Jewish Power and Powerlessness

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Einat Wilf

Power corrupts. That is an ancient insight. Shared by biblical writers, no less than Greek, Roman, Hindu and Chinese ones. But the insight of Zionism, which perhaps only the Jews, as a literate and continuously powerless people, could contribute, was that powerlessness corrupts no less.

Zionism emerged, in no small measure, due to the observation that a people, whose very survival depended on the good will of others (which was generally lacking), is corrupted by the need to ingratiate itself with those in power. Zionist thinkers observed that the constant need to appease those in power in an effort to prevent them unleashing their wrath against the Jews, has taken a heavy toll on the Jewish soul. Zionism sought to correct this corruption of Jewish existence by making Jews masters of their fate, powerful once again, normalized political actors among the nations.

It has taken several generations, but in that sense, Zionism has been a complete triumph. The current generation growing up in Israel appears entirely disconnected from the experience of powerlessness. It conducts itself with the kind of confidence that would have probably made early Zionist leaders kvetch with pride.

Yet, herein lies the problem. After centuries and nearly millennia of being isolated from the corrupting effects of power, by their forced powerlessness, Jews are now experiencing it in full force. In that sense, Jews have indeed become politically normalized.

For Jews living outside of Israel, and even for many in Israel, this might be too much too soon. Many experience and express deep unease with the speed with which Jews have become normalized. In many ways, this is one of the greatest challenges that present-day Zionism and Israel to Jews. One could even describe it as the theological challenge of Zionism to Judaism: it demonstrates that when possessing power, Jews are no better (and no worse, it should be emphasized) than all other people with power.

The idea that Jews are somehow a uniquely moral people, capable of managing power differently that all other members of the human species, should have been summarily dismissed by even a cursory reading of the Hebrew bible. After all, if there is one overarching theme of the Hebrew bible it is that of a people constantly corrupted, despite repeated exhortations by a series of prophets.

Yet, for Jews living outside of Israel, it has been a comforting thought to consider themselves heirs to a uniquely moral tradition. Many have conflated powerlessness with morality, forgetting that the supposed moral behavior of Jews over the centuries was the simple outcome of facing none of the moral dilemmas faced by those exercising power.

This has led some to mistakenly believe that it is Israel that is “ruining” the moral standing of the Jews. Worse, this has led some Jews, still at the margins, to promote Jewish powerlessness once again, in an effort to restore the apparent moral purity of a Jewish powerless existence. A generation that has never known what it is to be truly powerless, a generation that has come to believe that the last, truly unprecedented, five decades of Jewish existence in the US and Canada, during which there was always a sovereign state of Israel, seems to believe it has reached a Jewish “end of history.” Some Jews, especially younger ones, have come to take it so much for granted, that they consider the tradeoff of power for moral purity a worthwhile one.

But neither the confidence of Israeli Jews that they have reached an “end of history” of Jewish power nor the American Jewish notion that Jews in American have reached an “end of history” of Jewish integration, equality and comfort don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The one incontrovertible fact of Jewish existence, one that has remained unchanged, is size. Jews are, and always have been, a miniscule people. This has remained unchanged despite substantial procreation efforts. The relative size of the Jewish people is such, that even in the absence of a premediated industrial genocide, we cannot procreate our way out of it.

As a result, the Jewish doctrine, certainly in the modern era, whether in Israel or outside it, has been essentially the same, that of a blowfish. Whether through Nobel prizes, Hollywood movies, technology start-ups and a nuclear arsenal, the Jewish people have been engaged in a sustained effort to make sure that no-one in the world be clued in to the fact that the actual number of Jews in the world is a meager 15 million, give or take. It is the reason that we speak of a Judeo-Christian civilization when we are among Christians, or of a fellow proud ancient civilization when we meet with Hindu and Chinese leaders. We cannot afford to be alone. We must, as a matter of survival, punch way, way above our weight.

The unfortunate reality, as we repeatedly experience in the United Nations, where the nations seem to only be united when it is against Israel, is that our size makes us all too easy to gang up on. Despite decades of Jewish achievement and relative power, our miniscule size means that always lurking underneath is the very distinct possibility that the current realities of relative Jewish power and equality would be reversed.

The current leadership of the Jewish people whether in Israel or in the United States, having still experienced the price of Jewish powerlessness and inequality, while effectively engaging in the blowfish strategy, and enjoying the fruits of the current era of Jewish power, is still very much keenly aware of the actual size of the Jewish people and of how reversible the current reality is.

Unfortunately, this awareness is becoming less typical of the confident generation of young Jews in Israel or of the comfortable generation of young Jews in America. Young Jews in Israel and young Jews in America are both under the illusion that they have been luckily disconnected from Jewish history. This is at the source of their so-called distancing. Young Jews in Israel increasingly seem oblivious to the limits of their power, and young Jews in America seem to question the need for power at all. Both are wrong.
No matter how much actual power Jews in Israel amass, their miniscule size, in the region and otherwise, means that they would be wise to recognize its limits and refrain from pursuing the corrupting territorial and other ambitions that ignore that basic insight. For Jews in America, no matter how comfortable the current reality appears, it would be wise to resist the temptations of moral purity that comes from powerlessness. Power corrupts, but powerlessness corrupts no less. Our survival as a minuscule Jewish people depends on Jews, both in Israel and outside it, heeding both insights of Jewish history, which has very much not come to an end.

Dr. Einat Wilf is a former member of the Israeli Knesset. She is the author of six books, most recently “Telling Our Story: Essays on Zionism, the Middle East, and the Path to Peace” and “The War of Return.”