Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol famously described Israel as “Shimshon der nebechdiker,” Yiddish for Samson the weakling. It perfectly captured the Israeli psyche two decades after the state’s founding, on the one hand being confident that the Jewish state was overcoming any and all obstacles in its path and on the other constantly being afraid that annihilation was just around the corner. This Israeli tendency, to display strength and bask in the triumphs of success while simultaneously worrying that Israel’s situation is always precarious, has not disappeared since Eshkol’s time. The starkly contrasting images coming out of Israel on Monday demonstrated that this is truer than ever, and illustrates how the vulnerable superhero metaphor does Israel no favors.
Two celebrations, one in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem, kicked off the week for Israelis. On Monday afternoon in Jerusalem, the American embassy was officially moved to Israel’s actual capital. Israelis rejoiced while watching a ceremony attended by President Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, a host of ministers and MKs, and a delegation of American officials that included the treasury secretary along with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. The embassy ceremony was about more than just a building; it symbolized for Israelis their growing sense of legitimacy and respect from the outside world. Whatever one may think of Netanyahu as prime minister, he has in some ways done a remarkably good job as foreign minister, from nearly flawlessly managing the relationship with Russia in order to maintain Israeli freedom of action in Syria to getting Arab states to more openly flirt with Israel than they have ever before dared. It all points to an Israel that is less isolated internationally than it has ever been, and the embassy move is one more piece of evidence of Israel’s success.
Another piece was the subject of the second celebration on Monday night in Tel Aviv, where singer Netta Barzilai was feted by 20,000 people in Rabin Square for winning the annual Eurovision song contest. The fact that an Israeli contestant won for the first time in twenty years was a big deal in itself, but the manner in which Barzilai won was even more significant; after being behind once the judges’ votes were revealed, Barzilai overtook the Cypriot competitor on the strength of audience voting, demonstrating that a largely European audience had no interest in boycotting an Israeli because of her nationality. Barzilai’s win means that Eurovision will be held in Israel next year, and Israel’s sense of acceptance will only grow as every country shows up.
The embassy move and the Eurovision victory show the Samson side of this equation. Israel has never been stronger, never been less at risk from external foes, never been less isolated in its region or the world, and this is without even touching upon Israel’s economy, technological successes, and discovery of natural gas deposits. By many measures, Israel is doing well, and more importantly, Israelis know it and feel it.
Yet the other side of this equation – the weakling part – was in full force on Monday as well. As the Gaza demonstrations grew to their largest number yet and turned particularly violent, the Palestinian casualty numbers predictably grew as well, with 60 killed and nearly three thousand injured. There is no question that the demonstrations were violent, and that the intent of many of the demonstrators was to breach the border fence in order to wreak death and mayhem inside Israel; as I noted back on the very first week of the Great March of Return, these are not peaceful protests. Hamas itself claims that 50 of the 60 Palestinians killed on Monday were Hamas members and not civilians. But even with 40,000 demonstrators and terrorists leading the charge, it is striking how easily the IDF handled things tactically. Israeli civilians were never in real danger, and even had some Palestinians broken through the fence, their fantasy of rampaging through Nahal Oz would have been quickly punctured. Despite this, many Israelis view Palestinian demonstrators and ineffective Hamas tactics as threats of such magnificent proportions that they require the use of live fire, a military build-up in the south, billions of shekels built on a subterranean wall, and describing these demonstrations in apocalyptic terms. Israel looks at what has been taking place in Gaza, and sees itself not as a Samson but as a weakling.
The problem with this is that Israelis are able to hold the contradictory Shimshon der nebechdiker image in their heads, but the rest of the world is not. Nobody else will ever view Israel in this way, and despite the reality of how violent and annihilationist the Gaza demonstrations are and the way it reinforces Israeli vulnerability to Israelis, for many the scenes coming from the border on Monday reinforce the view of the Israeli Samson cutting down weaker and defenseless Philistines. Israelis think they are the victims despite how easily they are able to beat back the threat, and the rest of the world thinks that they are the aggressors despite the true face of the Hamas-led rioters.
Another way of framing the Samson the weakling analogy is that there are two contradictory views that one often hears from Israeli government officials. One is that Israel is doing great and the Palestinian issue fundamentally does not matter and can be managed or brushed aside. The other is that the world will always hate Israel no matter what it does on the Palestinian front, and so addressing it will not solve any of Israel’s problems. The first view is Israel as Samson, the second is Israel as weakling. Perhaps it is time to test the proposition that, in fact, both of these things are wrong. Israel should recognize that the Palestinian issue makes Israel vulnerable, and that solving it may actually remove Israel’s vulnerability. Israelis may be able to reconcile the contradictions inherent in Eshkol’s witticism, but that does not mean that the contradiction is anything other than a chimera.