After conceivably the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, called for Israel to withdraw to pre-1967 lines on national television, I find it exceptional that the next day on national television in front of the world, the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, sitting next to Obama, was able to say, returning back to the pre-1967 borders was a risk that Israel simply could not take. As an American Jew, how do I reconcile my support for Israel's security while also supporting our President’s vision for peace in the Middle East.
The matter abounds in mystery and uncertainty, but I’m grateful for the chance to explain at least one, but vital, aspect thereof.
We know of the biblical provision of the counting of 49 days of Sefirah, from Pesach until Shavuot, called the days of the Omer. The Bible’s narrative is unrelated to the given reason for the counting itself, but events later on in Talmudic times added new levels of history and of ascribed meaning. Primarily, the weeks’ mourning atmosphere, with accompanying prohibitions, became its proper manner of observance.
I researched and composed an extensive study several years ago. But I will leave its many concepts and attached personalities to another time, allowing myself here to address just one of the mysteries that does beg for answers.
The Talmudic narrative (Yevamot 62b) is the textual source. But its literal meaning demands the historic context. It reads: “Twelve thousand pairs of disciples of Rabbi Akiva …died at the same period … at a plague….It was said (about them): they had not respected one another.” The evident consequence here is that we find condign punishment for the misbehavior, and from here, then, yields the grave mourning that follows.
But a literal interpretation of the Talmudic text poses some logical puzzles: Could the revered Rabbi Akiva have really tolerated such misdeeds, and allowed their obviously pious disciples become capitally liable? And with thousands of them uniformly guilty? Or, rather, perhaps mutual respect had descended to that level for more just a few of them?
If we take a broader view of this Talmudic passage, with an eye towards the historical context in which it was set, perhaps another answer emerges: We are reminded that the Romans were very much in charge at the time. Simeon Bar Kochba was the brave but unsuccessful leader of the revolt against Rome on behalf of the people of Israel. Many died in battle with perhaps a brief, favorable let-up on Lag BaOmer.
The questions do abound, but this Roman context clarifies a lot. My suggestion is that that Talmudic narrative had to yield the truth to satisfy their imperious censorship, to be affected by their existing prejudice. If not the large picture – that the plague refers really to the famous battle, mentioned above -- then the smaller details may give it that sense.
A key to a welcome way of interpretation here follows: The Talmudic phrase, for example, makes use of a rare tool, the expression “l’shon saggi nahor.” This means the language of euphemism or even polite opposite. It translates, literally, to “the blind man has ‘abundant light’” to make this point.
One of the great Rabbis of our day, Rabbi Eliezer Levi (Sefer Yesodot haTefillah, page 232) is a foremost spokesman of this insight. The Romans, for their side, saw in our Talmud--and we know they were watching-- that the honorable pupils of Rabbi Akiva “lo nahagu kavod zeh la-zeh” meaning “they did not respect each other.” That’s what they were expected to say; that would keep the oppressors far from envy—or from schadenfreude. Instead, truth be told, and if they were at liberty to speak, the Jews could have said fearlessly, but felt proudly, “nahagu kavod zeh la-zeh,” “they had accorded respect for each other.”
The “l’shon saggi nahor” makes sense for a history when written in fear of the tyrant’s censorious intimidation. When one meets coercion, one must resort to disguised language, for the sake of human reality. Of course, the mourning for the Omer days would have to be attributed to other sad and unfortunate events of the time.
At least it’s good thus to exonerate Rabbi Akiva’s pupils and, maybe more important, to remove a strain on credibility on the rest of us.
Mr Obama, Mr Netanyahu, 1967 borders, and Dual loyalties
A. After conceivably the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, called for Israel to withdraw to pre-1967 lines on national television,
B. The next day on national television in front of the world, the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, sitting next to Obama, was able to say, returning back to the pre-1967 borders was a risk that Israel simply
could not take.
C. As an American Jew, how do I reconcile my support for Israel's security while also supporting our President’s vision for peace in the Middle East.
