There is little disagreement that every Jewish leader, organization, community and individual has a duty to help ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. But in a world where the long-term existence of the Jewish state is far from certain, the imperative to exist inevitably gives rise to difficult questions, foremost among them this: When the survival of the Jewish people conflicts with the morals of the Jewish people, is existence worthwhile, or even possible?
Physical existence, I would argue, must come first. No matter how moral a society aspires to be, physical existence must take precedent.
Clear external and internal dangers threaten the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. It is very likely that the collapse of Israel or the loss of its Jewish nature would undermine the existence of the Jewish people as a whole. And even given the existence of a Jewish state, less clear but no less fateful dangers threaten the long-term sustainable existence of the Diaspora.
When the requirements of existence conflict with other values, therefore, realpolitik should be given priority. From the threat of a disastrous conflict with Islamist actors such as Iran, to the necessity of maintaining distinctions between “us” and “others” in order to limit assimilation, this imperative ought to guide policymakers.
Regrettably, human history refutes the idealistic claim that in order to exist for long, a state, society or people has to be moral. Given the foreseeable realities of the 21st century and beyond, harsh choices are unavoidable, with requirements of existence often contradicting other important values.
Some might argue that putting existence first may be counter-productive in terms of existence itself, because what may be regarded as immoral action can undermine external and internal support essential for existence. However, the calculus of realpolitik gives primacy to existence, leaving limited room for ethical considerations. The unfortunate reality is that the Jewish people may be faced with tragic choices in which important values have to be sacrificed for even more important ones.
Responsible decisions in such difficult situations require clear recognition of the involved moral issues, careful pondering of all relevant values and acceptance of responsibility for one’s autonomous judgment. They also demand an effort to reduce to a minimum the violation of moral values.
Nonetheless, when faced with such choices, the Jewish people ought not be captivated by political correctness and other thinking-repressing fashions. When it comes to China, for example, efforts to strengthen the rising superpower’s ties to the Jewish people should trump moral-minded campaigns to alter Beijing’s domestic policies and handling of Tibet. The same goes for Turkey: Given its crucial peacemaking role in the Middle East, discussion of whether the Ottomans committed genocide against the Armenians ought to be left to historians, preferably non-Jewish ones.
That is not necessarily to condone China’s policies, or to deny Armenian history. Rather, it is to recognize that however just such moral stances may or may not be, the Jewish people must give primacy to existence.
What is required is a priori pondering of values, so as to have guidelines ready for judgment in specific contexts and under crisis conditions. The overall issue is whether the imperative for the Jewish people to exist is a categorical one overriding nearly all other values, or one among many imperatives of similar standing. Given both the history and current situation of the Jewish people, I would argue that the imperative to assure existence is of overriding moral weight.
Let us leave aside reliance on transcendental arguments, biblical commands and sayings of the sages, all of which are open to various interpretations. The justification for giving priority to the needs of existence is four-fold.
First, the Jewish people has an inherent right to exist, just as any other people or civilization.
Second, a people that has been regularly persecuted for 2,000 years is entitled morally, in terms of distributive justice, to be very tough in taking care of its existence, including the moral right and even duty to kill and be killed if this is essential for assuring existence — even at the cost of other values and to other people. This argument is all the more compelling in light of the unprecedented killing only a few decades ago of a third of the Jewish people — mass murder that was supported directly and indirectly, or at least not prevented when possible, by large parts of the civilized world.
Third, given the history of Judaism and the Jewish people, there is a good chance that we will continue to make much-needed ethical contributions to humanity. However, in order to do so we require a stable existence.
Fourth, the State of Israel is the only democratic country whose very existence is endangered by deeply hostile actors, again, without the world taking decisive countermeasures. This justifies — indeed, requires — measures that would be not only unnecessary but also potentially immoral in other circumstances.
The Jewish people should give much more weight to the imperative to assure existence than to other values. There are, of course, limits; nothing can justify initiating genocide. But with the few exceptions where being killed and destroyed is better than transgressing against absolute and total norms, assuring the existence of the Jewish people, including a Jewish State of Israel, should be valued as a top priority.
Thus, if the security of Israel is significantly strengthened by good relations with Turkey and China, but in some views Turkey is guilty of genocide in the past against the Armenians and China of now repressing Tibetans and domestic opposition, Jewish leaders and organizations should support Turkey and China, or at least remain neutral when it comes to their affairs. At a minimum, Jewish leaders should not join the chorus of liberal and humanitarian actors condemning Turkey and China.
Similarly, Jewish leaders should support harsh measures against terrorists who potentially endanger Jews, even at the cost of human rights and humanitarian law. And if the threat is sufficiently grave, the use of weapons of mass destruction by Israel would be justified if likely to be necessary for assuring the state’s survival, the bitter price of large number of killed innocent civilians notwithstanding.
To be sure, there is much room for debate on what is really required for existence. Giving priority to the imperative to exist does not imply supporting each and every policy of Israel. Indeed, the opposite is true: Diaspora leaders, organizations and individuals have a duty to criticize Israeli policies that in their view endanger the Jewish state and the Jewish people’s existence, along with an obligation to propose alternative existence-assuring policies.
But at the end of the day there is no way around the tough and painful practical implications of prioritizing existence as an overriding moral norm over being moral in other respects. When important for existence, violating the rights of others should be accepted, with regret but with determination. Support or condemnation of various countries and their policies should be decided upon primarily in light of probable consequences for the existence of the Jewish people.
In short, the imperatives of existence should be given priority over other concerns — however important they may be — including liberal and humanitarian values, support for human rights and democratization.
This tragic but compelling conclusion is not easy to swallow, but it is essential for the future of the Jewish people. Once our existence is assured, including basic security for Israel, much can and should be sacrificed for tikkun olam. But given present and foreseeable realities, assuring existence must come first.
Yehezkel Dror, the founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, is a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A recipient of the Israel Prize, he served as a member of the Winograd commission of inquiry into Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006.