I held the gun in my hand. I initially did not want to, mind you. As someone who, on an emotional plane, is terrified of guns, and on a moral and theological plane, abhors firearms and thinks they should be banned, my instinct was to refuse the offer when Dr. Yossi Cohen, Israel’s chief state archivist, asked me if I wanted to hold the Beretta 84F .380 ACP caliber semi-automatic pistol that Yigal Amir used to murder Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But when he insisted, saying, “Why not?” as if to imply I would be crazy to pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to literally hold history in the palm of my hand, I took the gun from him.
My first reaction was surprise at its weight. Even when emptied of its bullets and clip, the small pistol was shockingly substantial, at least to me, a total gun novice. But as my hand got used to the weight, I realized that it was only about 6 inches long, and could not have been more than a pound and a half. The bullets, the very ones that were removed from Rabin’s body, the ones that had their tips cut off by Amir’s brother in order to make them shatter upon impact and become even more deadly, which I also got to hold, were even lighter, no more than a couple of ounces.
So, my second reaction was actually, in some ways, the opposite of my first: marvel at how something so small, so trivial, could wreak so much devastation. Yitzhak Rabin was not the only casualty on November 4, 1995. Indeed, one could make an argument that the entire peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians also died that night in Tel Aviv. If Rabin had lived, he likely would have continued the work of implementing the Oslo accords, which were designed, ultimately, to lead to the creation of an independent, viable, moderate, and demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. Perhaps he would have succeeded. But after Rabin’s assassination, Israeli leaders in favor of a two-state solution became much more cautious in their approach, demonstrating much less willingness to make bold concessions for peace, perhaps out of fear that, in doing so, they might incite the next Yigal Amir. The Palestinians, for their part, grew much more desperate and restless, leading to, among other tragic and bloody events, the Second Intifada. And the Second Intifada ushered in an unparalleled and virtually unbroken string of hawkish, national security-minded, right-wing governments, with leaders who were and are unsympathetic to the creation of a Palestinian state, a reality that has played a role in (although is by no means exclusively responsible for) the perpetuation of a conflict that remains destructive, traumatizing, and demoralizing for both sides, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Holding this weapon, small in stature but great in historical impact, reminded me of how fragile a thing the State of Israel truly is. 2,000 years of dreaming, and more than a century of building, could be devastated by one little gun, and by two tiny bullets. A still, small voice issued from the barrel of that cold Beretta: Israel is a miracle not to be taken for granted.
If you’ve spent time in Israel in the last few years, it is easy to forget this reality. As journalist Ari Shavit recently put it, “There are more and more construction cranes being erected throughout the country, and more and more skyscrapers are sprouting on the Tel Aviv skyline. There are more tourists, more young people, and more fun. The restaurants are bursting, the beaches are crowded.” To experience contemporary Israel is to witness extraordinary and youthful vitality, unprecedented wealth and development, regionally unparalleled military strength, technological and industrial prowess, cultural dynamism, diverse, raucous, boisterous democracy. Israel is powerful, wealthy, and vibrant.
But look just beyond the gold and the steel and the silicon, and you will see that that Israel, while doubtlessly a regional superpower, remains fragile and imperiled:
See, touch, and hold, as I did, the unbelievable collection of treasures housed at Israel’s National Archives: original signed copies of the U.N. roll call vote for the 1947 Partition Plan, President Truman’s recognition of the provisional government of the State of Israel, and the Israel-Egypt peace accord; original, hand-written original poetry from some of Israel’s founding national poets; a pre-state letter proposing Herzliya as Israel’s capitol; a binder filled with early proposals and mock-ups for the design of Israel’s flag, and much, much more.
Viewing all these artifacts, laid out before us on one long table, many of them yellowing with age, one is faced with the reminder that Israel’s creation and its continued existence was far from a fait accomplit. Indeed, as recently as 67 years ago, no sane person could have imagined a sovereign Jewish State, much less the extraordinary reality of modern-day Israel.
So it is worth remembering how bringing this dream into reality has required and continues to require unfathomable amounts of creativity, persistence, and resilience; discussion, debate, diplomacy, and trial-and-error; triumph and tragedy.
And it is similarly worth confronting Israel’s enduring vulnerability. Stand, as I did, on the helipad of the Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv on a clear day (a view not many get to see), and one can see the vast majority of Israel’s population with the naked eye, and then one will quickly realize that this population of millions is easily within range of rocket fire from Hezbollah to the north, and even Iran to the East.
