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Published: 17 may 2021 12:20

Dr Wilf on Israel's identity, history and its present

Dr Einat Wilf
Dr Einat Wilf
Diaspora societies have started to reshape themselves and embrace their power by rejecting misconceptions and false perceptions of their identity and history. However, this is not always a simple task.

Dr Einat Wilf, the author of six books and former Intelligence Officer in the Israel Defense Forces, Foreign Policy Advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and strategic consultant with McKinsey & Company, addresses key issues in Israeli society in this thought-provoking exclusive interview for the Lithuania Tribune with Ruslanas Iržikevičius.

The Jewish people are one of the world's oldest nations. Despite this, it was only in 1948 that the Jewish people could establish their own state after over 5000 years of history. What was it that was holding you back?

If you really look at the entirety of what we think of as Jewish history, like in many ancient nations, like the Chinese, part of it is mythology. When you go four or five thousand years back, it goes a little into mythology and only then it becomes history. The Jewish people basically had sovereignty three times, what we call the First Temple around the year 1000, before the Common Era. The Second Temple, which was around the time of Jesus and the State of Israel today, which is really called the third sovereignty of the Jewish people.

The Wailing Wall or Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo
The Wailing Wall or Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo

You could think that intermittent periods of sovereignty and exile characterized the entire history of the Jewish people. That, of course, has a lot to do with the geographical location of the land of Israel in the ancient world, between the great empires the Nile and Mesopotamia, and later between Rome and Persia. This is an area where there were always many changes of empires and control. And the ability of the Jewish people to be sovereign or to have their sovereignty taken away from them had a lot to do with the rise and fall of empires, of things that are beyond the control of the Israelites of the Jewish people.

Certainly, the transformation of the world from an imperial era to an era of nation states is very much responsible for the ability of the Jewish people to transition to an era of a nation state. Because this is fairly new, it’s really only in the 20th century that we move from dividing the earth between empires, to dividing the earth between nation states.

Another modern phenomenon is secularization. What happened to the Jewish people during their post Roman Empire exile, which is the longest exile, is that Judaism, the desire to reestablish sovereignty in the land of Israel, essentially became a religion. So, a lot of the things that we associate with, what we call a Jewish religion, were really about maintaining, for example, the Hebrew calendar. The Hebrew calendar was an agricultural calendar that works very well with the climate here, not in Poland. But it was maintained as the calendar of the Jewish people that became the religious calendar. So, a lot of things that had to do with maintaining the Jewish people as a people until the restoration of the third of sovereignty became religion, essentially.

But one thing that happened over time is that this became messianic. You could think of it as becoming even passive. The Jewish people wanted to restore themselves in the land of Israel, but not by themselves. The idea was that God will do so. This basically inspired a very passive attitude. Because if you are waiting for God, then you’re just waiting around, right?

Secularization and modernization played a major role in creating ideas within the Jewish people that ultimately became Zionism, which said, “You know what, we’re not waiting for God. God may not even exist, so we’re not waiting for God. And for the Jewish people to determine the course of history, to be masters of their faith, they have to do it themselves.” So, Zionism is also very much inspired by the modern idea of self-determination of peoples and individuals. The fact that humans determine the outcome of history rather than fate, the gods, outside forces. All these things together basically played into making the third sovereignty after such a big break in terms of the exile of the Jewish people.

What made the claim to the land for the Jewish people more legitimate than the claim of the Palestinians who have lived there for centuries?

Now, one thing we need to understand in terms of the claims is, first, if you really go back in history and mythology, the relationship of the Jewish people to the land is already established at the beginning as a relationship of the people always coming and going from the land, right? The first commandment of God to Abraham is: go out of your land, out of Mesopotamia, and go to this new land, to Canaan. So, the patriarch of the Jewish people (and later, of course, of the Muslims and Christians) goes, he moves.

