Israel and Samson - Part II

Sapere aude! "Dare to know!" This motto for the Enlightenment acquires special meaning in Israel's ongoing struggle to endure. Just as repression of the fear of death by individuals can occasion activities that impair the forces of self-preservation, so can Israel impair its opportunities for collective survival by denying the real possibility of national destruction.

Prof. Louis René Beres,

OpEds Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
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[Part I of this series (which can be read at opened with the following introduction: "Israel may learn from Samson, not to "die with the Philistines,"[1] but to live despite its enemies. How is this possible? The Biblical Samson, blinded but not powerless, could destroy the Philistines only by inflicting his own death. And Israel is not blind, nor is it powerful in the sense of a physical strength born of religious faith joined with desperation. What, then, is there for Israel to learn from this hero of the post-Pentateuch book of Judges?"]

Third, Israel can learn from Samson that all world politics, and all global strategy, move in the midst of death. To truly understand calculations of war, deterrence, preemption and defense, Israel's leaders will need to understand (1) enemy orientations to death, both individual and collective, and (2) Israeli orientations to death, both individual and collective. Faced with enemies for whom personal death would be not only acceptable, but agreeable, Israel could discover that its deterrent had been immobilized and that Third Temple Commonwealth survival was now dependent upon some more or less feasible configuration of preemption and active defenses.

Samson, we recall, ultimately faced death with resignation and some equanimity, but it was not his preferred option. Like Samson, Israel could conceivably reach a point at which it would be willing to "die with the Philistines," but such a point, quite obviously, should be scrupulously avoided. Indeed, the Jewish State must now do everything within its power to avoid ever having to implement a Samson Option. For Israel, there can never be any intrinsic merit in death, either individual or collective.

Some of Israel's enemies, on the other hand, may operate with different preference orderings concerning life and death. If, for example, an Iranian jihad were contemplated against Israel, such a "holy war" could reflect fundamentally different orientations to personal and collective sacrifice. It is not even out of the question that a strongly fundamentalist leadership in Teheran ordering such a jihad could regard certain Israeli nuclear reprisals as tolerable or even desirable. Recognizing this prospect, possibly with the help of Samson, Israel could learn the limits of its nuclear deterrent before it is too late.

To a significant extent, the existential problems facing the State of Israel stem from human inclinations in enemy states to rebel against an unbearable truth. Desperate to live perpetually, various portions of humankind embrace an entire cornucopia of faiths that promise life everlasting in exchange for undying loyalty. In the end, such loyalty is transferred from faith to state, which then battles with other states in what political scientists and strategists mistakenly describe as a secular struggle for power, but which are sometimes much more.

Fourth, Israel can learn from Samson that there are advantages to concrete imaginings of catastrophe. For now, the Jewish State, it seems, can contemplate the end of the Third Temple Commonwealth every day, and yet can persevere quite calmly in its most routine and mundane affairs. This should not be the case if Israel could begin to contemplate the actual moment of its disappearance. Israel, therefore, should begin immediately to replace reassuringly abstract conceptualizations of End Times with unbearably precise images of horror.

Sapere aude! "Dare to know!" This motto for the Enlightenment acquires special meaning in Israel's ongoing struggle to endure. Just as repression of the fear of death by individuals can occasion activities that impair the forces of self-preservation, so can Israel impair its opportunities for collective survival by denying the real possibility of national destruction.

In geostrategic terms, there are no convincing assurances that Israel is forever. On the contrary, the State of Israel has never been as vulnerable to disappearance as it is at the present moment. Faced with an altogether unique combination of enemy capabilities and enemy intent, Jerusalem could soon face a more immediate genocidal danger than that faced earlier by millions of individual European Jews. The Nazis, after all, were never capable of destroying several hundred thousand lives in a fraction of a second, of wreaking megadeath without first acquiring bodily custody of victim populations.

