Earlier this week, I was at the annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and I heard United States Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, tell the following story:
Adlai Stevenson II, who was the American ambassador to the UN in 1961, defended the Bay of Pigs operation before the UN General Assembly, but during his speech delivered the following malapropism: “Castro has circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba.” This, the story went, prompted an Israeli diplomat to whisper to his Irish colleague, “I always knew that somehow we would be blamed for this.”
Ambassador Rice was one of a handful of high-level speakers that I heard in Washington. Others included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and of course Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. I missed President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, because I was teaching tefillah in the Religious School here at Temple Israel on Sunday morning, certainly an acceptable excuse, since the mitzvah of veshinantam levanekha, teaching your children the words of Torah, surely takes precedence over listening to politicians.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that any of the headline presentations that I heard were particularly enlightening, of for that matter, at all interesting. And here’s why: they all delivered slight variations on the same theme:
1. Iran must be prevented from building a nuclear weapon.
2. All options are “on the table” to prevent Iran from doing so, including the use of force by the US.
It is true that Iran has nuclear capability and is most likely working on building nuclear missiles. It is true that such weapons pose the gravest existential threat to the Jewish state. It is true that Iran supports anti-Israel terrorism on multiple fronts, and of course it is true that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it a stated goal to “wipe Israel off the map,” and this should not be taken lightly. As British neoconservative author Douglas Murray put it in a YouTube video that I saw yesterday morning, Iran is controlled by “leaders who deny one Holocaust while saying they want the next.”
Nobody believes that Prime Minister Netanyahu is crying wolf over the dangers that Iran poses. However, after hearing it for the second or third time, I began to wonder if we are doing Israel any favors by presenting such a monolithic image of the threats facing Israel.
There are at least two instances in the Torah where God stands corrected. That is, God is about to do something rash, and a human being challenges God to see things a different way. One of them is in Parashat Ki Tissa, which we read this morning. God is so angry about the molten calf that He tells Moshe that he is going to destroy all the Israelites and make a new nation from Moshe alone.
But Moshe counters with the broader picture. “Are You telling me, O Lord,” says Moshe (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “that You brought all these people out of Egypt just to schmeist them in the desert? What will the Egyptians say? What about Your promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, for that matter, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah?” And God backs down, thanks to Moshe’s wider perspective.
If I had one single wish for the American Jewish community, it would be to have a wider perspective on the Jewish State.
Every now and then, I hear from a student or a parent that he or she is afraid of going to Israel, because of terrorism. I always respond by pointing out that I have lived in Israel, and I go there regularly, and I have never had any reason to fear for my safety. Israel is not a war zone; it is, in fact, much safer to be in Israel than it is in, let’s say, New York City, because in Israel, everybody is watching for suspicious activity or packages. Statistically speaking, you are, in fact, safer in Israel than when you get into your car and drive on American streets. Our perception of Israel as a dangerous place is clearly fed by the media, which zealously follow the maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.” And that is exactly what terrorists want; that’s why they are called “terrorists.”
But to some extent, we, the Jewish community, reinforce that perception.
If you ask Israelis if the State of Israel is in imminent, mortal danger, they will say no. If you ask if they are worried about terrorism, they will laugh at you, and then make insulting remarks about Americans to their friends. My son is in Kitah Heh, fifth grade, in Nes Tziyyona, a half-hour south of Tel Aviv. The State mandates that fifth graders receive training about what to do in case of various types of attacks, and some government folks came to his class last fall to do this training; most parents kept their kids home rather than subject their 10-year-olds to this.
Israelis are not living in bomb shelters, clutching rifles to their chests in trenches and eating their rations in the dark to avoid drawing enemy fire. On the contrary, Israel is flourishing. The economy is healthy; democracy is thriving; last summer’s tent protests notwithstanding, Israelis are living fairly well, especially when compared to most others in their geographic neighborhood.
There is no question that it is essential to prevent a nuclear Iran. But the palette of Israel’s contemporary issues is far more complex. Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, put it in his most recent blog post:
The matsav [the current political situation] is… not permitted to interfere with the joys, cares and satisfactions of daily life. Existential danger to the country, for everyone but soldiers on active duty, constitutes one more hassle one learns to handle. This is perhaps as it should be, or needs to be.Israelis live with this matzav night and day, but they do not live according to it. We in the Diaspora, by reinforcing the perception that Israel is besieged, be-bunkered and beleaugered, only strengthen the hands of those who seek to destroy it.
