Israel Looks Ahead the Reality Principle
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Israel Looks Ahead the Reality Principle

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Israelis pride themselves on being realists, on understanding the reality principle. But recently the country has suffered from several unexpected developments that have traumatized many Israelis.

The developments — the Jonathan Pollard spy case, Premier Yitzhak Shamir’s urgings that the U.S. end the refugee status of Soviet Jews who are allowed to leave, and the case of John Demjanjuk — are unrelated. But each one, unfolding at the same time, has combined to induce a level of anxiety in the national psyche by revealing the extent to which Israel remains vulnerable to the forces of history.

Israelis were dismayed at the inept and doltish way in which their government tried to extricate itself from what it insisted was a “rogue operation” by Pollard, without any authorization from the government. Israelis across the political board agreed that Pollard was a “mizkain” (poor soul) who got caught in an illegal operation but deserved some punishment, along with those in Israel who had elicited his help.

But what really upset Israelis was the life sentence Pollard got. Many felt that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. After all, they contended, Pollard did not spy for an enemy country and did not pass on any intelligence secrets that could compromise or endanger American national security.

Pollard ostensibly passed on data to Israel dealing with nerve gas in the hands of the Iraqis and Syrians, armed strength of Arab countries, Soviet fleet movements, status of nuclear weapons being built by Pakistan with Saudi, Libyan and other Arab funds, and PLO-planned activities against Israel. This information was allegedly withheld from Israel by U.S. intelligence sources despite the U.S.-Israel Exchange of Intelligence Agreement of 1983.


Israelis felt that Pollard’s life sentence was more of a message to Israel than a deserved punishment. Privately, and eventually publicly, Israelis said the message was that Israel should not strive for a level of arms self-sufficiency that would make it relatively independent of American arms supplies and not to undertake any precipitous military actions based on Pollard’s intelligence data which might embarrass the U.S. or compromise its interests in the Mideast.

Self-sufficiency in arms production would mean the loss of millions of dollars in sales by U.S. arms-producing industries, Israelis pointed out. They noted, for example, that Israel’s success in manufacturing its own Lavi fighter plane prompted the U.S. to pressure Israel to forego further production in favor of buying American fighter planes.

Some Israelis felt that Pollard was caught in a “sting” operation to provide some elements in the Reagan Administration and Congress with a rationale for selling highly sophisticated weapons to Arab countries, a gesture that would not go unappreciated.

Samuel Winston, an international trustee of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, wrote a paper in which he stated: “Consider the facts. State-of – the-art weapons and ammunition worth $600 million are currently being offered for sale to Saudi Arabia, including 13 Blackhawk troop transport helicopters, 15 Bell 406 choppers armed for ground attack with machineguns, rockets and anti-tank missiles, and electronic countermeasures (ECM’s) to enhance the 170 Saudi F-5s and F-15s. Also, the Administration plans sales of high-penetration, super-hard anti-tank shells from depleted uranium to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.”

Winston noted that Sen. Arlen Specter (R. Pa.) has warned that this ammunition has not been sold previously to any foreign country and could jeopardize the deterrent abilities of Israel.


Shamir’s request of the Reagan Administration that it end the refugee status of Soviet Jews dismayed Israelis across the political spectrum. It also intensified their ambivalence toward Soviet Jews for immigrating to countries other than Israel once they leave the Soviet Union (“noshrim.”)

At issue was not simply whether Soviet Jews had a right to determine where they wanted to live after leaving the USSR, but that an Israeli leader should appeal to a “goyish” government to impede the free movement of Jews who had suffered for their wish to leave.

It appeared to Israelis that Shamir was acting in the manner of the “shtadlanim” (court Jews) in Europe before World War II. They viewed it as offensive for a Prime Minister of Israel to ask the American government to direct and enforce the movement of Jews who did not find Israel an attractive place to go to.

Eliahu Salpeter, writing in Haaretz, stated that the problem of Soviet dropouts is “first and foremost an Israeli, and not an American one. The problem is not that many Russian Jews want to emigrate to America…. The problem is that today only a tiny fraction want to come to Israel. That is our failure ….”

Salpeter continued by asserting, “It is simply inconceivable that aliya to Israel should be posed as a matter of compulsion or punishment. Israel is not a prison, and it would be better if we stop abasing ourselves with exercises that only go to show that Jews are not coming to Israel of their own free will, but must be forced to do so.”

Louis Rapoport, writing in The Jerusalem Post, noted that Shamir’s position and those who agree with him is that primary importance is being given to the destination of Soviet Jews and not to getting them out. But many Israelis also observed that because the dropout rate is so high, Israel should not become a “travel agency” for Soviet Jews who only want to go to another diaspora in the U.S.