The next great story of the Jewish people going to Egypt—Jacob goes to Egypt, and then Exodus, the Israelites, the ancient Israelites come back to the land. Then you have the Babylonian exile after the First Temple, the first sovereignty is brought down. Then the Persians bring back the Jewish people, and you have the second sovereignty in it. So, you already have a people whose identity is connected to the land. From the beginning, the identity of the Jewish people is connected to the land of Israel. But it's an identity that is characterized not only by always being present in the land, but often by wanting to return there. That's already a relationship that's established in mythology and in history and in ritual.

Now, in the seventh century, you have the conquests of the Middle East, beginning with the Arabian Desert, and the spread of Islam. Whoever lived here, many became Muslims, and ultimately speaking Arabic. They developed an identity as Arabs. But there were still Jews. I mean, Jews had a continuous presence in the land of Israel over the centuries. However, it was a very small presence, and it was typically limited, and it certainly wasn't a sovereign presence. It was limited to what something called holy cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius.

Let's put it this way. Everyone who knows the Jews, whether it's the Muslims or the Christians, knows that the Jews are connected to the land of Israel, it's not like something that's not known. Jewish identity at its core is very much connected to the land of Israel. When you have the coming of the 19th century, the 20th century, and you have the transition from empire to nation states, it was obvious that when the Ottoman Empire is no longer in existence, and you’re beginning to divide the lands of the Ottoman Empire between the people of the Ottoman Empire. This is when most Arab countries are established.

But it was also clear that this land belonged to the Jews because they were the only people whose entire identity was wrapped up with this land. And if we're moving from an era of empires to an era of nation states, and the Jews are a nation and a people, then the only country that makes sense, or the only country that makes sense as a nation state for the Jewish people is the land of Israel. That was obvious, again, in both Islamic and Christian civilizations, that the identity of the Jewish people was tied to the land of Israel. And if they were going to have their own nation-state, it had to be in the land of Israel. The Arabs of the Ottoman Empire also got different states. That's when you have Lebanon and Syria and Jordan and Iraq being established over time North Africa becoming independent of French Imperial control. And you start this transition from empire to nation state.

If you look at the various negotiations after World War I, the Kurds were also designated to state, but the Turks prevented that. Nobody said anything. But basically, many people were going to get states, and it was obvious that the Jews were going to get their fair share as well. I always like to say that if the Jews had gotten their proportionate share of the land of the Ottoman Empire, based on the number of Jews that lived in the Ottoman Empire, Israel would be six times the size it is today.

Now, because of the Arab and Islamic conquest since the seventh century, the idea of a restoration of Jewish sovereignty and lands that the Arabs and Muslims view as their own, was considered blasphemous. However, the claims of the Palestinians were not denied. In 1947, the United Nations, recognized that there were two peoples on that land, the Jewish people who had a legitimate claim because of their history and identity, and the Arabs who had a legitimate claim because of what you said, that they were just there. Because both claims were seen as legitimate to the international community, the United Nations proposed what they considered a fair a proposal - to divide the land. So there would be another Arab state and a Jewish state, to which the Jewish people and the Zionist movement said yes. But the Arabs said no. And that brings us to today, we're still in the same conflict. But it's not right to say that the Arab Palestinians claims to statehood were denied. What was denied was their claim to exclusive control over their land. Their claim was that this was all ours. We should get all of it. That was denied. And they are still angry about it. But their claims to have a sovereign nation-state in part of the land were not denied, in fact they were granted to them, along with claims to Jewish sovereignty in part of the land. The problem was not from the perspective of the Arab side that was not good enough.

You may have answered this question in part. But I still want to ask, if I remember correctly, you have mentioned that many of the Jewish thinkers and Jewish authority figures were not very keen on the establishment of the State of Israel. What was the balance between support and pessimism towards the establishment of the State of Israel in the Jewish Diaspora Delta?

