Learning to Trust Our Neighbors

Students of the political history of the Jews in exile have observed that Jewish communities have always chosen 'vertical alliances' over 'horizontal alliances.'

Leon Wieseltier
Leon Wieseltier
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Leon Wieseltier
Leon Wieseltier

Washington - The stability that Hosni Mubarak conferred upon Israeli-Egyptian relations could not last forever, and Israel's security policy cannot be premised on an eternity of Arab tyranny; but still it is not hard to understand the anxiety that the turbulence in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world, has provoked in Israel. What seems to rattle Israel is not only the prospect of Arab instability, but also the prospect of Arab democracy. The only democracy in the Middle East looks as if it wishes to remain the only democracy in the Middle East. This is not altogether attractive. But recently it occurred to me that Israel's nervousness about the political enfranchisement of its Arab neighbors has parallels, if not roots, in one of the oldest phenomena of Jewish history. Let me explain.

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Students of the political history of the Jews in exile have observed that Jewish communities have always chosen "vertical alliances" over "horizontal alliances." The support and protection of kings and princes, of popes and bishops, have been preferred to a reliance upon the local population. The Jews were reluctant to trust their neighbors for their safety. Instead they sought a direct relationship with the highest authority and the most central power. Illustrations of this political strategy abound in all the periods of Jewish history. A great jurist in 13th-century Spain, for example, declared that dina de'malkhuta dina, "the law of the king is law," but dina de'ummta lav dina hu, "the law of the people is not law." And this suspicion of the surrounding population survived into the modern era in the Jewish enthusiasm for the nation-state, which seemed to offer protection from the indecencies of society.

Obviously the analogy between an exiled community and a sovereign state is highly imperfect, but still Israel's long preference for monarchs and dictators as its Arab interlocutors looks to me like another version of the vertical alliance. If this is so, then it is important to note that verticality was possible only with authoritarian regimes. It was precisely the unaccountability of secular and religious autocrats to their own populations, their ability to monopolize power and to employ it as they wished, that assured the Jewish communities of the wisdom of the arrangement. Of course the bargain did not always work. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi pointed out, vertical alliances were "forged at the expense of horizontal alliances with other segments or classes of the general population": They alienated the people next door. Often the kings and the bishops, the high-level saviors, failed the Jews, sometimes catastrophically. And the European nation-state that the Jews revered almost destroyed them.

If democracy comes to Egypt and other Arab countries, Israel will be confronted with the challenge of horizontality in its relations with its neighbors. If Arab governments will now have to demonstrate to their populations the rightness of coexistence with Israel, and justify to their peoples their treaties and other accommodations with Israel, then Israel will no longer be able to ignore the impact of its actions upon those populations and peoples. A deal with a strongman will no longer be enough. The opinions of the Arab publics will matter. Israeli diplomacy, if ever again there is to be such a thing, will have to broaden its purview and find ways to address nations and not just leaders. Israel will need to be not only feared, but also understood.

The vertical alliances of the Jews, in their exile and in their state, were premised on suspicion, and even despair, about the peoples among whom they lived. This suspicion and despair had a basis in historical reality. There are forces in contemporary Israeli politics that advocate such dark feelings, and profit from them. I do not believe that their jingoistic pessimism is warranted - but the picture is also too mixed and obscure to warrant a glib progressive optimism. The Israeli anxiety about the new political power of the Arab ummta will not be easily dispelled. Democracy releases ugly impulses and ideas along with beautiful impulses and ideas. So the question about the "Arab Spring" is whether, and where, and to what extent, the historical reality that provided a basis for suspicion and despair is really changing. Old categories and habits will not serve us well now. History is truly in motion. We must think empirically. A peace treaty accepted by a democratic Egypt will be stronger than a peace treaty accepted by an autocratic Egypt.



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