As Israel's current conflict with Lebanon enters its third week, some are beginning to forget, or have already forgotten, why Israelis are fighting and why Israel is worth fighting for. For example, a Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, recently suggested that "The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake." Mr. Cohen is correct that forgetting would be a mistake, but he and those who agree with his sentiment are wrong in their view of what needs to be remembered. Rather than "remembering" the fiction that Israel is somehow a mistake, now is the time to remember exactly why the modern State of Israel exists.
To jog the memory, consider a speech the famed Zionist Revisionist leader Vladimir "Zev" Jabotinsky delivered before the Peel Commission in the British House of the Lords on July 11, 1937. The Peel Commission had been created after the Arab Riots of 1936 against the Jews of Palestine, and it was charged with recommending a solution to the "impasse" that existed between the Jews and Arabs of this "land of two peoples." In speaking before the Peel Commission, Jabotinsky called for the creation of a Jewish state and offered several observations that remain instructive today.
Jabotinsky began his testimony by pointing out that the existential dimensions of the life and death situation that confronted the Jews of his day required the establishment of a Jewish State in the historical homeland of the Jewish people — the Land of Israel. Aware of the Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish State, he nevertheless stated forthrightly and unapologetically,"Whenever I hear the Zionist accused of asking for too much, I really cannot understand it. Yes, we do want a State. This is the normal condition of a people."
Jabotinsky then went on to defend the justice of this claim by reminding the commissioners "of the commotion which was produced in that famous institution when Oliver Twist came and asked for 'more.' He said 'more' because he did not know how to express [his real need]. What Oliver Twist really meant was this, 'Will you give me that normal portion that is necessary for a boy of my age to be able to live.' I assure you that you face here today, in the Jewish people with its demands, an Oliver Twist who has, unfortunately, no concessions to make." Jabotinsky was correct when he made these assertions then, and the State of Israel was voted into existence by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, as a sign of international assent to his positions.
When the State of Israel is then attacked as a "mistake" or when the onus is placed by many on Israel for the "disproportionate nature" of its military response to the murderous bombs and rockets lodged against its citizens from territory from which Israel had willingly withdrawn so as to allow for Palestinian and Lebanese sovereignty in Gaza and Southern Lebanon;
When the Olmert government campaigned on a platform that stated its intentions to withdraw from more territory on the West Bank and has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to this position subsequent to its election;
When the overwhelming majority of Jewish citizens in Israel have indicated again and again and again that they favor the establishment of a Palestinian State that could live in peace with the State of Israel;
When one considers the cumulative impact that countless terrorist attacks within Israel during these past six years as well as the effect that the more recent kidnappings and murder of Israeli soldiers patrolling within internationally recognized and legitimate Israeli borders have had upon the Israeli psyche;
When Israel has pointed out consistently that it has no intention of reoccupying either Lebanon or Gaza;
And when — even after all this — blame is heaped upon Israel and not those extremist Muslim Shiites who are the perpetrators of these crimes — then I, like Jabotinsky, must simply say, "I cannot understand it."
In an age where individuals and organizations such as Osama bin Laden and Hamas and Hezbollah, and not just nation-states, are capable of waging war while hiding behind the cover of civilian populations, the State of Israel demands only the minimum right that any state would demand for its citizens — the right to live in peace and security behind secure borders. The State of Israel has asked for no more than "that normal portion" of security for its citizens that is "necessary" for a nation "to be able to live," and it has now acted militarily to assure that this will be so. The government of the State of Israel today, no less than Jabotinsky then, need not apologize, its critics notwithstanding, for affirming and defending this most basic obligation to its people.
Rabbi Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.