In what surely must be the most terrible irony of all, Israel, as a solution to what Herzl called "The Jewish Question," has made millions of Jews more vulnerable to genocidal assault. By being concentrated into a tiny area, these Jews (as well as many non-Jews), are now uniquely subject to mass murder. Once targeted by enemy ballistic missiles with unconventional warheads, these Jews could be subject to more or less prompt annihilation in a manner that would certainly be sui generis.[7]

This is not to suggest, by any means, that the Zionist solution to the Jewish Problem was a mistake. Quite the contrary. The establishment of the State of Israel was unambiguously correct and historically imperative. What I am urging here is that Israel now feel itself aware of the dimensions of the existential threat and of the steps needed to ensure physical survival. There are steps that can be taken - steps that would vindicate Israel's raison d'etre, but these steps must not be taken lightly.

This brings us back to the original point "made" by Samson, the obligation to go beyond analytically abstract and anesthetized conceptions of national disaster to fully concrete, flesh and blood images. For Israel, more than for any other state on Earth, the time for learned intellectual games is over.[8] Learning from Samson, residents of the Jewish State must now feel (not merely know) that agony is infinitely more productive than syllogism, that unending despair is more revealing than the most subtle elucidation of strategic thought, and that tears always have deeper roots and explanatory benefits than smiles.

Israel, then, must "step into" death in order to prevent death. Such movement would not mean to draw a last collective breath, but rather, to discover, in the immanent abyss of death, the course of direction toward life. Drawing from the revelation of death's immanence in the life of every nation, the People of Israel could nurture the felt agony that is now necessarily antecedent to national survival.

Healthy, "normal" states can never experience such "felt agony." These states take national survival as altogether given, as something absolutely independent from "death." Objectifying death as a reality transcending national life, these states forget that life is inevitably death's prisoner. Although such forgetting has obvious short-term benefits, it does interfere with prudential forms of long-term collective life-support.

Israel can not afford to be a "normal" state. It must, instead, feel that national survival is problematic, that collective extinction represents the end point of the same continuum that contains collective vitality, and that survival as a state cannot be detached from informed premonitions of disappearance. As a practical matter, Israel's essential presentiments of death are apt to appear only when life in the Jewish State is shaken to its very foundations. This means, in another ironic turn of reasoning, that Israel's required nurturing of unbearably precise images of national life will be contingent upon coming still closer to national destruction. In this connection, however, there is a great danger that Israel will wait too long, that it will come so close to the edge of the cliff, that it will no longer be capable of pulling back.

Fifth, Israel can learn from Samson that there are dangers in hoping, in always hoping too much. Mistakes can bring death, both individual and collective. Writing of the Jews as a "people of solitaries," E.M. Cioran, the most dazzling and devastating French philosophical voice since Paul Valery, observes of the Jewish "nation" that this people "...unsuited to the complacencies of despair, bypassing its age-old fatigue and the conclusions imposed by fate, lives in the delirium of expectation, determined not to learn a lesson from its humiliations...."

Such determination must come to an end. To learn from its "humiliations," and therefore from Samson, Israel must acknowledge, quickly and forthrightly, that its enemies are doctrinally committed to destruction of the Third Commonwealth. Although, in Muslim parlance, all war dictated by the shari'a is necessarily "holy," the Arabic word jihad - which has the literal meaning of "effort," "striving," or "struggle," should not be taken lightly. A basic commandment of Islam, jihad is an obligation imposed on all Muslims by God, and is - vis-a-vis Israel - unambiguously military in intent. Derived from the universality of Muslim revelation, jihad calls upon all those who have accepted God's message and God's word to strive (jahada) relentlessly to convert or, at a minimum, to subjugate those who have not converted. Significantly, for the State of Israel, this obligation is not bounded by limits of time or space. It must continue until the whole world has accepted Islam or has submitted to the power of the Islamic state.

What is the prevailing Islamic worldview in the interim? According to Bernard Lewis:

"Until that happens, the world is divided into two: the House of Islam (dar al-Islam), where Muslims rule and the law of Islam prevails; and the House of War (dar al-harb), comprising the rest of the world. Between the two there is a morally necessary, legally and religiously obligatory state of war, until the final and inevitable triumph of Islam over unbelief. According to the law books, this state of war could be interrupted, when expedient, by an armistice or truce of limited duration. It could not be terminated by a peace, but only by a final victory."[9]

Could anything be clearer? Throughout the Islamic world, Israel's current pleas for "peace" agreements are exploited eagerly by Israel's enemies. While Jerusalem believes that these incrementally-negotiated agreements point toward authentic and long-term solutions, the Arab frontline states and Iran regard them as a temporary expedient; indeed, as an extraordinary gift of the foolish "unbelievers", who will now help bring about their own divinely-ordained destruction. Of course, it is arguable that current Islamic states and movements are not animated by doctrine, and that the obligations of jihad are therefore extraneous to serious strategic calculation, but such argumentation would be altogether naive, and, again, a sign of wishful thinking.