1. The very question assumes that our loyalty to our country must be fascistic, that we support our country right or wrong because might employed for self-interest can never be wrong. In America, “we conquer we mustwhen our cause is just.” Our President correctly proclaims “elections do have consequences.” An election is a referendum regarding government policy. We are as Americans empowered to vote our conscience, to advance our interests, and to impact the electoral process by trying to persuade.
2. What are we committing ourselves to do act, say and vote when we
a. Pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
b. And to the Republic for which it—the flag—stands,
c. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?
First, our allegiance is to the flag and not a party, the Republic and not to either the Republicans or Democrats, which are partisan parties. In America, parties are controlled by the Republic and its laws; in tyrannies, parties reflect the ideologies that are the social instruments of anti-social elites. Our loyaty is not to the party in power and our dedication is not to the President or his policies. Elections in this country are legal, dissenting political speech is both acceptable and not treasonous, and dissent is not anti-patriotic.
Second, what unites Americans is the rule of law. The Bill of Rights, which memorializes our freedom to disagree, affirms that we do not have an official ideology regarding exactly what is just.
Third, our nation is indivisible because it legalizes liberty--freedom—and justice—fair and equal treatment, for all. I do have the right to think that you are wrong, even if you are the President.
Fourth, there are two un-American ills that we do have to confront. We have a right to complain and cajole, and critique and correct errors; when we demean others we become mean ourselves. Those who question the Obama Administration’s policies are not by dint of disagreement evil, selfish, narrow minded, or non-patriotic. It is not the job of either party to declare what is politically correct; it is the job of those who vote on Election Day to make that determination. Those who claim that non-support for the Administration’s policies are unpatriotic and deficient Americans must be asked, “when your adversary party was in power, were you loyal to its policies, silent in your dissent, and collegial in your differences?”
Recall the Republican Nixon White House:
i. the power of state was used against partisan political enemies.
ii. Disapproval of a war that was based on a lie was proclaimed to be un-American and un-patriotic
iii. Denying the right to dissent is un-patriotic and un-American.
i. I do believe that Israel ought to make compromises and to take risks for peace, as per the Obama Administration’s initiative.
ii. The President of the United States should not have challenged the Prime Minister of Israel in public to return to 1967 borders. Having made the challenge, the Presdent hoped that Mr. Netanyahu would defer to the President’s station and office. The President hardly looked presidential by using the stage and the moment to coerce a Head of an allied Head of State.
iii. But I also believe that the same, identical pressure to compromise and take risks be placed on Mr. Abbas of the PA to change the anti- Israel indoctrination in the Palestinian schools, that terrorists not be valorized and treated as heroes, and that salaries not be paid to Arab prisoners in Israeli jails for crimes committed against the Jewish state,
iv. The American Administration must demand that the PA prepare its people for peace, to change its maps that make no place for Israel, on either side of a Green line, which should be America’s Red line.
v. Since the pre-1967 border was rejected the Arabs, and Israel was prepared to make peace, and since neither Hamas nor the PA will accept Israel as a national homeland of the Jews, a bayit le’umi.As Amecans—and there are Democrats as well as Republicans who agree with this assessment, we want to know why the American Administration is astounded when Mr. Netanyahu does not obey Mr. Obama like a loyal vassal.
vi. Was Senator Lieberman, a pro-Israel liberal, out of order when he said that Obama's speech was “an unhelpful and surprising set of remarks about Israel and the Palestinians that will not advance the peace process and in fact is likely to set it back. ...Unilateral statements of this sort do nothing to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table and in fact make it harder for them to do so. They also damage the relationship of trust that is critical to peacemaking?”
vii. Application of pressure must be just, demands must be fair, respectful, and loyalty recognized and not punished according to the pledge we make to that flag that requires that we ask for “liberty and justice for all.”
Your question seems to presuppose a few axiomatic principles which may not be true for everyone: that there needs to be agreement between the leaders of America and Israel, and, second, that the loyalty of the individual needs to align in some manner with the stated positions of these leaders. If either of these propositions were true then it might be hard to support the positions of both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. My own understanding, however, is that neither of these propositions is necessary.
