Finding Meaning While Living on the Edge of a Knife

Jews have long been able to thrive while under threat. Today’s Israelis, living in the face of a nuclear Iran, are the latest example.

A woman performing the hora at the Israeli seaside in 1951.State Library of Victoria, Australia.

A woman performing the hora at the Israeli seaside in 1951.State Library of Victoria, Australia.

June 22 2015
About the author

Evelyn Gordon is a commentator and former legal-affairs reporter who immigrated to Israel in 1987. In addition to Mosaic, she has published in the Jerusalem Post, Azure, Commentary, and elsewhere. She blogs at Evelyn Gordon.

“Worried and Happy”: that was the title on the advance copy of Edward Grossman’s essay sent to me by Mosaic’s editors. Reading it, however, I couldn’t help feeling that for Grossman, Israel’s current mood is mainly worry and very little happiness. After all, about 90 percent of the essay focuses on a single major worry: Iran’s nuclear program. And Israel has no lack of other worries as well: Hamas, Hizballah, the Palestinian Authority, international isolation, the cost of living, Arab and ḥaredi integration, and on and on.

Nevertheless, I think the mood balance is actually the exact opposite. As Grossman himself notes, we in Israel don’t spend our days sitting around fretting about Iranian nukes falling on us; we’re too busy living, loving, creating, innovating, and otherwise building our modern miracle on the Mediterranean. That’s why Israel keeps scoring anomalously high on global happiness surveys; just this month, the OECD ranked it the fifth happiest country in the world, despite noting with some puzzlement that “by many measures, Israel is an outlier” in this group. Nor does this paradoxical insistence on being happy despite multiple threats stem from either masochism or oblivion; it’s rooted in some specific truths about the Iranian threat, but even more so in a general truth about the Jewish and Israeli experience.

For to be a Jew, of necessity, is to be capable of finding meaning and happiness even while living on a knife’s edge. Throughout history, Jews have experienced only intermittent periods of tranquility amid a multiplicity of threats. In biblical times, even great victories produced no more than “peace in the land for 40 years,” and most lulls were considerably briefer than that. In exile, the occasional golden ages were mere interruptions in an endless procession of expulsions and pogroms, in country after country. And in modern-day Israel, war has erupted roughly once a decade when it hasn’t come sooner. Thus, while threats obviously have to be prepared for and dealt with, Jews can’t afford to worry about them overmuch; if they did, they would have time to do little else.

Consequently, Jews have perforce perfected the art of thriving under threat. Amid wars, persecution, and expulsions, they produced the Bible and the Talmud, the great medieval commentaries and dazzling works of Jewish philosophy. Contemporary Israel has continued this tradition: amid wars, terror attacks, and threats of all sorts, it has absorbed immigrants and grown its economy, produced cutting-edge research and technological innovations. And all this is no less essential than preparing for the threats, because if Israel were ever to stop behaving in this way, it would shrivel and die of its own accord; no Iranian bomb would be needed to finish the job.


In short, despite being fully aware of the existential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, Israelis instinctively understand that worrying about it more than necessary is counterproductive. And most Israelis have little need to worry about it at all.

Primarily, that’s because Iran is one of those rare issues where the general public neither can nor should have anything to say. There’s nothing Israelis can do, or ever could have done, to stop President Barack Obama from signing a bad deal with Iran; given how desperately he wants an agreement, the idea that a unity government in Jerusalem could somehow have persuaded him to plug holes in the deal that Tehran wants left open is wishful thinking. Barring a miracle, Israel’s decision will therefore ultimately boil down to whether or not to use military force against Iran. And since most Israelis lack the requisite highly classified knowledge of where Iran’s nuclear program really stands and what Israel’s military capabilities really are, the only individuals capable of deciding if and when Israel should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities are the handful of senior government officials who do have this knowledge.

Of course, if the government weren’t paying due attention to the problem, ordinary Israelis would have to make it pay attention; that’s precisely why 400,000 Israelis came out in 2011 to demonstrate over a different problem: the cost of living. But there’s no cause to hold similar demonstrations over the Iranian issue, because nobody—not even Benjamin Netanyahu’s diehard opponents—thinks the prime minister isn’t paying attention to Iran.

Moreover, the Iranian problem hasn’t yet approached crunch time. Even if Israel has to take military action eventually, right now, with negotiations entering the home stretch, clearly isn’t the moment. And though a final deal is supposed to be signed by June 30, the nuclear negotiators haven’t met a single previous deadline and probably won’t meet this one, either. So unless there are signs of an imminent Iranian breakout, the issue is currently effectively on hold.

But if the above helps explain why Israelis aren’t losing sleep over Iran per se, it doesn’t yet explain their indifference to Grossman’s central concern. After all, the very fact that they have entrusted such a fateful decision to their government would seemingly constitute a strong argument for wanting that government to be a unity government. Nevertheless, there are two reasons why Grossman’s concern over this issue is misplaced.

First, while Israelis are notoriously bad at dealing with problems before they hit crisis stage, they have an excellent track record of uniting to deal with crises once they become too big to ignore. Grossman himself cites one example: the unity government formed on the eve of the Six-Day War. But he neglects to mention two other salient examples: the unity government that produced the economic stabilization plan of 1985, which pulled Israel back from the brink of economic collapse by ending hyperinflation of 445 percent and paved the way for today’s healthy economy, and the one that defeated the second intifada of 2001-05, a terrorist war that at its height had effectively shut down the country.

In none of these cases was a unity government formed until disaster was actually staring Israel in the face. And since the Iranian issue hasn’t yet reached that point, one wouldn’t expect a unity government to be formed to deal with it yet, even if one ultimately is.

Second, however, Grossman makes a crucial error by conflating “unity” with “unity government.” As evidence, consider last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza, which generated unprecedented unity despite the absence of a unity government. Similarly, Israel destroyed both the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 and the Syrian nuclear program in 2007 without benefit of a unity government. Though an attack on Iran would clearly be several orders of magnitude riskier and more complex, the same basic fact that made those earlier strikes possible without a unity government makes it possible to attack Iran without one as well.

Quite simply, Israelis have a healthy order of priorities when it comes to military threats. First we win the war; only afterward do we tear ourselves apart over who was to blame. So even assuming that Iran, unlike Iraq and Syria, would retaliate for such a strike—perhaps directly, but more likely by activating its Lebanese and Gazan proxies—Israelis’ first response will be to unite to repulse that threat. Only afterward will the infighting erupt over whether the strike was justified.


At bottom, Grossman’s concern over the lack of a unity government is merely a symptom of his greater fear: that Israel simply won’t be up to meeting the Iranian challenge. That’s clearly a much more serious concern, but there’s a powerful reason why many Israelis don’t share it—one that goes to the heart of the Jewish state’s raison d’être.

The quintessential goal of Zionism was to enable Jews to reclaim responsibility for their own fate rather than being at the mercy of others. So while it would have been nice to have the world take care of Iran’s nuclear program for us, the Jewish state exists precisely to deal with situations like this one, in which our concerns appear to be low on the international community’s list of priorities. That’s precisely why, over its 67 years of existence, Israel has repeatedly defied world opinion to take actions it has deemed necessary to protect its people, and it has paid the price in blood, treasure, and global condemnation willingly, if never happily.

So even if, as Edward Grossman suggests, we today aren’t quite the giants our grandparents were, if necessary we will do the same in this case, too. Because if we aren’t willing to protect ourselves by ourselves, there’s really no reason to have a Jewish state at all.

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