The current anxiety over the recent Iran nuclear deal is a reminder that the Jews are in a paradoxical situation—they are a powerful, imperiled people.
In comparison, the Palestinians, the most familiar adversary of Jews, are a relatively powerless people, but not imperiled. Their population keep increasing, and no serious commentator thinks the Jews plan to or have ever committed any sort of genocide against them.
The Iranians, who have emerged as the most formidable foe of Israel in recent years, are powerful and not imperiled. Yes, sanctions have left their economy in tatters. Yes, they have fought some powerful regional enemies, including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the growing power of ISIS. But no one has ever seriously suggested that a wrong step by the Iranian regime might find the world free of Iranians.
Yet Jews do have such fear. It begins in an historical legacy. Simon Rawidowicz, the late Jewish philosopher, once wrote an essay called Israel: The Ever Dying People. He recounts a parade of prominent Jewish voices throughout history who believed they would be the last generation of Jews. One Hebrew poet lamented that no more would people speak Hebrew and be able to read his verses. That was right before the modern state of Israel revived the language for an entire nation. The tone of the essay is essentially optimistic—after all, the predictions have thus far been proven wrong—yet Rawidowicz recognizes that in many, localized instances, the lament was true.
The book Synagogues Without Jews chronicles synagogues throughout the world where there are no longer Jewish congregations to sustain them. Most of those vanished communities were destroyed by the Holocaust. Many Jews from Arab lands were chased out and had their lands and goods confiscated (a historical injustice rarely mentioned in recounting the wars of 1948.) Others were so small that time, demography, and other factors—including voluntarily leaving for Israel where they could have a full Jewish life—ended once-living communities.
Few Jews today are at the whim of hostile governments. In the U.S., the Jewish community is powerful, thriving and free. Although it has concerns about dwindling numbers, that is a factor of choice and commitment, not persecution and expulsion. And Israel, of course, is a formidable regional power.
Nonetheless, that is but a part of the story. There are about 14 million Jews worldwide. They have still not fully recovered from the losses of 70 years ago, when a full third of all the Jews in the world were killed. And the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe reawakens old fears, as does the alarming rise in anti-Semitic stereotypes and hatred throughout the Muslim world.
So we are witness to a paradox known to a healthy person who has once been mortally ill. Such a person can never be in full denial again. He knows that the body can be vigorous and strong and succumb in an instant to a variety of ailments or accidents. Someone looking at the state of Israel might see a powerful army, high-tech weaponry, and a society ready to mobilize. But inside the state, the view is of one surrounded by nations who wish it gone, 17-year-olds patrolling the borders, and Iran strategizing to increase its influence as it eyes the possibility of a nuclear bomb.
It has been said that there are two great tribes, the sick and the well. Similarly among nations, there is sometimes a disconnect between the threatened and the secure. Strength alone is not a guarantee of safety. For America, surrounded by oceans and friendly neighbors, the extent of Israel’s fear may seem excessive. But for Israel, being powerful and being imperiled is the reality of living in a very dangerous neighborhood.