Israel: Hubris Can Lead to Tragedy

Caroline Poplin, M.D., J.D.
27 min readDec 8, 2021

The poet Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.”

We Jews need just such a home — secure, defensible, democratic — where Jews have a comfortable majority. Because of the Holocaust, World War II and its aftermath, Jews were able to create such a state in 1948, the modern state of Israel.

But there is no reason modern Israel must extend from the river to the sea. The state of Israel after the War of Independence in 1948 (approximately along the Green Line) occupied some 84% of mandatory Palestine. With limited land swaps if necessary to improve Israeli security, and an arrangement to share Jerusalem, that should be enough for us.

The rest of Mandatory Palestine should be returned to the people who have lived there for centuries. This is the two state solution: no West Bank Israeli settlements, no occupation, no further Palestinian displacement, no more home or community demolitions, equal rights for Israeli Arabs: a separate demilitarized independent state of Palestine alongside and at peace with the state of Israel. Much as many Israelis might prefer it, the current state of affairs is not stable — there was already another fight with Gaza this year — and will not be allowed to continue indefinitely: it is either the two-state solution, the one state solution — from the river to the sea — with equal rights for all, or intermittent war, which the U.S. might not support and which the Jews might lose, and be forever relegated to life in an anti-Semitic Diaspora.

There will be no third restoration. God will not save us. This is our last chance for a Jewish state in historic Palestine. To try to maintain the status quo, to add more “facts on the ground” intended to make the two state solution ever more difficult, is dangerous hubris.

History of Israel from time out of mind until 137 C.E.

Archeological evidence for the Exodus as described in the Torah is thin: there is some evidence that people already living in ancient Canaan became the Israelites over time. King David is thought to have reigned about 1000 B.C.E, although evidence of the extent of his kingdom too is thin and controversial.

Jews were exiled from Israel three times: in 721 B.C.E. by the Assyrians (Samaria), in 587 B.C.E. by the Babylonians (the Jews were allowed to return, ironically, by the king of Persia, today’s Iran), the third time about 137 C.E., after their last revolt against the Romans. According to the Hebrew prophets, the Israelites were expelled twice because Jews worshipped other gods and disobeyed God’s laws. The third expulsion was by Rome, the most powerful army in the Western world at the time, after at least three brave Jewish revolts.

After defeating the Jews for the third time, the Romans devastated Judea, destroying and depopulating it, changing its name to Syria-Palaestina, now Palestine, the name of its capital to Aelia Capitolina (Christians changed it back to Jerusalem). Only a small Jewish community remained.

From 137 C.E. to 1948, most Jews remained stateless wanderers, persecuted and/or expelled at one time or another from every country in Europe. Anti-semitism is deep and broad, part of the fabric of Western civilization: it appears more than once in the New Testament, and surfaces whenever society is stressed, as it is now, for example.

This is why the modern state of Israel is so precious to Jews.

History: May 1945 to May 1948

Most of this story is surely familiar, but the following, based on a new book, The Last Million, Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War, by David Nasaw, may shock readers: it certainly shocked me.

World War II in Europe ended in May 1945. There were a million or so refugees in the Western sectors. The people displaced from their homes included Jews who survived the concentration camps or managed to evade the Nazis, as well as people from the Baltics and Eastern Europe fleeing the Soviet army. The Allies urged them all to return home, but those who could not or would not gathered in refugee (“Displaced Persons”) camps, often former concentration camps, where some basic care was provided. The camps were a burden and distraction to the U.S. Army, which was responsible for them: the Army requested the Allied governments, then the UN, to empty the camps as quickly as possible.

I always assumed that, considering the horror of the Holocaust and the large active American Jewish community, the gates of the U.S. would have been flung open to Jewish survivors.

What actually happened was just the opposite.

Countries that needed labor, whether for post-war reconstruction or new development, were allowed to visit the camps and offer jobs and new homes to the refugees. Young, strong, single male refugees were preferred — no surprise there. However, most of the Jews, some 250,000, were left behind; no country wanted them, especially since concentration camp survivors were in terrible condition. Nevertheless, they were clear that they would not remain in Europe.