The AIPAC Policy Conference, held annually around this time in Washington, has grown tremendously in the past few years. This was my fourth conference, and in the past few years the number of attendees has more than doubled. There were over 13,000 people at this conference: older people and college students, religious and secular Jews, black and white Christians, clergy of all stripes, conservatives, liberals, and all of them proud Zionists. In addition to the big-name political speeches, there are also many, many panel discussions and smaller presentations by journalists, academics, think-tank guys, and activists of all sorts. It’s really an overwhelmingly impressive show of support for the Jewish state.
(Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the conference for me was a musical performance by the Israeli world-beat ensemble, the Idan Raichel Project. If you are not familiar Mr. Raichel’s work, you should be; if you are interested, I will be glad to point out for you which albums to get.)
I truly feel that the work that AIPAC does is essential. Israel needs the United States - for aid, for political and military support, for trade, and so forth.
Zealously protecting the alliance between the US and Israel is paramount to Israel’s future as the Jewish state. AIPAC volunteer lobbyists work with every single member of the House of Representatives and Senate, and particularly with newly-elected members, to help them understand Israel’s history and matzav.
But AIPAC’s mission by definition prevents it from addressing many other issues facing Israel. In working hard to protect the US-Israel alliance, AIPAC follows the current Israeli government’s line, and Mr. Netanyahu seems to be only interested in Iran. When the Prime Minister delivers a keynote address to 13,000 people and a fully-loaded press box and does not say the word “Palestinian” once, that is a lost opportunity. What about the new realities on the ground in Syria and Egypt? Yes, the breakout sessions addressed some of these things. But there was no room in the major plenary sessions for anything other than Iran.
As such, we who are committed to the State of Israel have to look for other ways to discuss the issues facing Israel and the Israeli government, the ones that were absent in Washington. The stalled negotiations with the Palestinians, for example. And the following issues addressed by Chancellor Eisen further along in his blog post:
Will the State be ruled by the laws passed in the Knesset or by halakhah as interpreted by ultra-Orthodox “Torah sages”? Will soldiers wearing kippot obey orders from their commanders or their rabbis? Will Israeli public space be made to conform with Haredi convictions, a move that infringes particularly on the rights of women? (Buses segregated by gender with women forced to the back, streets divided down the middle like an Orthodox synagogue, women’s voices silenced within range of Haredi men’s hearing.)
These are all items with which we must be engaged.
A few weeks ago we hosted a program here at Temple Israel called Faces of Israel. This was, in my opinion, one of the best Israel-related programs that we have had here. The program featured a group of young Israeli adults from a variety of backgrounds speaking about their personal experiences, their struggles and successes, their challenges in the context of a vibrant, open society. This was not meant to be a political program, although members of our community continuously tried to bring the guests back to political issues with leading questions.
Particularly moving was the story that one of the participants told, about the day that he had to choose between attending the wedding of a good friend and the funeral of another, who was killed in an operation on the border with Lebanon. Such are the choices that Israelis face every day, between school, work, family, and service to the State.
This program was so human, so personal; it tapped into the nuances of daily existence, the same spectrum of human emotions that we all face. When urged by the audience to speak about the matzav, one of the participants said, “You can’t achieve peace without talking to the other side. At some point, they will have to trust us, and we will have to trust them.”
I support AIPAC, because it serves an essential role, one which no other pro-Israel organization can fulfill. But our discussion of Israel must be much wider.
The State of Israel and the people of Israel (that is, us) must continue to be Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations. If we allow any single threat to eclipse all other issues pertinent to the world stage, then we are committing a grave error of omission. We are not merely Hitler’s victims or Haman’s would-be victims; we have a mandate from God to lead, to cast light where there is none, and to, in the words of the Psalmist, “baqesh shalom verodfehu,” seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15).
Perhaps the most poignant moment at the conference came at the end of Ambassador Rice’s address, when a roomful of rabbis and cantors from across American Jewry sang together the words of Psalm 133: Hineh mah tov umah na’im, shevet ahim gam yahad. How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.
Next year, I hope that many of you will join me in Washington for the AIPAC Policy Conference. But in the coming year, I hope that we will also seek out other ways to widen our perspectives on Israel, and engage with the complexity of Israeli life.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 3/10/2012.)