For Islam, the unsubjugated unbeliever - in our present concerns, the Jew - is by definition the enemy. A part of the Dar Al-Harb, "the House of War," he is differentiated sharply from the dhimmi, the unbeliever who submits to Muslim rule. As for a Jewish State, one that rules over Muslims and "occupies" Muslim lands, it is nothing less than the very incarnation of unbelief, an intolerable source of contamination and a codified inversion of God's will.

When Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, spoke together with Hitler, on Berlin radio, in 1942, he cried out: "Kill the Jews - kill them with your hands, kill them with your teeth - this is well pleasing to Allah." Today, the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) calls for the "realization of Allah's promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: 'The Day of Judgment will not come until Moslems fight the Jews, killing them.'" Israel is despised not because of land, but because it is a Jewish State. Unless this is understood, Israel will continue to hope too much, to waste critical time in vain endeavors, and to learn nothing from its humiliations. Samson can help Israel to understand.

Sixth, Israel can learn from Samson the dangers of self-delusion. Samson was blind before his eyes were put out by the Philistines. Enchanted by Deliliah, he refused to see what was happening before his eyes. He believed only what he wanted to believe.

For Israel, such "blindness" is not confined to the Book of Judges. It was also evident on October 5, 1973, with the start of the Yom Kippur War. Until then, the country had been committed to an "idea" known generally as "the concept," the kontzeptziya, the contrived idea that the Arabs were unwilling and incapable of renewing hostilities against the Jewish State. Military Intelligence's overall assessment of enemy designs, lasting until October 5, 1973, was that war was "highly improbable" or "improbable." It was this fundamentally incorrect assumption that created a monumental intelligence blunder - the "mechdal", in post-war Hebrew parlance. This is a blunder that could be repeated at far greater cost in the future, primarily because of the unforseen consequences of the "Peace Process."

The dangers of self-delusion revealed by Samson could also be understood at another, far more fundamental level. The state system itself, within which Israel must always act, is now in a process of transformation. Should Israel delude itself about the nature of this transformation, it could pay dearly for its mistake

Today, in the world generally and in the Middle East in particular, the state speaks, more and more, with religious authority. The state itself, as we mentioned earlier, is becoming sacred. And with states as the abode of God on Earth, the profane is often not only permissible, it is doctrine.

A final word here about the Jewish State, its uniqueness and its vital place in Jewish thought, especially in regard to traditional views on the coming of the Messiah. The question has arisen, of course, on whether or not a Jewish State can be consistent with the expectations of Messianic redemption. If redemption should depend upon "the experience of exile," or "homelessness," the State of Israel - a state that would block the coming of the Messiah - could be productive to Jews only when it would cease to exist.

Now that Israel is a fait accompli, it is impossible to imagine a Jewish position that would willingly go so far to meet these particular Messianic preconditions. Yet, a debate did rage on the underlying issues before 1948, when Martin Buber and Hermann Cohen argued fiercely on Zionism and Messianism. Buber advanced the view of Exile as a tragic situation, while Cohen denied that Diaspora was Exile. In seeking an end to Diaspora, Cohen maintained, Zionists were negating the essential vision of Messianism. Buber countered that Zionism actually furthers the realization of Messianism:

"Zionism opposes not the messianic idea, but rather the misrepresentation and distortion of this idea found in a considerable part of Liberal-Jewish, anti-Zionist literature. This misrepresentation and distortion glorifies, in the name of messianism, the dispersion, debasement and homelessness of the Jewish people, as something unconditionally valuable and fortunate, as something that must be preserved because it prepares humanity for the messianic age."