In the first years after the war, President Truman, like Roosevelt before him, let in only the number of refugees permitted under U.S. nationality-based immigration quotas set in 1927 — he knew Congress would reject even a temporary increase. Since the British refused to admit more than a token number of Jews to the UK proper, Truman insisted that Britain allow 100,000 Jews into Palestine, still a British mandate. The British refused. Only Canada accepted a decent number.

Despite the Holocaust, after the war anti-Semitism in the West was alive and well.

Only the Jews in Palestine welcomed their compatriots, many of whom were eager to settle there. So the Jewish Agency and other groups started to move the DP Jews illegally, as fictionalized in the Leon Uris book and movie “Exodus”. The British resisted at every turn. (They deported the passengers of the real “Exodus” to Germany). The Arabs, Palestinians in particular, were furious. Fighting among the three groups intensified.

The UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine in November 1947, allotting 56% to the Jews (of which a significant part was the Negev, an inhospitable desert). The Jews lobbied hard for partition and accepted it; the Arab states voted against, and did not. Britain formally gave up its mandate in May 1948: Israel declared independence May 14. President Truman (despite vigorous objections from his Cabinet) recognized Israel immediately de facto, although he declared an arms embargo on all sides. On May 15, five regular Arab armies invaded all along the long Israeli border, aided by Palestinian irregulars from within. The Israelis, outnumbered, outgunned, many untrained, managed to hang on, with some surplus armor and planes purchased from Czechoslovakia, bombers about to be scrapped by the U.S, and eventually captured armor. American Jews sent money, supplies, and volunteers. Immigrants from Europe flooded in. As the bitterly fought war progressed, the new state even managed some strategic gains. Armistices were finally achieved in 1949 and became the so-called “Green Line,” (incorporating some 77% of the Mandatory Palestine).

History: May 1948 to 1977

Arabs who fled or were driven from their homes in 1948 were not allowed back into Israel, perhaps because of fear that they might resume the war. Maybe the Israeli founders hoped that the refugees would simply be absorbed into the twenty two Arab states (or at least the five that attacked Israel), in exchange for Sephardic Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries in 1948 (a total of 820,000, of whom 586,000 resettled in Israel, the rest in the U.S. or Europe).

This did not happen; the Arabs confined the exiled Palestinians in refugee camps. Maybe they still expected to drive the Jews into the sea so the refugees could return home. Or perhaps the Arabs kept the camps as bargaining chips.

The Arabs tried to destroy Israel twice more, once in 1967, and again in 1973. These were wars of defense. In August following the 1967 loss, the Arab League in Khartoum responded with its three ‘no’s: “No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.”

The 1973 surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, with state of the art Soviet weapons — including new Scud missiles — ended with a solid Israeli victory: no loss of territory. Nevertheless the Arabs performed well; this war was a close call for the Jewish state, with heavy casualties. It required a rapid arms resupply from the U.S. to achieve victory.

President Nixon sent the arms in the hope that another Israeli victory would persuade the Arabs to finally engage in significant peace talks. His strategy worked. President Sadat, a wise and brave leader, flew to Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset in 1977. He signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The Arab League suspended Egypt in 1977. (It was not reinstated until 1995.)

Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994. King Hussein, who had lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem (the Old City) to Israel in 1967, did not resume control, but left the Israelis and the Palestinians to work out its final disposition.

But the Palestinians had lost an opportunity, 1967–1977, when the Labor coalition was in power. Labor was open to a “land for peace” swap, in accordance with UN Resolution 242, passed unanimously by the Security Council in November 1967. Jordan and Egypt accepted the resolution, to get their territories back. The PLO rejected it, because it did not reference the Palestinians separately.

The unexpected Israeli losses early in the 1973 war, however, roiled Israeli politics in a way that made a peace acceptable to the Palestinians impossible — to this very day.

1977 Likud Replaces Labor

Since 1948, Labor Party coalitions (under various names) led the Israeli government, starting with David Ben Gurion. These were mainstream, secular Zionists, committed by the 1948 Declaration of Independence to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all of [Israel’s] inhabitants, irrespective of religion, education and culture; [the State of Israel] will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the Charter of the United Nations.”

However, the security problems revealed by the Yom Kippur war, as well as a demographic shift in the Israeli population, led to the election in 1977 of Menachem Begin, founder of the Likud party, with a very different plan.