A strange alliance coalesced in the Knesset over the issue. Both Mapam’s Elazar Granot and Shas’ Shimon Ben-Shlomo claimed that Shamir’s position endangered the emigration of Soviet Jews. The Israel government was not the government of the entire Jewish people and had no right to determine the fate of those Jews who were not Israeli citizens, both argued. “Don’t we have an obligation to help all Jews in trouble?” Ben-Shlomo asked.

But Avner Sciaki of the National Religious Party expressed a view widely held in the Knesset, that help was due first and foremost — and perhaps exclusively — to Zionist Jews who wanted to settle in Israel. Other considerations emerged in the national debate on this issue. How many Soviet Jews can Israel realistically be expected to absorb, given the precarious economic situation of the country? Where will they be settled? Can the national budget be restructured to meet a massive influx without debilitating other national needs and goals? These same issues have also confronted the recent Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, many of whom are still awaiting answers and who in the meantime have become resentful and frustrated with the government’s stonewalling.


The Demjanjuk trial opened many old wounds among Israelis who suffered through the Holocaust and opened the eyes of many other Israelis–post-war sabras and Jews from North Africa and Asia — who had only heard about or read about the Holocaust.

During the first few days of the trial in Jerusalem, few people came to the small courtroom in Jerusalem. The initial reaction was one of general indifference. And there were questions in the minds of many Israelis: how can we be certain that Demjanjuk is really the sadistic “Ivan the Terrible?” What if he isn’t and we’ve put the wrong man on trial? What effect would it have in ferreting out Nazis who are still alive?

But a week after the trial began, ever more Israelis — young and old, Holocaust survivors, sabras and Sephardim — began to attend the proceedings. To accommodate the increasing numbers, swelled by reports in the press, radio and TV, the venue had to be moved to larger quarters.

The appearance of young sabras and North African and Asian Jews at the trial added a new dimension to the proceedings. Sabras had in the past tended to feel that European Jews had not fought the Nazis with the same kind of zeal and determination they themselves displayed against the enemies of Israel. And North African and Asian Jews were only in the recent past engaged in daubing anti-Ashkenazi and Nazi-like slogans on public buildings in Jerusalem.

The evidence presented at the trial by people who said they were victimized by Demjanjuk, their stark testimony of the wanton, savage and pathological cruelty not only of one man but of an entire system of destruction seared the hearts and minds of Israelis.

The reality of barbarism was no longer just in textbooks, in history lessons, on the arms of former concentration camp inmates, in words and phrases of parents or grandparents. The enormity of the crime and the tragedy that had in the past defied words was now nakedly present.

It united — and frightened — Israelis by driving home the meaning of total vulnerability and helplessness, of total aloneness in the face of a relentless behemoth. And it reminded Israelis that the world did little to help the victims at a time when help was desperately needed. And Israelis wondered: could this happen again, and to them?


Meanwhile, another source of anxiety over the vulnerability of Israel was that of “yerida” (emigration from Israel). Although this has been going on for many years, this phenomenon became aggravated by the large number of Soviet Jews who were dropping out. Each evoked the same question in the minds of many Israelis: what’s wrong with our country that so many are leaving and many others are avoiding it?

Many Israelis concede that yerida is a painful phenomenon but say they don’t know how to stem the tide. Various reasons are offered for the continuing emigration: not enough housing for young couples, not enough opportunities, the attraction of the U.S. as a land of opportunity, anxiety about Israel’s besieged condition, military service that disrupts lives and businesses, inflation, terrorism, loss of objectives, and the loss of Zionist consciousness.

Most Israelis who discuss this problem tend to focus on the fact that the idealistic dreams and pioneering spirit that motivated the early “chalutzim” (pioneers) to come to Palestine are gone. The “dor hamidbar” (desert generation) is no more. Many blame the established political parties for having failed to imbue a Zionist consciousness in the minds of the new generation.

For many Israelis, Zionism was an organizing principle to mobilize Jews to come to Palestine to build a State, but no longer necessary to maintain it. Pragmatism has replaced Zionism as the ideology of Israel. The contributions of the early pioneers and ideologists have been neglected or relegated to the dustbin of history, or have become nothing more than slogans, shibboleths trotted out for appropriate commemorations and debates.

Talk of Zionist ideology is usually greeted by younger Israelis with the derisive expression of “tzionut” (signifying sermonizing). When Andy Warhol, the American pop artist and iconoclast, died in February, a group of Israelis sat in a cafe in Jerusalem and bemoaned his passing. Told that the veteran Socialist Zionist pioneer and one of the founders of the State of Israel, Meir Yaari, had also just died, there was silence and blank stares.

In the country that was founded on the principles of Zionism, the language of Zionism is now seldom understood or spoken.

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