Israel has seldom impressed the world as much as it did during the 1976 Entebbe Raid, when about a hundred Israeli troops mounted a rescue operation against a group of Palestinian and German hijackers who had threatened to kill their hostages (almost all Jewish) unless Israel released fifty-three imprisoned terrorists. Instead it was the hijackers who were killed, while the hostages and Israeli troops suffered only minimal casualties.
Israel was notably less impressive some thirty years later, in a military operation that went awry: the Second Lebanon War. At the outbreak of the war in July 2006, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, promised a very painful and far-reaching response to Hezbollah, which had crossed into Israeli territory to kill and seize Israeli soldiers. But the Israeli military response did not succeed in accomplishing its goals of retrieving captured soldiers and destroying Hezbollah’s military capability. In the words of the Winograd Commission (the Israeli commission appointed to assess the war effort), The declared goals of the war . . . were not achievable by the authorized modes of military action. The commission chastised Olmert for his personal contribution to the fact that the declared goals were over-ambitious and not feasible.
The speed of the Entebbe Raid may have prevented much significant criticism of Israeli behavior in the Western democracies, but the Second Lebanon War opened the floodgates. Israel recently completed a campaign against Hamas in Gaza, again responding to rocket attacks with air strikes and ground-troop assaults. And, once more, Israel has suffered in the court of world opinion. At this point the Gaza incursion seems to have been more successful than the 2006 Lebanon war, though less successful than the 1976 operation in Entebbe. Nevertheless, many of Israel’s critics insist that Israel has committed a wrong by the sheer fact of its operations in Gaza. The motives of those critics vary, with many of them despicable and self-serving, but underlying much of the criticism in the West seems to be a belief, often unarticulated and inchoate, that it is somehow un-Jewish to behave as the state of Israel does when it employs military force. In his recent book on manliness, the Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield defines a man as one who protects those whom he has taken in his care against dangers they cannot face or handle without him. He makes an issue of some matter, engages his honor, and takes charge of the situation. Manliness, Mansfield explained, consists of confidence and competence in the face of risk.
Traditional Jewish culture esteems piety and scholarship more than power and honor”and this tension between Jewishness and manliness raises an important question about Israel. Israel is, of course, a Jewish state, and precisely as a state, surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel must promote its citizens’ manliness. But does this lessen or even negate the state’s Jewish identity? Is it right to dismiss pride and honor? Does Jewishness have no room for manliness? Is the Entebbe raid un-Jewish? Are the 2006 and 2009 invasions of Lebanon and Gaza failures to behave in a Jewish way?
Centuries ago, Spinoza criticized Jewish unworldliness, observing that the foundations of [the Jews’] religion had emasculated their minds. Their belief in God had rendered them incapable of political self-assertion, for they wrongly relied on the power of God to protect them, instead of developing their own political and military power to protect themselves.
In The Interpretation of Dreams , Sigmund Freud took a similar line, recounting his father’s story of the time a man knocked his new fur cap into the mud and shouted Jew! Get off the pavement! Freud asked his father how he responded”I went into the roadway and picked up my cap,’ was his quiet reply. This struck me as unheroic conduct on the part of the big, strong man who was holding the little boy by the hand.
While Freud criticized the stereotypical behavior of Diaspora Jews, who chose not to fight back against aggressors, the American writer Maurice Samuel defended that behavior. Jews survived persecution through a bitter determination not to take up an impossible and cowardly challenge, not to court a glorious death’ in an exhibition of the boxing-ring concept of manliness; but to endure, if necessary, a death in life for the sake of a certain commitment that it was impossible to repudiate . . . . They knew the meaning of pride and honor in the ordinary, worthless, worldly sense, too, and had enough of the pagan and animal in them to hanker for vindication on that level; therein, perhaps, lies the essence of the sacrifice.
In 1950, Samuel published his most intellectually ambitious book, The Gentleman and the Jew , a critique of manliness and a defense of the traditional Jewish aversion to it. The difference between the Jewish and gentile traditions, he suggested, lies between the co-operative and the competitive interpretations of life, between essential Christianity and its matrix and ally, Judaism, on the one hand, and paganism, open or concealed, on the other.
Samuel described the gentleman as the non-Jewish man of the Western world. A lover of honor, the gentleman seeks public prominence [and] public approbation, the things we strive for more bitterly than for food and shelter, the things that poison and distort the comparatively simple problem of subsistence for the whole human species. In contrast, the Jew follows a prophetic morality, in which goodness is incommensurable with any form of worldliness. Because the prophetic morality is so central to Judaism, it is Jewish destiny . . . to incorporate the co-operative as against the competitive interpretation of life.
