Notes on a Profane Intersection of Politics and Pathos

By Louis Rene Beres
Professor of International Law Department of Political Science Purdue University

Human freedom is a continuous and indispensable theme in Judaism, but that freedom can never countenance a "right" of national suicide. Individually and collectively, there is always a firm Jewish obligation to choose between "the blessing and the curse" - and always an expectation to choose life. In the case of coming "disengagement," the Prime Minister's decision to surrender Jewish land to Israel's most openly-genocidal enemies will inevitably distance the nation - perhaps irretrievably - from survival. And if disengagement is permitted to happen, Israel's consequent dismantling will be anything but tragic. Instead, it will be the reductio ad absurdum of a government (more realistically, of one unheroic Israeli government after another) that indefatigably poisons itself. Israel, after Ariel Sharon's forcible deportation of Jews from Gaza and parts of Samaria, awaits a tragic fate. Yet, the dramatic genre portraying this unhappy and profane destiny is correctly described as "pathos." Like the minimalist poetics of Samuel Beckett, the entire play, however deeply meaningful, is also preposterous. While the early Greeks certainly did not share the monotheistic Jewish understanding of One God, the Greeks and the Jews did both subscribe to an idea that all human beings and societies are obligated to ward off disaster as best they can. "Free will." Saadia Gaon included freedom of will among the central teachings of Judaism, and Maimonides affirmed that we humans stand alone in the world, " know what is good and what is evil, with none to prevent him from either doing good or evil." Free will must always be oriented to life, to the blessing, never to the curse. For Hellenes and Hebrews alike, the binding charge was to strive in this mandated direction of self-preservation through intelligence and through disciplined acts of will. In circumstances where such striving was consciously rejected, the outcomes - no matter how catastrophic - could never rise to the dignified level of tragedy. The ancient vision of "High Tragedy," as it evolved from fifth century BCE Athens, is always clear on one crucial point: The victim is one whom "the gods kill for their sport, as wanton boys do flies." This wantonness, this caprice, is what makes tragedy unendurable to human reason and sensibility. With "disengagement" and the corollary release of still more Arab terrorists, however, Israel's lamentations will be largely self- inflicted. The drama, as it is now unfolding, is at best a disturbing page from Beckett or Ionesco. There is no hint of a cathartic element from Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. At worst, Israel's tragic fate is torn from the pages of irony and farce, a form of comedy that relies principally on contrivances of plot and on inherently low levels of credibility. In a farce, matters often end badly except for a last-minute rescue via "deus ex machina." No such rescue awaits the continuously imperiled State of Israel. Understood in Jewish terms, we should recall here the words of Rabbi Yanai: "A man should never put himself in a place of danger and say that a miracle will save him, lest there be no miracle...."
(Talmud: Sota 32a and Codes; Yoreh De'ah 116). Perhaps Israel's prime minister does not expect a miracle, but then upon what manner of reasoning does he now construct his suicidal policy of "Land For Nothing?" In Judaism there can be no justification for deliberate self- endangerment, and in classic Greek tragedy, there can be no deus ex machina. In tragedy, the human spirit remains noble in the face of largely inescapable death, but if there is anything remotely tragic in Israel's Oslo/"Road Map"/"disengagement"-descent, it lies only in the original Greek meaning of the term - "goat song" - from the dithyrambs sung by goatskin- clad worshippers of Dionysus. In every other sense, Israel now exhibits behavior that desecrates its sacred Jewish heritage and its manifestly obvious Jewish obligations. Prime Minister Sharon proceeds with the expectation of a "Two State Solution." Yet, his Palestinian "partners in peace" remain openly dedicated only to a single, twenty-third Arab state. Israel does not exist on the maps of Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah. As for the still unrevised Fatah constitution, its plans for Israel are plainly Crimes Against Humanity - this according to unassailable standards of authoritative international law. Mahmoud Abbas' only solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a familiar "final" one. Abbas, of course, is identified in Jerusalem and Washington as the "moderate" Palestinian voice. Aristotle understood, in his POETICS, that a tragedy must elicit pity and fear, but certainly not pathos, a kind of suffering less heroic than what is to be expected of a genuinely tragic figure. Aristotle identified the tragic with "good" characters who suffer, in part, because they commit some error (hamartia) unknowingly. Prime Minister Sharon, on the other hand, has continued his country's march to disaster not because of any such error, or even because of wantonness or caprice, but (in the most charitable explanation) because his territorial nationalism has become detached from Judaism. Israel is currently in a tragic dilemma, a situation initially created by Rabin/Peres, sustained by Netanyahu, heightened by Barak, and soon to be "finalized" by Sharon. Now, each Israeli surrender and humiliation leads the country closer to an unbearable conclusion. Now, Israel is in the condition of Orestes. Commanded by the god Apollo, in THE LIBATION BEARERS of Aeschylus (458 BCE) to avenge his father's death by murdering Clytemnestra, the slayer who is Orestes' mother, Orestes knows that - whatever he decides - will make him guilty of grave offense. Unlike Orestes and in violation of Jewish precept, the leader of Israel has placed his people directly in the path of misfortune - in a "place of danger." It is not divine whim that has brought Israel to its present existential vulnerabilities; it is the continuous, stubborn and inexcusable self- delusion of Israeli and Jewish leaderships. Today a Prime Minister of Israel still codifies Hamas/PLO/PA/Fatah's jihad-centered rule over essential and expanding sectors of the Jewish State. Yet, Holocaust denier Mahmoud Abbas was mentored by Yassir Arafat, and Arafat, in the words of Gustav Hendrikssen, professor emeritus of Bible Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, "is the heir of Hitler and the Palestinian Covenant is a more disgusting document than the Nuremberg laws." When this self-described "aged and bitter Gentile" recalled his reactions to awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to "one of the most despicable figures in our century," he saw in that event the drama not of tragedy, but of pathetic farce: "When I saw the Prime Minister of Israel and its Foreign Minister standing next to this murderous clown," says Prof. Hendrikssen, speaking of Rabin and Peres, "I had to think again about the meaning of the term `friend of Israel.'" A Christian for whom Israel had always been a "divine message," Hendrikssen confirms our understanding that Israel's current "disengagement" and other incremental surrenders lack even the stuff of tragedy. If, after all, "...the Jewish people digs its grave with its own hand," it is a coming death without dignity. "Even the devil that dances on its grave is of its own making." Soon, if "disengagement" is allowed to go forward, each and every soldier of Israel will be asked to fight battles that are already lost. Fawning upon their own doom, Israel's leaders will still refuse to recognize that the spheres of reason in this world are terribly limited, or that George W. Bush and the American Jewish Establishment will not save them. For the latter, which takes out newspaper ads supporting "disengagement," Israel will remain a quaint and ego-satisfying diversion, a good place to visit with the children from time to time and a convenient pretext for lavish banquets in New York. For the former, the drama of Israel's redemption is just another traveling roadshow, here today, gone tomorrow. Israel is now entering the final phase of an unwitting self-parody. Fortunately the last act has not yet been played. Israel can still put an end to the demeaning farce, but only if its people and government can finally understand why they have been ingathered in the first place.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli security issues and international law.

(c) 30 May 2005
Louis Rene Beres Professor of International Law Department of Political Science Purdue University West Lafayette IN 47907 USA

TEL 765 494-4189 FAX 765 494-0833 E MAIL BERES@POLSCI.PURDUE.EDU


Reprinted by permission.