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Close In Miles Yet World Apart

Shabbat Ki Tisa “From Jerusalem To Tehran:

Close In Miles, Yet World Apart” March 9, 2012

In 1978, Barbara and I arrived in Israel for the first time, excited, hopeful, wide-eyed. I was newly enrolled in the 1st year rabbinic program of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem and it was the first time either of us had ever traveled outside of North America.

There were more than 60 students that year, all becoming rabbis or educators. One of the brightest students was a woman named Roberta Louis Goodman, who would go on to become a wonderful, talented Jewish educator in Cleveland and now in Chicago.

It was a phenomenal year to be in Israel. There were negotiations between Egypt and Israel that resulted in the signing of the Camp David Peace Treaty in February of 1979.  President Carter came for a state visit. There was tremendous excitement about the possibilities of life without an Egyptian threat. There was great hope and optimism about the prospect of Egypt becoming a partner and ally, an anchor of stability in the entire region.

At the same time Israel was gaining a peace partner, it was losing an ally. The brutal, corrupt, yet friendly regime of the Shah of Iran was tottering. But all that summer of 1978, Israelis regularly went to and from Iran. It is not that long a flight, only 900 miles, a little longer than from Chicago to New York.

Back to Roberta Louis Goodman. Her grandfather, who had survived the Holocaust, was very aware that only five years before, the Yom Kippur War had broken out, a conflict that threatened the very existence of the Jewish state. Roberta’s grandfather thought that if there was another conflict, masses of Jews would be trying to leave Israel, most likely through Europe on the most direct route back to the US.

So, clever man that he was, Roberta’s grandfather reasoned that his beloved granddaughter would go east and make her way back to the States on the route no one else would think of.  As long as she got out to any eastward destination, she would be okay, he thought. And so it was that, in January of 1979, the month the Shah of Iran fell and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, Roberta Goodman Louis was the only person around who held a valid, one-way ticket to Tehran, which I think she might still have!

And ever since then, the cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” have filled the air. Regardless of which mullah was in power or which secular leader was elected to the presidency, hostility to the US and Israel has been a cornerstone of Iranian policy for more than 30 years.

Fourteen years later, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, z’l, agreed to a peace agreement with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, he did so with the Iranians in mind. He thought that by agreeing to a peace process with the Palestinians, it would remove a major propaganda chip from the Iranians and also free Israel to develop the resources it would need to deal with the threat Tehran would pose.

We could say that Israel and Iran have been fighting all along to this very day. Not directly, of course. But Iran has supplied both Hamas and Hezbullah for more than a decade, engaging them to fight wars against Israel by proxy in 2006 and 2008.

And now, Iran may be on the verge of being ready and willing to engage Israel’s militarily on its own. A country whose stated policy is to eradicate Israel and “remove the cancer from the body of the Islam” is apparently on the verge of manufacturing a weapon that could do precisely that. A country, which was willing to lose more than a million men in its decade-long war against Iraq, is saber-rattling about eliminating an entire nation-state, a member of the United Nations.

In the face of these threats, some have said that Israel now faces an “existential threat,” a phrase that raises such anxiety that almost any response could be justified in the face of it.

Actually, if I might digress, our Torah portion, Ki Tisa, raises for the first time the notion of an existential threat. After building a golden calf as an idol, God confronts Moses and declares that God’s intent is to wipe out the entire people right then and there and start a new people with Moses, as if he were Abraham. Only when Moses cries out, “If you do this, wipe me out from Your book!”  does God relent.

Although the situations are not parallel, it reminds us that if we know our history, we are well aware of the notion of “existential threat” going back more than 3,000 years!

Those who know our history well want to know whether the Iranian crisis is more like any other particular time of crisis in our history.  So, what time is it?

Is it May 1967, when the Arab world arrayed its forces against Israel? During that month Israel and the entire Jewish world mobilized and faced down the threat with unimaginable success during the Six Day War in June.

Is it September 1973, the month before the Yom Kippur war, when so many in the Israeli defense establishment were caught unaware or unwilling to take the Egyptian and Syrian threats seriously? Even though Israel suffered grievous casualties, its forces routed Egypt’s army and were within 20 miles of Damascus before the Soviet Union threatened to intervene directly in the conflict.

Is it 165 BCE, when the Maccabees fought their insurgency against the Greek empire and won a temporary victory? Or maybe it is 67 CE, when our people rallied against the Romans only to be crushed?

But, as you might have guessed — for most of the media here and in Israel — it is November of 1938, when the Nazi storm was gathering in Germany, a storm destined to break out upon the world and the Jews of Europe less than a year later.  So we ask, is it November 1938 or not?