I sometimes joke that for the nation-state of the Jewish people to come into being, not one, not two, not three, but four empires had to collapse. For most countries, it was enough for one empire to collapse. But for the Jewish people, it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire that collapsed first. You know, there's this Slovenian intellectual, Žižek, I think he's very anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and I figured, excuse me, if Slovenia gets to be a country, then surely Israel gets to be a country, because they're all basically peoples of Austro-Hungarian Empire. The other, of course, is the Russian Empire. Most of the people who were eventually mobilized to establish the modern state of Israel came because of the collapse of the Russian Empire the Czarist empire, then of course you had to have the collapse of the Ottoman Empire for the land of Israel to be available as a nation state.

Ultimately, you had to see the end of the British Empire, so they could leave, and the Jews could finally control themselves. That was the imperial background, so to speak. Now, in terms of the mindset, the Jewish people were struggling like many others with modernity, because modernity brought a lot of enlightenment ideas, the idea of secularization, the idea of the nation-state, and that really had a profound effect on the Jews, especially in Europe. Because for centuries in Europe, the Jews generally knew where they stood, which was on the side.

Jarusalem old town. Photo Giedrė Steikūnaitė
Jarusalem old town. Photo Giedrė Steikūnaitė

The Jews typically were expelled and fled across Europe, depending on the rise or fall of various rulers. But it was very clear for Jews that they were out of society, and that if they wanted to become part of mainstream society, they had to convert to Christianity. That's it. Things were very clear for centuries. But then modernity and secularization, and the idea of the nation-state, the idea of the secular citizen, creates this notion, beginning with the French Revolution, that Jews can be French, because it doesn't matter if you're Catholic or Protestant. And it doesn't matter if you're a Jew, everyone is a secular French citizen of the secular Republic. This idea was called emancipation.

Throughout the 19th century, Jews, especially in the West and Central Europe, experienced a wave of emancipation in which their rights became equal to those of the Christian majority in the name of national identity. Most Jews made tremendous effort to play by the rules to be exemplary Frenchmen, and exemplary German citizens and subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, really to be the most upstanding Germans and French. As result, what happened was that the old Christian rejection of the Jew became a modern scientific anti-Semitism by the end of the 19th century.

The Jews were not rejected in the name of Christ or religion, but in the name of the scientific race. It was the same nonsense, but that was the new ideology, so to speak. People like Theodor Herzl, who lived in Vienna and saw himself more like a German rather than Jew, and many other people who were intoxicated by Vienna of the 19th century, faced the rise of anti-Semitism, and experienced deep effect and understanding that Europe will never let the Jews truly feel European. Like, he basically reached the conclusion that it's useless, and therefore the Jews have to take care of themselves in their own nation state in the land of Israel. And that's the birth of Zionism.

Now, at the end of the 19th century, Herzl’s pessimistic analysis of Europe seemed out of touch with reality. Most Jews thought that Herzl was crazy. Because life in France looked so good. And anti-Semitism was perceived by Jews as belonging to the past, not something that will define the future. There were becoming Englishman, Frenchmen, German. Life was good. Herzl’s claims seemed out of touch.

In retrospect, of course, we know how true they were. But at the time, most Jews thought he was crazy. And most Jews even thought that he was endangering themselves because they said, “Look, we're finally being accepted as Germans and as Frenchman. You're reminding them we're Jews, don't remind them, don't do that.” In truth, the people who accepted Herzl’s message were the Jews of the East. Because they under the end of Czarist Russia, they felt the rise of the pogroms. They were fleeing for their lives. And for them the idea that the ground is burning, felt very real. For someone sitting in Paris or Berlin at the end of the 19th century, it made no sense. But for a Jew living on the in the Pale of Czarist Russia, it felt real. So, this is how it began.

Zionism in the beginning was a fringe movement. The people who flocked to it were mostly the Jews of the East, certainly not the Jews of the West and of Central Europe. But of course, due to what happened in history, because of the Holocaust, because of the success of Israel. I mean, another reason that a lot of Jews rejected Zionism is that they didn't think it would ever work. But because Israel came into being and was successful, and because of the Holocaust, that idea of Herzl’s the Jews cannot survive in Europe, and they must have their own place became much more acceptable. And today, generally, Zionism is supported by the vast majority of Jews.

