“It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow; the evil is not sufficiently brought to their doors to make them feel the precariousness” of those living under conditions of war.
This observation aptly describes the experience of Jews who have been watching increasingly tragic events unfold in Israel from the privileged safety of our American diaspora. These words were penned, however, by Thomas Paine – American author, political theorist, and philosopher – in his celebrated 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense.” The precarious conditions he described were, specifically, the privations and predations endured by colonists in my native Massachusetts, besieged and subjugated with particular brutality by the British army. Paine wrote in order to arouse sympathy and solidarity among colonists at a distance from the conflict – those, say, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. His admonition in “The American Crisis” resounds with wisdom for Jews ostensibly far from “the scene of sorrow” during Operation Protective Edge: “It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead.”
It was neither unbridled nationalism nor prescient self-interest that Paine preached to his fellow colonists. Instead, he offered them – and us – a sound and accessible moral vision of the military action he endorsed:
“My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light. Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to ‘bind me in all cases whatsoever’ to his absolute will, am I to suffer it? What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my countryman or not my countryman; whether it be done by an individual villain, or an army of them? If we reason to the root of things we shall find no difference; neither can any just cause be assigned why we should punish in the one case and pardon in the other.”
The impassioned call to arms sounded by Paine and kindred patriot spirits was in no way disproportionate, precipitous, or premature. It became necessary when sustained diplomatic efforts failed and continued forbearance became self-destructive. Every American schoolchild can quote Patrick Henry’s dramatic “Give me liberty or give me death!” That rallying cry, however, is taken from a less remembered, though well-reasoned 1775 address to the Second Virginia Convention:
“We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselvesâ€¦ Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contemptâ€¦. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”
American Jews might live 6,000 or more miles away from the front lines in Israel and Gaza. “But let our imaginations transport us for a few moments,” as Paine put it. True to our recent celebration of American Independence, we need look no further than American history to find a worthy perspective on current events and challenges confronting the State of Israel. Perhaps it was just such reflections of the American Revolution’s literary canon in the historic experience of the Jewish State that inspired former Secretary of Education William Bennett, in “Why We Fight,” to write:
“Our essential human kinship with Israel â€¦ is a deep-rooted feeling of linked destinies, a feeling that echoes back to our founding and to the earliest conceptions of the American experiment itselfâ€¦. I myself am one of tens of millions of Americans who have seen in the founding and flourishing of the Jewish State the hand of the same beneficent God who attended our own founding and has guided our fortunes until now.”
Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry urged a moral clarity on their fellow colonists, just as Israeli leaders and advocates make all but the same case to a far more hostile and cynical audience among the community of nations today. Sharing such moral literacy is absolutely essential. “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain,” John Adams insisted. An analogous moral duty applies with special force to American Jews, but, as Secretary Bennett has articulated, devolves upon all Americans: “Keeping faith with the people of Israel in their still unfinished confrontation with evil is, to me, a species of keeping faith with ourselves; breaking faith, a species of self-negation. It is exactly that simple, and exactly that difficult, and exactly that consequential.”
Indeed, expressing support for the State of Israel in these troubling and perilous times requires neither Jewish faith nor ethnic pride, neither Jewish nationalist aspirations nor extensive knowledge of American history. Embracing the cause of the State of Israel, especially as it conducts a decidedly defensive war, as is its historic and principled policy, requires neither political acumen nor self-serving calculation. It requires only Common Sense.