How different is Hermann Cohen's assessment, which proclaims: "The ghetto mentality is not the ghost, but the true spirit of Judaism and Jewish reality." Recalling the prophet Micha, "And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, like dew from the Lord," (5:6, 7) Cohen expresses his "proud conviction" that Jews must "continue to live as divine dew in the midst of the peoples, and to remain fruitful among them and for them. All of the prophets place us in the midst of the peoples and their common perspective is the world mission of the remnant of Israel."

But the role of "divine dew" must certainly be reevaluated after the Holocaust. Could Hermann Cohen affirm today that Judaism, because of its Messianic core, "is thoroughly a world religion"? Could he claim purposefully, fifty years after the great tragedy of diaspora Jewry, that this Messianic core "cannot be impaired by historical reality, by misfortune, or even by the auspicious granting of equal rights"? Are "hope and trust" truly the correct path to Jewish survival? "Happy is he that waiteth," (Daniel 12:12) cautions Cohen, but how much longer shall be the wait? And who shall bear responsibility for harms suffered in the interim?

Israel's only real option for the future, as a Jewish State in the current system of states, is to endure. Whatever the relative merits of the Zionism-Messianism debate earlier on in history, Jewish redemption today positively requires survival of the Jewish State. So we may now return again to Samson, and to the lessons to be learned for such survival.

In John Milton's Samson Agonistes, the Chorus intones of Samson: "The glory late of Israel, now the grief." When this power of Israel had been overcome by the Philistines, when that great strength had been subjugated and humiliated, hopes for victory were supplanted by resignation and defeat. Although "divinely call'd" to "begin Israel's Deliverance," Samson's work was prevented by Dalila, by that "specious Monster." Yet, of his calamity, "She was not the prime cause, but I, my self."

"I, my self." In this acceptance of personal responsibility lies the overriding lesson of Samson for modern Israel. Taken alone, enemy deception, which can always be taken as given, will not overcome the Jewish State. This can happen only where Israel would yield to deception, surrendering its essential sources of strength and power on behalf of lies and illusions. Where it would strive to see clearly, Israel will not be blinded.

Instead, aware that states, like individuals, are decidedly mortal and that unreason can govern even the "political" world, Jerusalem can draw wisdom from Israel's historical humiliations and from Samson's exploited vulnerabilities. If need be, Israel, following Samson, can even choose to "die with the Philistines," but it is with the preparations for such a dying (preparations, as we have seen, that could preclude this option) that Jerusalem should now be particularly concerned.

"Eyeless in Gaza," Samson labored at the mill, with slaves, lamenting that " me, strength is my bane, and proves the source of all my miseries." But here Samson was altogether mistaken. It is certainly not strength that brought about his unhappy fate, but rather his willful abandonment of strength. Had he held on to his strength, and resisted the wiles and enchantments of enemy seductions, he would not have been reduced "To live a life half dead, a living death," until choosing to "die with the Philistines." He would have prevailed.

[Part 2 of 2]


1. This brings to mind what academic strategists now commonly call "The Samson Option." Samson emerges in this option as the preferred model to Masada, a refutation of Jewish mass suicide without punishment of the aggressor. But here he is a last resort model, a final spasm of Jewish justice signifying the complete failure of all other survival options. This is not the Samson model under discussion in these "reflections," although my Samson model does acknowledge the security benefits to Israel that lie latent in preparations for the Samson Option. Moreover, my Samson model, one that is intended to be instructive for Israel, has nothing whatever to do with the image offered in the dreadful popular book by Seymour M. Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (New York: Random House, 1991).

7. War and genocide are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Rather, war might well be the means whereby genocide is undertaken. According to Articles II and III of the Genocide Convention, which entered into force on January 12, 1951, genocide includes any of several listed acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such...." See convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Done at New York, December 9, 1948. Entered into force, January 12, 1951. 78 U.N.T.S. 277. This means that where Israel is identified as the institutionalized expression of the Jewish People (an expression that includes national, ethnical, racial and religious components), acts of war intended to destroy the Jewish State could assuredly be genocidal.

8. The reductio ad absurdum of these games can be found in the current writings of Israeli strategists who argue that Israel should surrender its nuclear option and prepare for regional coexistence in a "nuclear weapons free zone." See, for example, Zeev Maoz, "The Mixed Blessing of Israel's Nuclear Policy," International Security, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Fall 2003), pp. 44-77.

9. See Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 73.