Israel’s Choice: Realpolitik or Kvetching?

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 09, 2010, issue of June 18, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Looking at the deadly takeover of the so-called Free Gaza Flotilla and the international uproar that ensued, Israelis and their friends around the world are raising some troubling questions for public consideration. Some are new questions, some old, but all arise now with a sudden new urgency.

Why, for example, does the world rise in outrage over nine inadvertent deaths in an Israeli police action, yet look on passively as dozens of civilians are deliberately killed every week in a torrent of political violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Can’t the international community find the courage to judge Israel by the same standards applied to other nations? Isn’t it obvious that Israel is merely defending itself against the murderous rejectionism of Hamas? Can’t the world’s democracies see that Israel’s fight is their fight, too?

They’re compelling questions, but essentially pointless, because we already know the answers: no, no and no. The nations of the world don’t grant Israel a presumption of innocence when judging its actions. They no longer see Israel as a beleaguered victim in its conflict with the Palestinians. They stopped identifying with Israel’s struggles a long time ago.

We could make a good case that Israel gets a raw deal in the court of world opinion. We could agree that the leaders of the free world should cut Israel more slack. We could wish they would show more understanding for Israel’s predicament and give it the benefit of doubt. But they don’t, and there’s no sign they’re going to change course any time soon.

Israel has been complaining about unfair treatment for the better part of four decades, and all of its bellyaching hasn’t solved anything. There was a time when the protests elicited some sympathy, but the return has been diminishing steadily for years and has now dropped below zero. Credit in international relations is finite, much like in banking; it can be overdrawn unless it’s replenished periodically. Israel has reached a point where its protests cost it more than they contribute. The louder it complains of double standards, the more harshly it’s judged. The more it accuses its friends of abandoning it, the lonelier it finds itself.

The question Israel and its friends need to be asking at this juncture isn’t why the world’s behavior falls so far short of what should be, but how to navigate safely the imperfect world in which we actually live. Israel needs to chart a strategy for securing its borders and protecting its citizens that builds on the assets it has — not the ones it wishes it had. Kvetching is not a national security doctrine.

Israel’s leaders, of course, don’t call their approach “kvetching.” It goes by names like national honor and self-respect. And indeed, kvetching is only a part of it. The strategy begins with an assertive belief that the Jewish nation will find its destiny only if it stands tall and rejects compromise, secure in the absolute justice of its cause and the abiding wickedness of its enemies. And somehow things will work out.

In practice, this means that if Israel believes it has a right to take a particular action — building Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, for example, or keeping cement out of Gaza — then it must do so. If it falters, it sacrifices its honor. If it stands firm, right will triumph in the end, and we’re always right. Objections from the world outside can be waved away. As Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, once said, what matters is not what the goyim say but what the Jews do.

But Ben-Gurion didn’t really mean it. He was a man of action, but he understood the importance of lining up international support and legitimacy. He knew when to compromise, even if it meant accepting partition of Palestine and sharing it with an Arab state, or making a deal with Germany less than a decade after the Holocaust. He knew how to look at a balance sheet and calculate costs versus benefits.

There’s a deep irony in Israel’s current diplomatic posture. It’s commonly justified as an expression of Zionism, of standing up for Jewish rights regardless of the odds. In fact, though, it’s the very opposite of Zionism. Israel was founded by a generation of pragmatic rebels who rejected the passive legacy of Diaspora Judaism. Their Zionism was not a sentimental return to ancient symbols but a political plan to remove the Jews’ mantle of eternal victimhood, to make the Jews responsible for their own fate.

The Zionist idea was not to go off in a corner and complain about the Jews’ dysfunctional relationship with the world. The idea was to figure out how to transform the relationship and join the family of nations. With all its flaws, this world is the only one we’ve got. We need to learn how to live in it.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at and follow his blog at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.