1948 May 17, 600.000 Jewish settlers in Palestine become citizens of the State of Israel. What are the main pillars that helped the State of Israel to survive, develop and flourish eventually?

There's the famous saying, I think, by the former Prime Minister, of Golda Meir, that the secret weapon of the Jews is that we had no choice. I mean, the Jews were really fighting a war in 1948 that they felt and knew was clearly an existential war. It was not a war over borders. And the Arab side, if we go back to the question of partition and competing claims, the Arab side made it very clear that they're not fighting with the Jews over where the border should be that they're not pleased about the borders of the Partition Plan. The Arabs made it very clear in all their declarations, that a Jewish state in any borders is illegitimate, and they're going to fight to prevent it. So, for the Jews living in the land, and we need to remember because of Arab opposition to Jewish self determination, Britain close the borders. This happened in the 1930s, at the most critical time to the Jewish people. If it were not for Arab resistance and British compliance, the Jews would have had a place to flee in the 1930s, when Hitler was still willing to let the Jews go.

That's also one of the main reasons why there were so few Jews in 1948, a lot of Arabs or Palestinians sometimes point to the relatively low number of Jews in Israel in 1948, completely hiding the fact that they worked for 30 years to make sure that the number will be low - that Jews will not be able to enter, will not be able to immigrate into the land. Of course, the Holocaust, destroyed and annihilated a third of the Jewish people. So, the Jews in 1948 knew they were fighting a war of survival. And I think to the present day that informs Israeli - call it resilience - that we have no choice, that we must make it work.

Also, Jewish History always reminds us that Jewish sovereignty is not guaranteed that it could end in another exile. So again, there's always the sense of urgency that you have to make it work. Israel's main kind of secret weapon is the desperation of its people. These were people who were desperate to find a home, desperate to make it work, desperate to make it succeed. That's at least kind of why I think we've succeeded.

What is a recipe for managing to preserve an island of a flourishing pluralistic democracy and very tolerant society in the ocean of instability and in the perpetual state of existential threat?

One of the things that Israelis are generally very much aware of is the notion of being a fortress really. It wasn't like this 100 years ago, where the entire area was open, you had trains going from Haifa to Baghdad. These were Imperial times, everything was connected. If you ever go to the border between Israel and Lebanon, you see that train tracks are closed. But before there was a train between Haifa, Beirut… Everything used to be open.

After Israel was able to more emerge from the war, the Arab country said, okay, we may have not been able to defeat you in 1948, but it's not over. And we're not accepting that you exist. As you know, the Arabs went through a very long process of making sure that Israel knew that it was a fortress. So, it wasn't really even a choice. This is also why Israelis really love their airport.

We're very sensitive about our airport, because our airport is our connection to the world. I mean, you cannot like, take a car and drive from Israel. There's really a sense of being a fortress, being an island. And, and some people would say that it creates a bit of that intensity and pluralism and diversity in Israel, because we know that at least within this fortress, we have to protect that life.

You know, I'm a very outspoken feminist. And I remember over the years, many people would say, you know, Israel is not doing enough to integrate into the Middle East, you're being too separate. And I remember saying, look, as a feminist, there's nothing in the region miles in any direction that I want to integrate into. There's also the sense of like, we've created something, and we want to be able to preserve it.

Now, we don't want you to remain a fortress forever. You could see it in the last year, when Dubai, UAE, Abraham Accords basically said, “Hello, we'd like to be your friends”, Israel was thrilled. I mean, there was really a sense of like, “Oh, we can get out of the fortress, and it's not going to be dangerous. And the Arab world is finally accepting us.” So, I think there is a desire to ultimately be accepted and not be a fortress. But we want to do it without giving up what we've created.

The Jewish diaspora coming to Israel. How does society manage to integrate and observe such a large number of immigrants? Do the immigrants change the State of Israel, or do they have to change themselves?