Theodore Herzl founded modern Zionism in 1897, when, as one analyst put it, “he came to believe that antisemitism could not be defeated or cured, only avoided, and that the only way to avoid it was the establishment of a Jewish state.” True enough even now.

Herzl’s Zionist movement made rapid progress. But in 1925, a charismatic young Jewish leader, Ze-ev Jabotinsky, convinced some Jews that mainstream Zionism was too timid. He and his followers formed a break-away militant faction: Revisionist Zionism.

Jabotinsky supported armed struggle to establish “Eretz Ysrael on both sides of the Jordan River,” along with mass (Jewish) immigration and settlements to secure a Jewish majority in the new state. Revisionist Zionism would establish peace with the Arabs based on “a solid military front” [an “iron wall”] and on “the moral strengths of Zionism.”

This should sound familiar: the Likud is a direct descendent of Revisionist Zionism.

Menachem Begin, who founded the Likud (like Labor, a consolidation of parties) joined Betar, the youth wing of the Revisionist Zionists, in Poland in 1929, when he was 16. He progressed rapidly through the ranks, meeting Jabotinsky six years later. After military service and imprisonment in Eastern Europe, Begin arrived in Palestine in 1941, joined the Irgun (the Revisionist underground army, which, unlike the Haganah, the mainstream army, fought the British as well as the Arabs). He became its leader in 1944. In 1948, the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi united to form the IDF.

Begin then became a politician, starting on the right fringe of Israeli politics. In1973 he consolidated several parties into Likud. In 1977, he defeated the Labor coalition to become Prime Minister.

Over all this time, his position regarding Palestine had not changed at all. The first paragraph of the 1977 Likud platform reads:

The Right of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael)

a. The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked to the right to security and peace; therefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the Jordan there will be only Israeli sovereignty.

b. A plan which relinquishes parts of Eretz Israel (sic) undermines our right to the country, unavoidably leads to the establishment of a “Palestinian State”, jeopardizes the security of the Jewish population, endangers the existence of the State of Israel, and frustrates any prospect of peace.

The other three sections indicate that settlement all over ‘greater’ Israel is a key objective, that Israel would be open to negotiations with all its “neighbors”(that is, other recognized states), and dismisses the PLO as an organization of “assassins” trying to destroy the Jewish state.

Talk about hubris!

As soon as Begin took over, Jewish settlement of the West Bank took off, and has continued energetically ever since.

1977–2000: a tragedy of missed opportunities, on both sides

It appears that in the decades following the 1973 war, Arabs became gradually, grudgingly resigned to the permanent presence of Israel in the Middle East. In 2002 the Saudis even put forward a peace plan, endorsed by the Arab League. It was not acceptable to Israel as written, of course, but it was the first Arab comprehensive peace plan that did not start with the elimination of Israel. It was an important first step. Prime Minister Netanyahu, leader of Likud, did not bother to respond.

Indeed, even many Palestinians, after the second intifada, thought they could accept the loss of land in 1948 as long as Israelis ended the occupation, gave back the West Bank and Gaza, removed most of the settlements, recognized Palestine as a wholly legitimate (albeit demilitarized) nation-state, and made some arrangements for Jerusalem such that it could serve as the capital of Palestine and Israel. Palestinians were tired of the unending violence, punctuated by multiple wars with disproportionate Palestinian casualties.

However, after 1977, Israel would have none of it (except when Labor came back briefly under Rabin/Peres and later Ehud Barak.)

For example, in 1978, the framework for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty was agreed to at Camp David only after strenuous efforts by President Carter. The two principals, Begin and Sadat, disliked one another and barely spoke. The treaty actually contained two frameworks. The first covered Israel/Egypt: it largely concerned Sinai. The second framework constructed a five year interim plan for Palestinian autonomy, including the usual measures — withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the West Bank, a settlement freeze, a provisional Palestinian authority, etc. This was intended to transition to Palestinian state five years later. President Sadat didn’t want to be seen abandoning — or betraying — the Palestinians. President Carter had wanted a regional agreement. Nevertheless, in 1981 Sadat paid for this treaty with his life.

As one might expect, the basic provisions regarding Israel and Egypt were mostly accomplished, if slowly and reluctantly. With regard to Palestine, however, Israel dragged its feet, argued over interpretations and did little.

