Volume 3, Number 165
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Sunday-Monday, August 2-3, 2009


For Israelis, Tisha B'Av is a day of warning

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM—Judaism is doctrine, traditional practice, ethnicity, and cultural norms. Linking all of them is national history. Most books of the Hebrew Bible focus on Jewish history. Purim, Passover, Shavuot, Tisha b'Av, and Hanukah commemorate events.

Tisha b'Av (the ninth of Av), which fell this year on July 30, marks the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Religious Jews fast, mourn, and read the Book of Lamentations. Banks, public facilities, and places of sport and entertainment close. Radio and television broadcast programs with historic themes and avoid commercials. Secular Jews go about their business as usual, but are likely to notice something different, if only that the gym or restaurant is closed.

This is a piece of being a people with a shared past, where history is a central ingredient in the tribal religion.

The historical focus of Judaism also explains the importance of the Holocaust. It is a key ingredient in the culture, as well as rituals performed at national sites and in neighborhood synagogues. It is too soon to know if the Holocaust will compete for prominence among religious Jews with the destruction of the Temples by Babylon and Rome.

Some charge that Israel plays the Holocaust card improperly, as an excuse for its existence, plundering Arab lands, and repeated overreactions against violence.

Among roughly half of Israelis, the Holocaust is something experienced by parents or grandparents. Among the other half, the persecution of Jews in Arab lands prompted the migration of parents and grandparents.

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One cannot understand Israel without taking account of those trauma. It is not clear what portion of Israeli mistrust of others comes from those experiences, included in school lessons and family conversations. Some are obsessed with their history, while others would like to forget it. Some use persecution to teach suspicion, while others use it to promote tolerance and accommodation.

It is possible to justify Israel's activity without reference to what happened before 1948. The decades since then provide reason enough to invest heavily in national defense, and to deal aggressively with those who continue to incite hatred, and killed more than 1,100 Israelis since 2000. Israelis debate whether the country should have carried out this or that operation, with this or that weapon. Those are details best left to professionals who have tried different courses of action, and argue among themselves what is likely to produce the most quiet in a situation where peace is unlikely.

Moralists who criticize Israel for excessive actions should look elsewhere. Americans can start close to home. The IDF was responsible for fewer than 1,000 civilian deaths overall in its recent operations (Lebanon plus Gaza) while the civilians killed in Vietnam were counted in the millions, Iraq in the hundreds of thousands, and those in Afghanistan and Pakistan as yet uncounted. Arguably Israeli actions were more justified as essential for national defense, and more successful in achieving their objectives. However, it is Israelis who are condemned most often, and it is Israeli military commanders, rather than American commanders, who are cautioned against international travel lest they fall into the hands of courts intent on punishing violations of their moral codes.

For some, Tisha b'Av cautions strength and actions to pre-empt those who would continue the work of Babylon, Rome, and the Nazis. For others, it is a reminder of their people's longevity.

Jeremiah saw destruction in his time as a product of Judea's failure to recognize the reality of Babylon's power. Josephus explained the destruction he witnessed by Jews' refusal to accept the might and attractions of Rome. We hope that Netanyahu will do better with Obama than his predecessors did with Nebuchadnezzar and Titus.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. Email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

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