire to all-encompassing excellence, this is practically beyond the realm of attainment. We must therefore cultivate “islands of excellence” as we strive constantly to expand them to include as many of our citizens wherever they are and regardless of their social status. Indeed, we must practice planned preference for the deprived elements in society in every possible way, without demanding less of them in study and requirements. As we learnt in the Talmud, Sanhedrin page 96:

“Hizharu m’benai ani’im ki m’hem te’tze Torah” “Be heedful of the honor due to the children of the ignorant, for from them the Torah comes forth.”

7. We could not survive and flourish if we lived in isolation. We would have to find partners and common causes that could both give us added strength where that was necessary and afford Israel with the vital opportunity of making unique contributions to the well being of free society as a whole. It would be imperative to reach out both to countries and societies inside the Middle East and to key players on the international scene and global arena.

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As the world assumes the character of a global village with growing interdependency stretching across oceans and continents, the role that Israel is playing is assuming ever-greater proportions. Interests are becoming that much closer both regionally and internationally and issues involving survivals of regimes, societies and states are more than ever inter-related. Israel, Egypt and Jordan are drawing closer to each other. Saudi Arabia is eying its future as linked to the coalition of forces facing up to the threats that are on the front burner of this twenty-first century.

Three such threats now grace our agenda: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the advance of international Islamic terror and the rise of the price of oil and the inherent threat to the stability and well being of the industrialized world. All of these threats emanate from the Middle East. All of them have world-wide ramifications and all pose existential threats to ways of life and societies.

From the modest origins of modern day history, Israel has matured into an important player far beyond the confines of its present borders. In that lies its added strength; in that lies, of course its growing vulnerability.

The powers of the world are threatened from forces and movements inside the Middle East; to overcome the enemy, they must come to the Middle East and fight it out on “enemy” territory. Wars cannot be won on home soil. But in wars such as these, Israel does not only enjoy the comfort of basking in the warmth of grand alliances. As a partner, it is often called upon to make concessions on its own localized issues in order to serve the interests of its partners. Thus, if the United States and others become convinced that a reduction in Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian tension is essential for them to preserve their partnerships with moderate Arab states, then Israel may be required to pay its share in the service of the grander goals of the alliance for survival of freedom and common values.

The present state of affairs is even more complex than that which I have hitherto described. Muslim communities around the world are gathering momentum and numbers-wise, are flourishing, particularly, but not only in Europe. These fast mushrooming minorities could well become tentative majorities by mid-century in key European cities. These communities have changed direction in recent years and no longer aim at integrating themselves into western-style societies. They now preach multi-culturalism and also wish to advance the causes of their mother faiths and beliefs in the temporal life of the twenty-first century. They have become the backdrop of a vast increasing propensity to support Islamic terror where they live and reside today.

In a rare appearance, the Director of the British Security Service, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently described the stark realities facing Britain, revealing:

-Since the successful terrorist attack in London on 7th July 2005, directed at the London underground transport and overland bus systems, five major conspiracies have been foiled and hundreds or even thousands of lives have been saved;

-Over sixteen hundred identified individuals in more than two hundred groupings and networks are actively plotting to carry out terrorist acts. Many more, as yet unknown, are around;

-Over 100,000 British citizens consider the attacks of 7th July justified.

Manningham-Buller goes on: “.what motivates young men and women to carry out acts of terrorism? … Al Qa’ida has developed an ideology which claims that Islam is under attack and needs to be defended. This is a powerful narrative that weaves together conflicts from across the globe . from long-standing disputes such as Israel/Palestine and Kashmir . Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya, Iraq and Lebanon ..”

This is the picture in Britain alone; multiply it many times over, encompassing so many other countries in Europe and beyond and we will begin to understand the depth and scope of our current problems, including those of Israel proper within the Middle East.

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Where do we go from here? How should we determine our agenda for these times?

Firstly, let it be stated in no uncertain terms that rarely in the past have we faced such a variety of threats and predicaments. Second, let it be said that for the first time in two thousand years, the Jewish people now enjoys sovereignty in its own state and has unprecedented capabilities and power.

We have multiplied more than ten times over in sixty years. We have a Jewish population larger than the individual populations of Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, Lithuania Denmark, Qatar, Oman and others. Israel is currently militarily greater than Britain, or France and most countries in Western Europe. Israel has the critical mass to sustain any and every attempt to bring about its demise. On the basis of what I know, Israel is indestructible. There is an Iranian threat, it is a most serious one, but Israel has a variety of ways to deal with it and the Iranians will never succeed in destroying Israel.

In the march of history there are victories and setbacks; there have been times when we should have done better but we must never lose our sense of proportion.

The picture I have painted is a somber one; but we should take enormous comfort in realizing that Israel, through its strength and unique role in the scheme of things is assuming the role of ultimate guarantor of the perpetuation of the Jewish People. Jerusalem is taking the lead from ancient Babylon, and it is now already in numbers and in spiritual concentration, the heart of the Jewish People.

The battles in the streets of Beirut, in the alleys of Gaza, in the Muslim neighborhoods in major European cities are fast merging into one pattern.

But Israel is not alone; we have the most formidable and capable of allies in Washington, in New York, in London, and, yes, in Moscow too. Israel is already playing a key role in the struggle for victory and survival in this most momentous of global conflicts and there should be no doubt that the forces of life are destined to win.

What is our Achilles heel? Now, more than ever before, it lies in the cleavage within our ranks; in the unresolved struggles in Jewish society involving issues of beliefs, social order and ethics. By and large, halakhic boldness, a courageous Jewish Law – have been absent in the history of modern day Israel. There is a real danger than we will weaken from within; that in less than a generation, traditional marriage will become a minority norm amongst Jews, that the Agunah and the needy will not find solace in the confines of our legal systems.

The threads binding us all together are loosening daily. Extremism inside Orthodox societies is on the rise. The distance between traditionalists and secularists is growing wider and all attempts to keep the bridges from collapsing appear to be failing. This is the only real existential threat to the future of the Jewish People.

The greatest challenge facing the Schechter Institute today is to heal the rift. It must continue its fight to provide innovative solutions that withstand the test of true Halakha, crafting a platform of reunion and renewed dedication to the values of the Jewish people.

To this end, the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem must redouble its efforts to educate and nurture a prestigious group of scholars – ” Talmiday Chachamim – whose loud and clear voice will reverberate from one end of the world to the other. Schechter will truly flourish when it evolves from a center of study to a recognized source of authoritative decisions regarding the face of Judaism in the twenty- first century.

Now that Schechter has won the long battle of obtaining Israeli accreditation, I think it is uniquely poised to tackle this ambitious challenge. It will be an uphill struggle; there will be advances and retreats; there will be mudslinging and defamation, but surely there is no greater need in Israel today, yet so very few even dare try and mount this steep and slippery slope.

This, I believe is the ultimate test that both the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem must now confront as we move to lay a cornerstone. May it be not just the occasion of erecting a new and spacious quarter for students and teachers; may it be the start of a long march to preserve the soul of Judaism and the Jewish People as it simultaneously goes into battle against the forces of darkness from without.


Amb. Efraim Halevy, former Mossad chief and active member of the Schechter Executive Committee, is currently head of the center for strategic and policy studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Man in the Shadows: The Middle East Crisis from a Man who Led the Mossad, published in 2006.

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