Travel, as I did, through the craggy terrain of the West Bank, and one can see how Palestinian territory is situated on the high ground overlooking Jerusalem, making it the perfect staging ground for anyone so inclined to assault, terrorize, and harm Israel’s capitol, home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Look out, as I did, from atop the Golan Heights into Syria, and realize that if it were not already terrifying enough to be so close to a country ruled by a murderous dictator with a long history of seeking Israel’s destruction, it is all the more unnerving to – literally – hear and see the shelling of towns that are caught in Syria’s brutal civil war just miles from the border, and realize that, whether Assad, or ISIS, or any of the other rebel militias emerge victorious – or if Syria simply continues its descent into chaos – Israel will have bloodthirsty and well-armed enemies on its doorstep.
While Israel’s military is a force to be reckoned with, and while it enjoys the unflinching support of the most powerful military in the history of the world, no nation, however mighty, is invincible, especially when those nations live so close to dangerous neighbors, many of whom are bent on its destruction. And make no mistake about it: Israel lives in a very dangerous neighborhood.
The hard truth yielded from these experiences, one acutely appreciated by Israelis but less so by many if not most of us American Jews, is that Israel’s wealth and power do not make it invulnerable. Quite the contrary, much work went into producing the miracle that is the Jewish State, and much work is perpetually necessary to sustain and protect it. Most Israelis recognize this, and as a result, lay many sacrifices at the altar of their security. But many of us Jews who live an ocean away in truly unprecedented affluence and security find it increasingly easy to take the miracle for granted. We may still love Israel, but when we see her standing on her own two feet, our support grows soft.
So, it is important for us to remember that Israel’s prosperity, and the military might and American alliance that create the conditions for that prosperity, are themselves not inevitabilities. Rather, they are they products, largely, of American Jews passionately, steadfastly, and successfully demanding that our elected officials, the leaders of the most powerful nation on Earth, remain committed to securing our people’s dream. Which means Israel needs our support, in word and deed, now as much as ever.
Indeed, the still, small voice I heard in Yigal Amir’s Beretta echoes this week’s Torah portion, Eikev. Before the Children of Israel cross the Jordan, Moses offers parting wisdom, a series of instructions aimed not only at instructing the people how to conquer the Promised Land, but also how to ensure the commonwealth they build will long endure:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper…When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end …If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish. Like the nations that the Lord will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish — because you did not heed the Lord your God.
The land of Israel, Moses points out, is a fertile land filled with precious natural resources. Its conditions make prosperity readily attainable, especially for a people as capable and resilient as the Israelites. The challenge of success, however, is that it can produce arrogance; the sense, from the vantage point of prosperity, that success was inevitable and that, once attained, it is unassailable. The successful individual can become so intoxicated by the pleasures of prosperity that he all too easily forgets the fraught and uncertain journey that brought him to that point, the people and providence that helped him on the way, and the reality that it is much easier to fall off a peak than it is to scale it in the first place. Moses warns that the price of prosperity is humility, gratitude, and vigilance; the perpetual realization that one has more than he deserves, that abundance is not destiny, and, for those reasons, all can be lost with at least as much ease as it was attained.
He also concludes with a history lesson: the previous inhabitants of the Land of Israel deified their own wealth and power and, in time, became blinded to the internal decay and external threats that ultimately dispossessed them of that very wealth and power. Do not, Moses cautions the Israelites, make the same mistake they did.
History, of course, has time and again proven Moses right. The great empires of antiquity – Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome – all collapsed under the weight of their own largesse. The modern era, too, has seen nations and empires become sick with similar maladies and perish. And, while the contemporary Jewish experiment in political commonwealth is still quite young, our people’s previous attempts at sovereignty crumbled in much the same way. Tradition insists that arrogance born of prosperity rotted the first Jewish State from within and exposed it to threats from without, leading ultimately to its destruction in 586 BCE. So too the second Jewish State, which was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty before being conquered by Rome. Our first attempt at statehood endured for nearly half a millennium. Our second, for about a hundred years. Our third has stood, so far, for 67 years. Despite the odds, despite the challenges, despite the persistent enemies, the bounty and vibrancy of this Third Jewish State is nothing short of miraculous. But the moment is early, and the arc of history is long. After nearly two-thousand years of yearning for the miracle our eyes have beheld, we dare not take it for granted. Shabbat Shalom.