By 1987, the Palestinians were fed up with tightening occupation, ever expanding settlements, and violence. The first intifada — protests, riots, strikes, killings, deportations, Palestinian executions of alleged collaborators, general mayhem — was led by local Palestinians and took place all over Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It continued until at least the 1991 Madrid conference (organized by President George Bush), which presaged the Oslo Accords in 1993. Oslo was actually the first face to face negotiation between the PLO (represented by Yassir Arafat) and Israel (represented by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — a Labor government briefly in control). It was mediated by Norwegians.

At Oslo, Arafat recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”, and Israel recognized the PLO as “a representative of the Palestinian people” in a letter. The actual Oslo agreement, like the prior Israel/Egypt Camp David agreement, was to be a stepping stone to a peace treaty between Israel and a new Palestinian state. The initial accord was signed in 1993 at the White House, followed by a handshake between Rabin and Arafat in front of a beaming President Clinton.

However, with the Oslo Accords, as with the 1979 treaty, progress on the Israeli side was slow — troops were not withdrawn, settlement construction slowed briefly. Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995 — in effect a mirror image of the murder of Sadat. In 1996, Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister for the first time. He negotiated fitfully with Arafat, but little was accomplished and pace of settlements quickened. In 1999, Netanyahu lost the election to Ehud Barak for a variety of reasons, including small concessions to the Palestinians. Barak was the last Labor prime minister.

2000-now: missed Israeli opportunities

During his short tenure, Barak made a valiant effort to make peace with the Arabs. He withdrew the Israeli army from Lebanon, and resumed negotiations with the PLO, culminating in a Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 with Arafat, chaired by President Clinton, which failed. Arafat refused to make any more concessions — he thought he had given enough, and that the Israelis reneged on promises they had made.

In October 2000, Ariel Sharon, a founder of Likud with Netanyahu, visited the Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims, with a huge security guard, soldiers, a helicopter overhead, and surrounded the compound with a thousand Israeli police, just to prove that he could. In response, Palestinians across Israel and the occupied territories protested and rioted. They were met by Israeli counter protestors and police, and the second intifada was underway.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel six months later.

The second intifada was much more violent than the first. There were suicide bombings (110 in the first three years), assassinations of Palestinian leaders, an invasion of the West Bank in 2003 by the IDF using heavy weapons. Some 4300 people died. Israel tightened the occupation, reduced freedom of movement, and started building a security wall between Israel proper and the West Bank. Vigorous settlement activity, subsidized by the Israeli government, continued.

Since 2005, however, there was another opportunity for a negotiated settlement: in 2004, Arafat died. Mahmoud Abbas took over the Palestinian Authority two months later, eager to restart negotiations. He used all the non-violent means at his disposal, including recognition by the UN. President George W. Bush offered a roadmap, as did the Europeans and the UN. Nevertheless, the day Vice President Biden, representing Obama, landed in Israel, Netanyahu unveiled plans for new settlements.

These were all missed opportunities for the Israelis.

Netanyahu dismissed all these overtures from the world, as well as the U.S., its most loyal and most powerful ally. Just as important, Netanyahu refused meaningful negotiations with Abbas. Instead, Netanyahu demanded new concessions and contended that Abbas was not a ‘partner for peace’. The Israeli Prime Minister humiliated Abbas at every opportunity, and continued settlements strategically placed to make a viable Palestinian state impossible. (Yes, there was a settlement freeze, under intense American pressure — for ten months, in 2009, not extended or repeated.) As Netanyahu intended, failure to achieve any results over 16 years cost Abbas any credibility with the Palestinians. (Abbas’s co-operation with Israeli security forces didn’t help.)

Yes, in 2005, Prime Minister Sharon ‘disengaged’ Israel from Gaza, but he did so unilaterally, without consulting any Palestinians or arranging a peaceful handover to the Palestinian Authority. Ignoring the Palestinian Authority was not just contemptuous; it set up the continuing violence since. In fact, Israel’s purpose was not peace, but rather to tip the demography of the future ‘greater Israel’ towards the Jews by excluding Gaza. Hamas, much more violent than the 21st century PLO, took over in Gaza.