Samuel portrayed gentlemanliness as the center of the moral pathology of the Western world, arguing: What do kindness, forbearance, courtesy, courage, self-sacrifice”all the highest gentlemanly virtues”mean, if in the final account the gentleman must acquire honor? That is to say, he must find an enemy, so that he may display his physical courage in combat, that highest virtue of a gentleman. The virtues become the bawds of evil; they exist to give spice to the adventure; the demand for fairness in a fight is a demand not for goodness, but for more exciting conditions; the pretense at goodness helps to conceal the evil.
Although Samuel was a Zionist, he contended that the real substance of the longing for the Return [to Zion] was the desire to remain Jewish! Political self-determination, assumption of the standard national functions, were secondary and instrumental. To want a homeland where the Jews will live a normal life and be a normal people”a people with a government of its own, with a flag, an army, and a navy is to attempt to set up a Jewish state . . . only in order that Jews may cease to be Jews!
On this ground, he denounced interpretations of the Hanukkah story that emphasize the political significance of the defeat of the foreign army or the reestablishment of Jewish self-rule, for such interpretations, with their heathen glorification of the fighter, or their demagogic appeal to the primacy of political values, are both banalities and perversions.
The question, of course, is whether Israel could survive as a Jewish state with this view of Judaism. If sovereignty and political self-determination are desirable for Jews, then in some sense political values must be primary for their state. Bemoaning Judaism’s antipolitical strain, the late Jewish thinker Milton Himmelfarb noted that the prophetic portion that is read on the first Sabbath of Hanukkah concludes, This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.
Criticizing this liturgical choice, Himmelfarb observed that the Hasmoneans recapture and reconsecrate the Temple, and into the celebration of that glory the rabbis [through their choice of the prophetic reading] insert propaganda against the Hasmoneans’ right to be high priests. In the story, he claimed, manly might and Jewish power triumph, but the rabbis make us read a text for a powerless time, which rationalizes powerlessness as if it were a good in itself. The Jews win independence, and the rabbis implicitly prefer foreign rule: Zerubbabel was an agent of the Persian crown.
But the rabbinic affirmation of powerlessness represents only part of the Jewish tradition. Rabbi Akiva supported the entirely masculine rebellion against Rome. Maimonides, as Himmelfarb noted, defined the Days of the Messiah as differing from ours in only one respect: that then we shall no longer be enslaved by foreign kingdoms. Maimonides wants the Jews to be interested in real politics.
Furthermore, even on its own terms, prophetic morality may not be wholly opposed to manliness and the quest for political power. The prophets did not imagine that they already lived in a time in which conflict could always be avoided. Their difficulty was how to get from here to there: How was the messianic end of time to come into being?
It can reasonably be argued that, even in a prophetic understanding, messianic peace can be ushered in by war. Norman Podhoretz, glossing texts from Micah and Isaiah, concludes that for these prophets universal peace emerges as a kind of pax Israelitica that has been established by God through the armed conquests of his own people. It is a peace, moreover, that rests on the utter destruction of idolatry. The prophetic belief that some day all peoples will accept the faith of Israel, Podhoretz continues, follows from the conviction that Israel will subdue all the mighty nations of the world . . . through the force of arms. Far from being in conflict, these two visions are dependent on each other.
The recognition that war may be needed to attain peace is evident even in the well-known midrash that speaks of God’s sadness at the Egyptians’ death in the Red Sea. The Holy One sat in judgment over the Egyptians in accord with the measure of justice and drowned them in the sea. In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying, The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in my presence!’
For good reasons this midrash has attracted many Jews. It shows that God is the universal God of everyone and everything, and it shows that Jews must care about the welfare of all people, even their enemies. But the midrash, constrained by the facts of the biblical text, also suggests that the appropriate Jewish attitude toward power is realistic rather than utopian: Jews will have enemies and will have to fight (or at least to have God fight on their behalf) to defeat them. The midrash is compatible with a realistic understanding of the necessity of power, for it tells us that God is unhappy that the Egyptians had to die, but that they died nonetheless”and that their death was just. God views the death of the Egyptians as a regrettable necessity. One might take the midrash to suggest that political survival requires people to do regrettable things from time to time, but that political survival is endangered unless people are willing on occasion to do those unpleasant things.
Thus the Jewish prophetic-universalistic viewpoint seems to have understood that the world as it actually exists is a dangerous place. Perhaps, then, the apparent contradiction between Judaism and manliness should not be exaggerated. Judaism does esteem piety and scholarship more than might and honor. But it also desires political self-determination and accepts military force as a means to that end.
