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The Paradox of Israel: Regional Super Power and the Largest Jewish Ghetto Ever Created

Israelis keep saying they only want security, while they go on electing leaders whose policies make them less secure.

Trying to understand the psychology of a people at war is a lot like trying to find the bodies buried under a bombed-out building. 

For more than 40 years, I've been watching my own Jewish people in wartime, repeating the same self-defeating pattern over and over. Most Jews say that they want Israel to be more secure, and they really mean it. Yet they support and vote for leaders who perpetuate the conflicts that make Israel less secure. 

I've been digging for decades through the endless pieces of that paradox, trying to get to the bottom of it. Here's what I see now as the bottom layer (though there may be layers further down that I haven't reached yet): The root of the problem lies in the Jews' relationship to the non-Jewish world and, even more, in the way Jews understand that relationship.

Jews have a long, checkered history of relations with their gentile neighbors. Sometimes, in centuries past, they got along very well; Jews felt fully a part of a larger multiethnic community. But most of the Jews who came to Palestine to populate a Jewish state never had that connected feeling. They experienced the human world the way minority groups so often do: There's us, and then there's everybody else; there's a wall separating us from everybody else. So they could never see themselves as part of a larger Middle Eastern community, a web of interactions where each group influenced all the others.

All they could feel was a great disconnect. Before 1948, they saw themselves as a community separated by all sorts of invisible walls from the Arabs around them. After 1948, they had geographical borders that functioned as visible separators, much like the ghetto walls of old. Although Zionism began as an effort to make the Jews a "normal nation," it ended up creating the world's largest Jewish ghetto.

For many Jews, the sense of disconnection was rooted in real history. Some had ancestors who had been separated from gentiles physically by a ghetto wall. Many had ancestors who felt separated by invisible walls of law and social custom, which seemed just as thick and high.

Still others, though, came from relatively well-assimilated communities. They learned to feel separated from the non-Jewish world, for reasons of all sorts. And since the Six-Day War of 1967, many Jews in the United States and around the world, who grew up in very well-assimilated settings, have learned a similar attitude. For them, Israel is the symbol of a gulf that they imagine has always existed, and must always exist, between Jews and gentiles.  

That's why many Israeli Jews, and Jews everywhere who sympathize with them, have a hard time recognizing what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us: Whoever we are, whomever we live with, all the members of a community are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. That's not a moral platitude. It's a poetic way of stating a commonsense observation of fact: Whatever we do is bound to affect others in our community, just as what they do affects us; we are all responding to each other all the time.

No matter how isolated one group may feel, it is always interacting with the groups around it. A minority group knows that it's responding to the majority. It has a harder time seeing how the majority is responding to it. But in fact, the relationship is always mutual. And when anyone on either sides commits violence, the violence is actually a product of the ongoing pattern of relationship, although the majority typically holds the upper hand when it comes to force. 

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