As most readers know, Palestinians have continued provocations, especially rockets from Gaza (an arsenal of some 10,000 at the beginning of 2014) through the present day. Israel retaliates harshly — it has heavy weapons and an advanced air force which it has not hesitated to use against Gaza. Since some two million Gazans (about half are children) live in an area about the size of Philadelphia, Gaza is one of the most crowded places on earth. Israel controls all the exits except the one controlled by Egypt; there is no way civilians can hide or escape. Thus civilian casualties from bombs and artillery are always heavy, disproportionate to the civilian casualties in Israel.

Since 2005, there has been ongoing organized violence between Israel and Gaza, as well as less organized violence between Palestinians and the IDF in the West Bank. (Israeli police generally respond to trouble in Israel proper.) This ongoing violence has been punctuated by four significant IDF attacks on Gaza (entitled “Operations”) including the one in May this year, all involving the Air Force, two with a ground invasion as well.

Israelis cast all their military actions, large or small, against Palestinians, as self-defense. However many Israeli actions towards Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel proper also are often highly provocative: consider what happened just last May before Hamas launched rockets: multiple armed Israeli incursions into the Al-Aqsa compound during the month of Ramadan. Israeli forces barred the Damascus Gate exactly when Palestinians liked to congregate there. Israelis are trying to evict Arab families on dubious legal grounds from houses in East Jerusalem where they have lived for generations — explicitly to “Judaize” the area. And most chilling of all, on “Jerusalem Day” (celebrating the capture of the Old City in 1967), settler extremists waving Israeli flags ran through Arab neighborhoods shouting “Kill the Arabs!” (Jews everywhere should find this outrageous, recalling mobs yelling “Kill the Jews!” across the centuries, starting massacres and pogroms.)

Who provoked whom depends on when you choose to look.

Meantime, Israel has blockaded the Gaza strip — land, sea and air — since 2007. Living conditions there are awful: intermittent electricity, contaminated water, heavily damaged infrastructure, high unemployment.

Israel seems confident it can maintain this situation indefinitely, punishing Hamas (and the civilians of Gaza) for provocations just often enough to keep it weak, but not so weak that Hamas will be replaced by an even more violent and determined terrorist group like ISIS.

A siege like this is sometimes considered an act of war. What would you do if you lived in Gaza, and everyone was prevented from leaving, indefinitely?

The status quo: Israel’s preferred resolution

Most citizens of Israel now appear to accept the Revisionist Zionist (Likud) position that Israel should extend from the Jordan to the sea, and include East Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed. The West Bank is now “Judea and Samaria”. Israeli leaders ignore the Palestinians. Indeed, Palestine is rarely an issue in otherwise contentious Israeli politics.

I had hoped that when Netanyahu was finally defeated by a coalition stretching from the settlers to an independent Arab party (a first!), things might begin to change. But no — in his 25 minute speech to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Bennett never said “Palestinian” once. Instead, Bennett substituted Iran as an existential threat and threatened to “act alone” if necessary, just as Netanyahu had.

Indeed, Jack Khoury opined in Haaretz that, “Since taking office in June, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has announced at every opportunity that “There will be no diplomatic process with the Palestinians.” His goal is to improve their socioeconomic condition, a development that he believes will bring stability and reduce violence. There will be “no discussion of national rights, of borders, of the issue of Jerusalem, and certainly not of the right of return.”

What could be clearer?

There are now some 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel will continue to build settlements, “Judaize” Arab areas (ethnic cleansing), and place settlements such that a contiguous Palestinian state is impossible. Israeli roads will link the settlements to Israel proper and each other, bypassing Palestinian villages. The IDF will continue military control over the whole West Bank.

This is one state, but not the one state solution: it is an apartheid state, like South Africa, except that the two populations look alike, and the numbers are more balanced. In 2010, former Prime Minister Barak was blunt: “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

In 1984, the UN labelled apartheid “a crime against humanity”, although no one has been prosecuted yet.

Hubris ends in tragedy.

Hubris is a concept derived from ancient Greek literature. Hubris is overconfidence, arrogance. It describes a hero so confident of his ability that he defies limits set by the gods, or fate, and is swiftly punished by Nemesis. Icarus is a good example.