Still, Samuel was right when he contrasted the gentleman and the Jew. Classical Jewish sources did not admire the gentleman or the gentlemanly quest for honor, and this marks a difference between Maimonidean and Aristotelian ethics. Maimonides was in many ways an Aristotelian, and he followed Aristotle in praising the golden mean: Virtue is the mean between two vices, with courage, for example, the mean between rashness and cowardice.
Maimonides nonetheless rejected portions of Aristotle’s ethics. He disdained the quest for honor: There are some intermediate temperaments that one is forbidden to have, but one should adopt one of the extremities of such temperaments. One of these is the temperament of haughtiness. It is not good [enough] for one to be just modest, but one should be meek, and one’s spirits should be low. Maimonides’ prooftext here is the well-known biblical contention that the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth. Aristotle enunciated a very different gentlemanly ethic: A man is regarded as high-minded when he thinks he deserves great things and actually does deserve them.
Maimonides is surely more accurate than Aristotle as a describer of the Jewish tradition. But the Aristotelian account of virtue is nevertheless a good thing, in its own context, and it has rightly influenced Zionism. The stereotypical nonresistance of Diaspora Jews to attacks was not only an understandable but also an admirable response to the circumstances they faced. The point of Zionism, however, was to change those circumstances”to enable Jews to defend themselves. In other words, it tried to create a synthesis between manliness and Jewishness. Zionists took pride in their capacity to defend themselves, and they viewed the inability to defend oneself (and, even more, to defend one’s people) as dishonorable.
The founders of political Zionism accordingly strove to create a hybrid culture of sorts, incorporating traditional Jewish elements with many of the non-Jewish features of the Western civilization they admired. Thus Theodor Herzl could argue, in his utopian Zionist novel Altneuland , that the restored Zionist commonwealth rests squarely on ideas that are the common stock of the whole civilized world. Similarly, Vladimir Jabotinsky asserted that Jews belong, thank God, to Europe and for two thousand years have helped to create the culture of the West.
As a component of their effort, Herzl and Jabotinsky attempted quite self-consciously to alter Jewish character by instilling the habits and states of mind conducive to the formation and maintenance of a modern state”one that happened also to be a Jewish state. They tried to create”with some success, we can now say”a new Zionist man, who would be more concerned about honor and the capacity to fight back against aggression than Diaspora Jews typically had been. Thus Herzl could declare, Through us the world shall be acquainted with something that has not been considered possible for two thousand years: Jewish honor. Jabotinsky could assert that living in exile has excessively weakened the healthiest instincts of a normal nation, and this is most apparent in regard to our external bearing . . . . Every word you utter must be a word of honor,’ and your word of honor must be tougher than flint.
The particular conception of honor that Maurice Samuel attacked”the willingness to kill, regardless of whether killing is justified”is clearly indefensible. But different understandings of gentlemanliness and the love of honor”and the relation of both to war”are at least equally plausible. The gentleman who loves honor and therefore fights can also be seen as someone who keeps his word and fights on behalf of those who are weaker than he is and thus depend on him.
Winston Churchill presented the Allied cause in the Second World War as a matter of honor. The behavior of Chamberlain and Daladier at Munich was indefensible because it was dishonorable: The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics, he declared. Still, it is not on these terms that ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states. In Munich, the moment came when honor pointed the path of duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates. For the French government to leave her faithful ally Czechoslovakia to her fate was a melancholy lapse from which flowed terrible consequences. Not only wise and fair policy, but chivalry, honor, and sympathy for a small threatened people made an overwhelming concentration.
In times of war, when decent regimes must take up arms against their enemies, a manly concern for honor is of greater use than disdain for competition and combat. As James Bowman has recently observed, the West will have to choose between caveman honor and some more civilized and feminist variant of the long-dormant Western variety . . . . The honor-crazed Muslim fanatics who are blowing up women and children along with themselves are, if not exactly cavemen, equally stark in the alternative they pose to Western ways. And unless those ways include, and are understood by all to include, honorable ways of making war on that alternative, the alternative must triumph.
Let me therefore suggest a second answer to the questions with which I began. Manliness and the quest for honor are not traditional Jewish values, but they have been amalgamated rightly into Zionism, which is itself a blend of Jewish and non-Jewish elements. The reasonable concern for honor”the concern that characterizes a gentleman”was imported by Zionism from Europe, to Zionism’s credit.
When Israeli soldiers rescued hostages in Entebbe, they honorably manifested a manly concern for the weak and dependent. Conversely, when Israeli leaders made promises that they could not keep in fighting Hezbollah in 2006, they acted dishonorably. The problem with Zionism is not that Zionists have fought for Israel; the problem is that they have not always succeeded in fighting well.
Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.