The simple answer, of course, is both. Israel's immigration story is really one of the most amazing immigration stories in general. In the decades Following Israel's establishment in 1948, the number of new immigrants, most of whom were refugees, not the way you think of immigrants, not as people who want to improve their economic situation. But people who were really fleeing. A mass amount of them, of course, are Jews from Arab and Islamic countries that basically booted out the Jews, once the Arabs failed to defeat Israel, so they took revenge on the Jews. Jews from Europe who were waiting and displaced persons camps across Europe. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of refugees, over a million people came in that decade. So, it's one and a half times the number of people who are already there, and who came in the previous three decades mostly.

This is a massive effort that I think proportionally does not exist in any other place in history. As far as I know. First of all, it was undertaken, because there was an ideology, the ideology was that this is what the state of Israel is for. The State of Israel is the place where the doors for the Jews will always be open. And this is after a few years where doors to Jews were closed everywhere. Jews had nowhere to flee, including in Israel, because the British would not let the Jews come in, because of Arab pressure.

So, once Israel could open the doors, there was no question of taking everybody in. There was this notion of mobilization of everyone mobilizing for this effort of absorbing the new immigrants. Now, there's an old joke in Israel, that in Israel, we love Aliyah, we love immigration, but we don't like Olim. We don't like immigrants. There's this difference between the ideology, the ideology was very powerful, that everyone has to support immigration. But of course, individually, everybody hates each other, right? You know, oh, these are new people. And they're coming with new foods. And these new foods smell terrible. They speak a different language. And, you know, there were a lot of tensions that in some way persisted to stay between different Jews that came from different backgrounds. But personally, I think that's what makes Israel so interesting.

I think this is very typical of immigrant societies that they have this energy that comes from all these clashes between differences. So, of course, Israel was changed by all the immigrants that are coming in, the Israel today is certainly not the Israel of 20, 30, 50 years ago. Israel became transformed by every new wave of immigration, this is really our history. But also, the new immigrants become transformed into this new ethos of becoming Israeli, of becoming this new type of Jew. That's powerful, that's confident. It works both ways. And I think truly, this is one of the most interesting aspects of Israeli history and society.

The State of Israel is punching above its weight not only in the region, but also in the world, to say the least. What is the source of this strength of the State of Israel? And what is its greatest weakness?

I once compared it to, what I call, the blowfish strategy. And it's the survival strategy of Jews and it's the survival strategy of Israel. A blowfish is the fish that blows up to look like a shark, right? It's a little fish, but it blows up. So, it can scare the other fish. This is what Jews in Israel do. Because Jews have to present to the world, something that is beyond the numbers because we are such a small people. We are very vulnerable by sheer number of our small size.

I'll be very grim for a moment. I don't know if you've ever visited Villa Wannsee, where the final solution has been conceived. But when you go in Villa Wannsee, they have documents that were prepared, then the Nazis of course being very precise. They have a document there that basically lists the number of Jews in every region. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland. It really says how many Jews there are in every place that now came under Nazi control as a result of the invasion into the Soviet Union. And this is the basis for the final solution – to kill all those Jews. The Nazis look at the numbers, they do all the numbers, and then there's a line, and it says 11 million. So, the final solution, which was called the full name was the final solution to the Jewish problem, was basically to exterminate 11 million Jews. And from the perspective of the Nazis, that was not a very big number, like that could be done. They did half of it, more than half of it.

So, Jewish vulnerability is very much related to our size to the fact that there are very few of us. Our survival strategy has to be to punch above our weight. When we didn't have a state, it meant education, Nobel prizes, science, being doctors, because everyone needs a doctor. But when we have a state, it means having an army and tanks and airplanes and high tech; it means that we have to appear very powerful, because we're actually very small. This is the survival strategy, birth of the Jewish people, birth of Israel. We have to punch above our weight, because we can't let anyone realize how vulnerable we really are.

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