Modern Israel was indeed heroic early on: a small country in a dangerous neighborhood, populated by survivors of the greatest mass murder in history, along with descendants of earlier nineteenth century pogroms. The Jews plunked themselves down in a sea of hostile Arabs who had lived in the area for hundreds of years and rejected all claims by the newcomers.

Yet the Jews convinced the UN to adopt a partition resolution, were able to defend their share from the onslaught of the surrounding Arab nations three times, and to build a modern state with Western values (except as regards the Palestinians), a vigorous democracy and a successful economy, with extensive foreign trade. Israel has a standard of living equal to Western Europe’s. It punches well above its weight.

Despite the ever-present anti-Semitism that had driven the Jews back to Palestine in the first place, Israel commanded the respect, sometimes grudging, of the Western world. But no more. Today, Israel is seen as a bully, especially by young people, as memory of the Holocaust fades.

The existential threat facing Israel today.

It is not Iran. It is not even military.

If Israel does not make peace with the Palestinians, acceptable to an anti-Semitic world, the country is doomed. It has two choices: the traditional two state solution, or the one state solution where Jews and Arabs have equal rights. Economic assistance to Palestinians will not be enough — they want human rights and a state of their own, right where they are and have been for centuries. They will never leave what is left to them from what they believe is their country, Palestine, and will continue to fight the occupation.

The world will not accept the current situation as permanent. Every major country with an interest in the Middle East, including the U.S., has urged Israel to end the occupation and endorsed a two state solution, or perhaps a one state solution where all are equal. It will not allow Israel to remain an apartheid state, any more than it accepted apartheid South Africa

Jews learned the hard way that they must protect themselves; they cannot rely on anyone else. They have military power second to none in their region — but Israel is a big fish in a small pond. For security, military dominance may be necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Israel will never please an anti-Semitic world, but it is too small to defy world opinion indefinitely: it cannot continue to occupy and settle the West Bank or besiege the Gaza strip. Israel is connected to the rest of the world economically, politically, and socially. In the eyes of others, all Jews are associated with Israel, whether we wish to be or not. Israel requires continued U.S. support in international affairs, including its veto in the Security Council, and its state-of-the-art weapons. Even today, the U.S. is unlikely to join Israel in a war against Iran provoked by Israel.

The agreements with other small Muslim countries Israel has that assiduously pursued — the Abraham Accords, for example — will not protect it: these countries are fair weather friends, interested only in access to Israel technology and its economy, as well as to U.S. weapons. They will disavow Israel at the first sign of trouble. Nor can Israel depend on American Evangelicals — they will abandon Israel when the Jews don’t convert to Christianity as prophesied in the New Testament. Remember Martin Luther.

Israel is at risk because it is violating international humanitarian law.

For thousands of years, the way to gain territory was to conquer it. Once that was accomplished, the winner could dispose of the conquered population as he wished: exact tribute, enslave them, exile them, confine them in small, unproductive backwaters, ghettos or reservations. This was essentially the way the U.S. as we know it was created. (The policy was called “Manifest Destiny.”) Based on a theory called “lebensraum”, the Germans started World War II in order to do much the same thing: expand “living space” in Eastern Europe and obtain natural resources for Germans, displacing “inferior races” like Slavs, and of course, Jews.

But this is the twenty-first century: one nation cannot conquer and then annex another. Even Russia is having trouble.

World War II was the most destructive conflict in recorded history. More than 50 million people, soldiers and civilians, died. The victorious allies tried to design a system to prevent aggression and the carnage it causes from ever happening again. Conquering or occupying an area outside accepted international boundaries as of 1945 is forbidden The WWII allies set up the United Nations, where (they hoped) disputes could be resolved peacefully. They drafted the so-called Geneva Conventions to limit conflict to military belligerents, and protect innocent civilians from war and occupation. These conventions are a part of international humanitarian law. Israel signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1951.

Geneva Convention IV covers “the protection of civilian persons in time of war.” Per Parts 1 and 3, it applies to “[civilians in] the territories of the parties to the conflict, and to [civilians in] occupied territories.” Article 33 prohibits collective punishment of civilians…and all measures of intimidation and terrorism [against them]…or reprisal [against them] and their property. Article 49 prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers [of civilians] as well as deportations.” It further provides that “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Article 53 prohibits “any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations…”

There is no court in which to pursue charges against nations (as opposed to individuals); in any event, Israel is not a party to the so-called Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court in 1998. Palestine was admitted as a State party in 2015. Israel does have legal defenses should someone try to bring Israel before the ICC.

