Michael B. Oren

Updated: Aug 3, 2018

Jews and the Challenge of Sovereignty (2006)

I grew up just about the only Jewish kid on the block, and the almost daily trouncing I took from the

neighborhood gang taught me a great deal about power and the hazards of lacking it...


There followed the Six-Day War—the only event in history in which Jews have been powerful and appreciated for it. I was fascinated by the notion of Jews taking responsibility for themselves as Jews—for their taxes and their sewers and their lampposts. My Zionism was less Herzlian than Schwartzian—as in the beat generation poet Delmore Schwartz. If Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream,” then Schwartz said (as the title of his 1937 short story put it), “In dreams begin responsibilities.” I wanted the responsibility. So I moved to Israel, became a citizen, and joined the army. I put on those red paratrooper boots the first time and was overwhelmed by the realization that I was a member of the first Jewish fighting force in 2,000 years, a Jew from New Jersey lucky enough to live at a time when I could serve a sovereign Jewish state...


Today, as an Israeli, I must confront questions that derive from having power. I had to decide, for instance, whether to support the construction of a fence which may provide greater security against terrorist attacks, but which evokes the very ghetto walls that Zionism aspired to topple...


Yet, in spite of the immense forces arrayed against it, Israel has not only stood up to the test of power . . . it has presented to the world a model of balance between the requirements of justice and morality and the requisites of power...


Our responsibility today is to prove to ourselves, and the world, that the phrase “Jewish state” is not in fact a contradiction in terms. Let us remain cognizant not only of our great achievements—the Nobel Prizes our scientists are awarded or the European championships our basketball players win—but also of the weighty responsibilities we bear: the responsibilities of reconciling our heritage with our sovereignty, our strength with our compassion, and our will to survive with our desire to inspire others.


Click here for the Zionism in the 21st Century Salon.