Daniel Gordis, on Israel’s existential threat

Daniel Gordis, writing in Commentary Magazine:

What must be understood is that the threat to Israel is not that Iran will one day use the bomb. No, Iran merely needs to possess the bomb to undermine the central purpose of Israel’s existence—and in so doing, to reverse the dramatic change in the existential condition of the Jews that 62 years of Jewish sovereignty has wrought. The mere possession of a nuclear weapon by Iran would instantly restore Jews to the status quo ante before Jewish sovereignty, to a condition in which their futures would depend primarily on the choices their enemies—and not Jews themselves—make.

For hundreds of years, Jewish life in Europe was a matter of either hoped-for toleration or a struggle to survive against the periodic outpourings of violent Jew-hatred. During the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the Spanish Inquisition some 200 years later, the state-encouraged pogroms that would sow terror in Jewish communities across the continent intermittently in the centuries that followed, and the culmination of all this hatred in the Nazi death machine, there was little Jews could do in the face of the onslaught. Oh, there were episodic (and largely ineffective) pockets of resistance, and powerful liturgical, poetic, exegetical, and literary traditions emerged from the tragedies; but the Jewish experience in Europe was fundamentally one of defenselessness. What happened to the Jews was whatever their enemies determined should happen to them.

The creation of the State of Israel fundamentally changed not only that reality but also the self-perception that accompanied it. It was in pre-statehood Palestine, after centuries of utter passivity, that the Jews finally took up arms to defend themselves. Unlike the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, one of history’s most moving acts of hopeless defiance, the newfound Jewish willingness to fight was not destined to defeat, and the Jewish willingness to die was not merely symbolic. Against what seemed to be insurmountable odds, ragtag warriors—outmatched and outgunned—defeated the numerous armies that most people expected would drive the Jews back into the sea and actually expanded the borders of their newly created state. The creation and survival of the Jewish state in the late 1940s ended a millennium of abject Jewish vulnerability and brought to an astonishing close a long and anguished history in which Jews were assigned the role of victim-on-call.

Many people are put off by the Israeli national affect, which they take to be a mix of arrogance and bravado. This is a misperception of an attitude that is born, in truth, out of collective relief: We Jews no longer live—and die—at the whim of others. That sense of security would evaporate the minute Iran had the weapon it seeks. Even if Israel does possess a second-strike capability, and even if the U.S. could be counted on to punish a nuclear attack on the Jewish state, the existential condition of the Jews would still have reverted to that experienced in pre-state Europe. It would mean that Jews by the tens of thousands could die because someone else determined that it was time for them to do so. No action that Israel could take in response would change that fundamental reality.


To be sure, Israel boasts a flourishing Jewish culture, a renewed Hebrew language, and an impressive array of Jewish accomplishments that could not have happened without the state. But all that, impressive as it is, is insufficient. For the first commitment of Zionism has been to provide safety to Jews. So far, it has more or less succeeded. But the minute that Iran possesses its long-sought nuclear weapon, Zion becomes not a haven for the Jews but a potential deathtrap.

See the full essay, here.

13 replies »

  1. No wonder the price of gold is soaring upwards. I guess the financial and political analysts know that war is inevitable..

    Yes, the article is excellent and right on the button ( irony intended ).
    Thanks for the link to Commentary.

    Of course one needs to be Jewish to fully appreciate Israel’s existential dilemma. I’m sure our usual enemies will pooh-pooh it as if it were simple paranoia or a pretext for attacking Iran.

  2. I agree with dr. Lozowick who wrote:

    ….I don’t see millions of Israelis, or even tens of thousands of the brightest and bestest streaming out of Israel to plushy jobs in America merely because the Iranians have nuclear weapons….


    …The Jews waited a very (very very) long time to come home, and as a group they’re not about to be chased out, certainly not because of a troublesome spot of adversity….

  3. The other existential threat to Israel is Avigdor Lieberman. What’s odd is that Israel’s spineless Prime Minster finds that threat far harder to address or control

    The tail truly is wagging the dog.

  4. ‘Making matters worse is Netanyahu’s bewildering failure to put an end to such behavior.

    Some, like Daily Beast writer Peter Beinart, have suggested Netanyahu keeps Lieberman and other pro-settler figures in his cabinet to provide “political cover to do what he has wanted to do all along: Make a viable Palestinian state impossible.”

    THE SINCERITY of Netanyahu’s commitment to reaching “an historic peace agreement” with the Palestinians within 12 months was brought into question again by his weak response to his foreign minister’s incendiary speech to the UN General Assembly last month.

    That performance appeared designed to sabotage Netanyahu’s peace policy.

    ‘There is no clearer way for Netanyahu to demonstrate he is serious about peace than by dumping Lieberman and the rejectionists and forming a new coalition with the centrist Kadima, which has more seats than Israel Beiteinu and Shas combined.’


    Yediot Ahronot:

    Lieberman’s “unpredictable and reckless” behavior would be intolerable “in a normal state,” and was a demonstration of “chutzpah and contempt” for the PM. His transfer proposals “undermine Israel’s image as a democratic, enlightened state.”

  5. Has Mr Gordis read the Hagada, the text for the Pesach Seder? ‘In every generation they rise against to destroy us and God saves us from their hand.’ Jews have been singing this for a couple of thousand years. Every year we understand it better as the list grows longer. What is new is that we are slowly acknowledging that there is no-one else on our side. Which may turn out to have been the purpose of history. Which needs a lot more comments than would fit here.

  6. C believes that in every generation God has saved us from our enemies.
    We were ‘saved’ during the Shoah, indeed. I sincerely wish Israel a far better salvation than that…

  7. The major difference between today and the Shoah is that the Israelis are not the unarmed Jews of WW2 Europe.

  8. The people who speculate about Lieberman’s role in Israel’s cabinet would be wise to think of the implications of having proportional representation and the restrictions it places on the ability of the PM to change his cabinet especially when he wants a stable political background in order to engage in peace talks.

    The scene is far from identical to that of the USA or the UK.