But countries concerned about human rights have other ways to induce compliance: they can impose sanctions. Sanctions worked against South Africa. They haven’t worked against totalitarian superpowers like Russia (for annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas region of Ukraine) or China (genocide of the Uighurs), or at least not yet. We will see what happens as the West ramps up sanctions against Belarus. The ‘Arab boycott” had a moderate impact on the Israeli economy early on, but it also damaged Arab economies, so it receded in the 1990’s. But international sanctions have devastated smaller powers, like Iran and North Korea. Both countries are completely isolated and ordinary inhabitants suffer terribly.

Israel, with extensive international connections, is vulnerable to sanctions should the West decide to impose them. Some complain that the world holds Israel to higher standards than other countries. Instead, as the examples above (and there are others) show, Israel has been treated cautiously; however, because Israel has not been sanctioned for human rights violations so far does not mean it can’t be or won’t be in the future.

Israelis may feel particularly threatened by sanctions because some still question its legitimacy — its right to exist. Violations of international humanitarian laws could someday jeopardize that claim.

Lessons from Jewish history

Jews are an ancient people with a 3000 year history. That history holds lessons for modern Israelis.

The Hebrew prophets warned that if the Hebrews misbehaved, they would be punished, and indeed they were: the Assyrians captured Samaria and exiled its inhabitants. The Babylonians conquered Judea, devastated it, and forced the Jews into exile. Cyrus the Great of Persia (now Iran) allowed them to return in 537 B.C.E.

The stories of the two ancient defeats should remind orthodox Jews who are establishing settlements on land seized from Palestinians, that God does not look kindly on theft.

The Roman conquest and destruction of Judea teaches us two different lessons. First, do not take on the world. Bravery, even with good planning, will not save any country in the face of overwhelming force. Sometimes, for a small power, discretion (diplomacy) is the better part of valor. The ultimate result of the revolts against Rome was absolute catastrophe. Total destruction and exile, replacement by non-Jews, were the result of unconscionable hubris.

Indeed, in 1982, Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former Chief of Military Intelligence in the IDF and professor at the Hebrew University, published a book, “The Bar Kochba Syndrome”, making exactly this point. He criticized the Likud government for its unquestioning ideological commitment to a “greater Israel,” regardless of major obstacles. Instead, he suggested negotiations with the Palestinians over the West Bank and Gaza. The professor’s book caused a sensation in Israel, but did not persuade the Israelis to change course.

The second lesson for Israelis today: stay united. One reason that Jerusalem and the Second Temple fell in 70 CE were the bitter quarrels among the Jewish defenders. Two moderate groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, wanted to negotiate a peaceful surrender, in order to save Jewish lives. Two radical groups, the Zealots and the Sicarii, wanted all-out war. To force the moderates to fight, the radicals destroyed the food stored in Jerusalem in anticipation of a siege. Also, they executed moderate Jewish leaders and displayed their corpses to intimidate the rest. The Romans crucified anyone who tried to escape. As a result, the city and the Temple were levelled, and according to Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, the Roman army killed one million people.

From this, we should understand that if Jews quarrel rather than compromise, especially if they are cowed by the most radical faction, they may reduce their chance of success. Even God called the ancient Hebrews “stiff-necked” (the episode of the Golden Calf), and threatened to destroy them.

In 1948, Ben Gurion chose a small state where Jews would be safe, half a loaf, rather than insist on all of Palestine. Israel would be wise to give his position more thought.

Where Jewish values intersect Jewish history

The best known story about Hillel, the great sage of the Talmud, is his response to a man who offered to convert to Judaism if Hillel could summarize the whole Torah while the man stood on one foot. Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation, go and learn.” Hillel died in 10 C.E., so he preceded Jesus by a generation or two, but Jesus proclaimed it in the Sermon on the Mount: he described it as the second great commandment.

Hillel also said: “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.”

