Israel stands out from other nations in many ways, not least that its survival appears to depend on powerful but geographically very distant countries. That observation should lead Jews to wonder what makes friends of Israel feel as they do.
America has been the country’s closet ally, while other Western countries showed less affection even before absorbing huge new Muslim populations. Why? In the American context, why do Republicans on average judge Israel more favorably than Democrats – by a significant spread of 20 percent, 84% compared to 64%, according to a Gallup poll?
Pointing to the number of Evangelical Christians among the Republican base only begs the question. Conservative Christians quote biblical verses to justify their passion for the Jewish state, but you can imagine an alternative universe where those voters today would show the same hostility to Jewish interests that other Christians demonstrated historically.
Chalking up the difference to religious influence also ignores the staunchly pro-Israel stance of secular conservative activists and journalists. Add to this the mystery of Jews who either don’t care about Israel or are more or less disdainful. What explains it all?
Israel’s well-wishers should carefully consider the question because the trite, frequently cited rationales for being pro-Israel – that it is a “bastion of democracy in the Middle East” and so on – sound like rationalizations. In a secular democracy, religious friends also need to be able to say, without pounding a Bible, why allying with Israel is good not just for Israel but for other countries, notably America.
I’VE STRUGGLED for years to figure out what difference in fundamental viewpoints it is, what polarity in thinking about how the world works, that Israel casts so sharply into contrast.
An answer I came across recently snaps the mystery into focus. I found it in the manuscript of a forthcoming book by, of all people, the capitalism and technology guru George Gilder, one of the chief intellectual stars of the Reaganomics revolution.
Gilder and I share an affiliation with the Discovery Institute, a think tank with offices in Seattle, but I’ve never met him and hadn’t followed his earlier career all that carefully. I’m old school – technology bores me. But his book The Israel Test, which should be out in June, spoke to me with an unexpected power.
Apart from being beautifully, fiercely written, its merit lies in clarifying, in a totally new, secular and intuitive way, why Israel matters. Gilder begins with a frankly, even racially philo-Semitic observation that will make some Jews uncomfortable. I can say it without squirming because, as a convert to Judaism, I can’t claim any credit that attaches to having Jewish genes.
Jews are known for their greatly disproportionate giftedness in film, physics, finance – almost every field where creativity and intellect determine success. Gilder writes with candor about Jewish “superiority and excellence.” As a result of such Jewish gifts, Israel has done far more with far less, in physical resources, than any other country. The Israeli technology boom has made this clearer than ever.
As Gilder puts it, “The [Israel] test can be summarized by a few questions: What is your attitude toward people who excel you in the creation of wealth or in other accomplishments? Do you aspire to their excellence or do you seethe at it? Do you admire and celebrate exceptional achievement or do you impugn it and seek to tear it down?”
SOME PEOPLE see wealth-creation as a zero-sum game, where your enriching yourself means that you are taking something away from me. Others see wealth as almost miraculous. Material value is created from nothing – ex nihilo. That is, from nothing material – but from an idea, from creativity, from genius. In this view, your enrichment takes nothing from me. In fact, it creates opportunities for your neighbors to enrich themselves by doing business with you. Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, with their pitiful economy, have failed spectacularly to perceive this.
Elementally, there are two different personality types here. Where you come down reveals a lot not just about your politics – though political views flow from it – but about the orientation of your soul.
Zero-sum personalities often resent the rich and the gifted and may succumb to a temptation to punish them. Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments are a frequent consequence. Ex-nihilo personalities have no reason to resent Jews or Israel.
A nation populated by ex-nihilo types would see Israel as the embodiment of virtues its own citizens deem crucial to their happiness and prosperity. For America, abandoning Israel would mean rejecting values that have been key to our identity as a powerhouse of creative and commercial leadership. In simple terms, it’s bad for business.
That is the Israel test, in which Americans have a greater stake in choosing rightly than we do in any calculus based on the questionable premise that the United States must have a democratic ally precisely in the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
You start to see why Israel divides free-market America from socialist Western Europe, and pro-business, anti-tax conservatives from those left-liberals, including some Jews, who would use government power to press the “rich” further and further to support the rest of us.
No less interesting is an issue Gilder doesn’t get into at all. The dichotomy he notes helps illuminate subjects with roots at least as deep as those of modern Israel. The question of whether value can be created from nothing has been debated for thousands of years.
Traditionally, rabbinic scholars understood the second word in Genesis, bara – “In the beginning God created” – as implying creation ex nihilo. God’s having made humankind in His image implied that people share that gift.
Chapter 8 in the book of Proverbs describes God’s wisdom, the Torah – a purely non-physical entity – as preceding creation. The Christian Gospel of John summed up its own version of this teaching with the mystic utterance that “in the beginning was the Word.” In the Middle Ages, Maimonides debated on this point with Aristotelian philosophers. Did the universe have a beginning, emerging ex nihilo from divine creativity, or did it always exist, eternal and uncreated? The latter view made nonsense of Judaism, Maimonides warned.
Closer to our time, Darwinian evolutionary science arose from the inspiration of Malthusianism, the classical zero-sum theory in economics. Darwin saw nature as a war of organisms in which the fittest survive while the unfit perish – a gruesome, purposeless affair where the strong dominate the weak by taking their lives.
Today’s frontier of science, however, reminds us that human and animal life is animated by something totally nonphysical – the information coded in DNA – that, arguably, could not even in principle have arisen from a purely material process. Since information is invariably the product of a mind, Genesis may be right after all: “In the beginning, God created.” From Israel, then, we circle back to Israel’s God – the truest reason that the State of Israel, and Jews as a whole, should matter to the world. But we Jews knew that all along.