First, it may belabor the obvious to say that the public words of either leader may only express part of the situation on the ground. In the diplomatic world messages are sent through a variety of channels, only a fraction of which are public. The disagreement we see may or may not represent the whole picture. Any observer should be judicious in assessing the situation and consider a broader range of data. The relationship between any two nations is complex. America’s relationship to Israel has often been balanced between the differing actions of the President, the State Department and Congress.
Second, this will not be the first time that Israel and America have understood the complexities of the Middle East in different ways. I think of the calls Israel made to Secretary of State Kissinger asking for help during the Yom Kippur War. Disagreements do not necessarily mean the relationship is at risk of breaking. These two sovereign nations can work together for a variety of goals without complete agreement.
Third, while Israel does have a certain political and, perhaps, economic dependence on the United States, it is probably less than many people assume. The relationship is not one-sided. Consequently the relationship is a conversation between two partners who may have different paths to common goals, which may be what we see in the contrasting speeches of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. What one sees at any given moment does not represent the long-standing and abiding relationship that ties our two countries together.
Since the political situation we see in the news may represent only part of the picture, we cannot act on that information alone. We bear personal responsibility to consider the entire situation as best we can and to advocate for the position we believe best reflects our values and concerns. We may adopt elements from the positions of the President or the Prime Minister, or from other sources, though we are not bound to those particulars. We are obligated not to do harm to either party – no Jew should do anything which can bring danger to the State of Israel (as I believe, for example, support for the BDS movement does), just as no American should do anything to harm our country. Beyond that we have autonomy to consider many political options for how to offer our support.
In the late ‘80s I heard a retired Israeli general (whose name I no longer recall) speak. He was from the dovish side of the political spectrum while many in America had adopted the politics of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He challenged the audience to pursue their passionate support of Israel regardless of whether they agreed with him or not. He argued that Israel needs your passionate support more than your passive agreement.
I applaud your desire to support Israel while working for peace in the region. May the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 122) ring true –
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you have security…
For the sake of the House of the Lord our God, I seek your good.
It is best to begin by acknowledging something which is quite important to this conversation; the tremendous diversity within the Jewish community on Israel’s holding of territory taken during the 1967 war. Too often I hear from people who believe that American Jews should speak with only one voice on Israel. To me, this seems unrealistic and not authentic to our shared tradition of debate and sacred struggle. I am an ardent Zionist and a lover of Israel. I believe that Israel has a right to exist and has the right to defend herself against attack from the outside. But I also believe that with that right comes great responsibility.
President Obama is not saying anything new this week. As is so often the case in American politics, change comes in small ways. It has long been the position of the American government (as well as the position of several Israeli governments) that two separate states should live alongside one another and that territory and borders should be negotiated using the pre-1967 borders as a starting place for those negotiations. There is nothing new in that conversation except that it happened publicly. In my mind, that is a positive step. I recognize that some people are uncomfortable with that public affirmation, but as I watched some of the cable news discussions after President Obama’s speech I was surprised by the strong reactions on both sides. America has long been and will continue to be a strong friend to Israel. A secure and safe Israel is part of America’s foreign policy plan.
I agree that the exact pre-1967 borders are not safe or sustainable for Israel or a future Palestinian state. But in my mind the best place to begin negotiations is the last place where there was some international consensus. Then we can take into account the new realities on the ground and the land swaps necessary to create true borders that are effective, safe and realistic. In that way, I think President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are not that far apart. And in the end, this is not America’s decision to make – Israel’s government is the only party who can make these decisions because they will have to live or die by the consequences.
The Psalms teach us to seek peace. It is not a passive phrase. We have an obligation to seek peace where there is strife. I believe that the President is in the midst of that searching and we owe our support to him. If we stop seeking peace we resign ourselves and our children to more conflict. A good settlement, although it will not include all that I want for Israel, will be in Israel’s best interest.
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