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Is Israel's Aggression a Question of Pride?

Israel would rather go down fighting than survive with a damaged sense of national pride. What would happen if concessions weren't so symbolic?

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Therefore, I said, the Israelis can gain a huge advantage by withdrawing to the 1967 border, letting Egypt have the Sinai, throwing up their hands and crying "We lost!" They would have lost nothing of value. The Egyptians would be content. The way would be open for peace and security.

A few years later, the Israelis did give Sinai back to Egypt as part of a peace deal, and few Israelis expressed any regrets. How much easier to have done it on Yom Kippur 1973 and saved all that bloodshed.

But when I shared my logical solution with others in the synagogue, they simply didn't get it. I had no more success with my best friend, as I drove him to JFK Airport so he could fly back to Israel and rejoin his army unit for the Sinai war. To most Jews then, as to most Jews now, it was just obvious that when the enemy attacks, you fight back and inflict a loss on the attacker. That's how you bolster your national pride.

Is national pride a truly sacred value? Few Jews will say so directly. But for many Israeli Jews, and for most American Jews since the Six Day War, religion and nationalism have been intertwined. The theologian Emil Fackenheim fused them in his very influential idea that, since the Holocaust, God has given the Jews a new commandment that trumps all others: The Jewish people must survive as a distinct people, or else Hitler's goal of a Jew-free world will be realized.

Now Israel is the fundamental symbol of Jewish survival. So Israel's war victories have an "inescapably religious dimension" because they keep Israel safe from destruction.

But when I heard Fackenheim speak a few years after the Yom Kippur war, I discovered that his real belief was rather different. Someone in the audience asked a question: "You say that Israel must fight its enemies to insure Jewish survival. Yet what guarantee is there that Israel will win every war and always insure Jewish survival?"

The distinguished theologian gave this rather shocking reply: "There is no guarantee. Israel may indeed be destroyed. But the important point is that next time we will go down fighting."

There was no need to spell out the obvious implication: If we go down fighting, we can feel proud of ourselves, even if the last Jew disappears from the earth. Survival is not as sacred to us as pride, and pride comes from fighting the enemy. "Never Again" means never again will we let ourselves be shamefully herded to slaughter without resisting to the last woman and man.

This commitment has always been a central pillar of Israeli life. The widely admired, recently deceased Israeli author Amos Elon wrote (in his 1971 best-seller, The Israelis) that the memory of the Holocaust "explains the obsessive suspicion [and] the towering urge for self-reliance" that marks Israeli Jews. But he added that the same memory also plagues Israelis with "a suspended confusion, a neurotic constriction ... compounded by pangs of conscience, guilt and shame."

Israeli children are taught in school about "the disgraceful shame and cowardice" of all victims of anti-Semitic massacres in the Diaspora, to convince them that only a Jewish state with an invincible army could take away the shame. And Israelis exaggerate the degree of Jewish resistance to the Nazis because it "seems essential to their dignity as a group."

Elon knew that the theme of shame and pride lay at the very root of Zionism. In his biography of Theodore Herzl, he claimed that the father of the Zionist movement was motivated, above all, by "wounded pride" -- being denied what he thought was his rightful place among the elite of European society, simply because he was Jewish. Herzl was well aware that he was making national pride a sacred symbol. He urged the early Zionists to "turn the Jewish question into a question of Zion."