The pendulum of Israel's foreign policy, which always swings between the twin poles of "worry" and "embarrassment," once again rested on the latter this week after the exposure of yet another suspected Israeli spy in the U.S., in addition to Jonathan Pollard. Israeli officials were quick to deny the reports and even hinted, as is the custom in such "embarrassments," of yet another anti-Israeli conspiracy. They even added, as though revealing a secret, that "the timing of the exposure is no accident," alongside a sly, "clever" wink of the kind that perhaps accompanied the espionage scheme itself (if it ever happened).
But "embarrassment" may not be the accurate word, because even if the allegations considerably damaged Israel's standing, at least locally they were received with that forgiving, even admiring attitude that Israeli society reserves for the casual disregard of rules; for those initiatives, one-half prank and one-quarter crime - from the chickens the Palmach fighters would steal for their nighttime feasts, to the boats smuggled in from Cherbourg under French noses - that Israelis tend to regard as more admirable than reprehensible.
For years, then, we have celebrated precisely those qualities that elsewhere are considered less praiseworthy, if not downright criminal: improvisation, cutting corners, patching solutions together, finding detours around the highway, playing against the rules, the effort to improve what is already upgraded, prioritizing the end over the means, and so on. Given the conditions under which Israel was established, such qualities were not only legitimate, but vital; they probably contributed to that near-magical process that, in a matter of decades, transformed the Jewish settlements in Palestine into a flourishing world power.
The same qualities, however, continued to be celebrated even after Israel was secure in its sovereignty and international legitimacy. Improvisation and deceit continue to be regarded as no less than "displays of Jewish genius," as defense ministers and prime ministers like to say, while also quoting the line from Proverbs, "by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war." But with all the attention paid to the various forms of cunning counsel, people sometimes forget to ask themselves what the grand purpose of the "war" really is, and whether it is even necessary to "make" it.
In today's world, it seems, it is still hard to maneuver, survive and maintain a qualitative edge without those vigilante qualities, which apparently also contribute to Israel's excellence and entrepreneurship in the technology and information industries around the world. Recently, however, there have been early signs of doubt in this context, too, doubts that become all the more pronounced when it comes to security and policy, where we sometimes seem to be "overly clever" by sheer force of habit.
Are sly detours always necessary even in places where the king's highway will do, as banal as it may be? Has history not shown us over and over that sometimes, to understand reality, we need a simple and direct "goyish" head and not that convoluted "Jewish genius?" (Of the kind always ready to interpret for us, for example, what the Arab leaders "really" mean when they speak.) Do we need to be tricksters even where simple common sense is enough?
We do not yet know just what happened in those espionage affairs in the U.S., where apparently some attempt was made to reap more and more benefits from an already friendly and generous nation. One can guess, however, that the motive and goal were in keeping with what is called in Yiddish fartaytsht un farbesert (reworked and improved), out of that shrewd over-creativity that rejects the maxim "the best is the enemy of the good" and refuses to accept things as they are.
It insists on "improving" and reworking all kinds of objects, be they works of Shakespeare or formats of television shows, and it is determined to make all kinds of inventive additions to planes, submarines and tanks, not to mention to the protocols of intelligence gathering and international diplomacy, seeking a way around the simple and self-evident. Often such things are done while forgetting the main goal, and with creative embellishments that in some cases do more harm than good.
But enough is enough, no? After 60 years of renewed existence, perhaps we would be in a better place - politically, militarily, and internationally - if we used a bit less "genius" and a bit more common sense.
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