During the two millennia between the destruction of ancient Judea and the birth of modern Israel, Jews learned what it was to be a reviled religious, ethnic minority in a foreign land. Jewish communities in Europe were subject to severe restrictions: where they could live, how they could make a living (could not hold land, become artisans), even what they could wear. They were heavily taxed. Periodically they were forced to convert to Christianity, tortured and executed if they refused or were thought to be ‘insincere’. Christians blamed the bubonic plague on Jews, claiming that they poisoned wells, and killed them. Jews were also thought to drink the blood of Christian children (this horrible canard is still with us). Jews were subject to confiscations, massacres, and, in particular, mass deportations. Christians were lightly punished, if at all, for injuring, killing, or robbing Jews. We review some of this awful history every year at Yom Kippur. Ironically, Jews fared better under Muslim rule during the “Islamic Golden Age” and at the height of the Ottoman Empire (though not later).

Jews gradually became full citizens in European countries during the nineteenth century, but anti-Semitism continued (the notorious Dreyfus affair started in 1894), culminating in the Holocaust.

We knew this persecution was wrong and unfair: it caused tremendous suffering and the deaths of millions of innocent people. I’m sure most Jews assumed that we would never do such things, if we were ever in charge — just as Hillel counseled in ancient times. And in fact, Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims as much: “[The State of Israel] will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

That is not what is going on today, in Israel proper and especially in the West Bank.


Anti-Semitism is always with us, even if it is hidden. Theodore Herzl was right: it cannot be defeated, or cured by assimilation or anything else we can do, only avoided.

The only way to avoid it was to establish a country — a true homeland — where Jews will always be welcome and free, governed and defended by Jews.

The Israel of May 1967 (with limited adjustments) has a right to exist in security and peace, like any other nation. It has a right to defend itself just as the U.S. does. As in 1945, there is nowhere today that would accept Jewish refugees in any numbers. Jews still have their backs to the sea.

The modern State of Israel was not given its right to exist by God, or because it was the birthplace of the Jewish people and Jews in the Diaspora remained loyal, or because of the Balfour Declaration.

The Israel of today was carved out for the Jews by the early United Nations after the Jewish community of Europe was nearly destroyed in a monstrous crime. Guilt may have been part of the UN decision but there was still anti-Semitism — no one agreed to take in the remaining European Jews, even after the Holocaust. The victorious Western allies constructed a Jewish state in a small area largely populated by Arabs, who were neutral in WWII.

The Jews lobbied for partition, accepted their share, bravely and successfully defended it against the surrounding Arab countries and the Palestinian Arabs. During the war, the Israelis reshaped it a bit to make it more defensible, although they lost the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem.

But the international community has never accepted a ‘Greater Israel’ from the river to the sea. (Trump was an anomaly.) In particular, it has never accepted the proliferation of large Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

The Palestinians, who have lived between the river and the sea for centuries, have as much right to live freely in the West Bank and Gaza, as Jews do in pre-1967 Israel. Palestinians must be full citizens, whether of a greater Israel, or a separate (demilitarized) Palestinian state. There must be equal access to Jerusalem. This means Israel, as the far stronger party, must make concessions, and keep promises it has made.

Although in 1967 the Arabs (including Palestinians) attacked Israel, the fact that as a result Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza (and the Sinai) does not mean that Israel can hold these territories indefinitely: the nineteenth century is well behind us. Countries (at least small ones) can no longer conquer others by force, however a conflict started.

Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself. But continuing the occupation and settlement of the West Bank, and continuing the siege of Gaza, do not improve its security: in the long run, they may reduce it.

Israel’s continuing violation of humanitarian laws may call its legitimacy into question: we cannot take on the whole world. We should not alienate the U.S. All U.S. administrations (with the exception of Trump’s) disapprove of the settlements. A large percentage of American Jews do also.

Even more important, the continued oppression of Palestinians, whether in Israel or the territories, is morally wrong: Jews, more than perhaps any other people, should understand that. Treating non-Jews by different, lower standards than Jews is against our religion, our traditions, and two thousand years of Jewish experience.

An Israel within pre-1967 borders (with limited adjustments) has an unquestionable right to exist in peace and security. That should be enough for us.




Caroline Poplin, M.D., J.D.

Poplin graduated from Yale Law School and practiced law with the FDA and the EPA. Currently Of Counsel & Medical Director at Guttman, Buschner, & Brooks PLLC.