The problem with the Nazi analogy is that the Jewish community in Germany and Europe was defenseless, unable to defend itself and without any real friends in the world community. Please do not misunderstand me — I believe that the Iranian threat is quite real. But there are many frames by which to respond to it. I believe strongly that the Nazi comparison is both wrong and unfortunate.

It is wrong because Israel is capable of defending itself, even in the face of a powerful military foe like Iran. A missile tipped with a nuclear warhead may or may not be in Israel’s future. But, short of that, Israel has one of the most capable military forces in the region, if not the world. ranks Israel’s military as the 10th most powerful in the world.  At the same time, it ranks Iran at number 12.

It is wrong, because Israel is not alone. From President Obama to three of the remaining Republican candidates, there is powerful solidarity with Israel, an understanding of its plight and a promise to stand at Israel’s side should Iran attack.

The Nazi analogy is unfortunate because it goes hand in glove with the perception that the Jewish community, here and in Israel, is weak, which it is not. But once the Nazis are invoked, rational conversation becomes very difficult. Absolute evil must be fought absolutely.

Please do not think because I believe the Nazi comparison is inappropriate that I think the Iranian threat is somehow not real. Even those who oppose an Israeli strike on Iran, like the well-known novelist David Grossman, believe the threat is genuine and its anxiety pervasive.

Just this week, David Grossman said that this conflict “…is not an abstract moral debate, but something very, very concrete.” He calls it, “…the most basic concern of my life in this period. I wake up with it, I go to sleep with it, I spend hours every day trying to understand it…”

And yet, he said, “Israel is a deeply traumatized community that finds it difficult to separate real dangers and echoes of past traumas…”

Tonight I think it would be helpful to remove ourselves from American Jewish and political debate and enter into the Israeli side of the conversation, and not just to hear the voice of David Grossman.

There is a remarkable video piece from the Shalom Hartman Institute recorded last month involving three men I admire deeply:

  1. Tal Becker, lead negotiator for the Israeli government with the Palestinians through the 90s into the early 2000s.  He is an expert on the details of these negotiations, their nuances as well as their broad strokes;
  2. Yehuda Kurtzer, who holds the Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University and serves as President of the North American branch of the Hartman Institute, a passionate Zionist yet deeply committed American Jew; and
  3. Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, American Jewish writer who made aliyah and is one of the most well-respected Anglo-Israeli journalists in Israel.

They sat down together to offer their contrasting thoughts in a web presentation entitled, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Iran.”

Yehuda Kurtzer fears that American Jews have grown cynical hearing about “existential threats” to Israel on a regular basis for far too long. He expresses withering contempt for American Jewish service organizations who he sees using the Iranian crisis as a great fundraising opportunity. And he is right about that — we tend to give more as the threat level to Israel rises.

Dr. Kurtzer says that this narrative of threat is precisely what turns off younger Jews to connection with Israel.  It works for those of us who know where we were in 1938, 1948, 1967 and 1973. But it fails to motivate most young Jews of college age who are not already committed to Zionism.  Most younger, college age Jews didn’t respond on a large scale to the threats against Israel during the Lebanon war of 2006 or the Gaza War in 2008. They respond to the Israel experience in their Birthright trips.

Yossi Klein Ha-Levi worries about this same phenomenon for a different reason. He rightly notes that the Iranian threat has galvanized support for a robust Israel posture across all the usual dividing lines of Israeli society:  right v. left; secular v. orthodox, rich v. poor.

And like David Grossman, Ha-Levi admits to a pervasive sense of dread — the feeling that something is going to happen either way: Either Israel will attack Iran which will then unleash the forces of Hell, Hamas and Hezbullah in retaliation or Iran will attack Israel with unacceptable loss of life and wholesale destruction.

Yossi Klein Ha-Levi wonders if American Jews really get it, if we really understand their sense of dread. And, if we do, why aren’t we doing more about it? He worries that our communities are divided and are less and less capable of empathizing with each other’s experience. He bemoans the use of Nazi and Holocaust language and wonders if American Jews can’t understand that a crisis does not “…have to be like the Holocaust to be an existential threat.”

Tal Becker thoughtfully labels this divide between the American Jewish community and Israeli Jews the “Anxiety Gap.”  He goes on to divide the “existential threat” into two aspects:  the real threat of Iranian missiles and the atmospheric threat posed by increasingly militant language across the political spectrum. It’s as if America and Israel could talk themselves into a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities based on talk and not the actual level of danger that exists.

Yehuda Kurtzer then reminds us that some American Jews have internalized the Iranian danger so completely they have crossed over to the dark side, as when Andrew Adler, publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Journal, seriously suggested someone assassinate President Barack Obama.

Which horrifies Ha-Levi, of course. Even Israeli newspapers called for Adler’s resignation over his advocacy of treason by assassination.

Tal Becker gently inserts himself in the discussion between the two, offering a compromise. He says that it is essential for Israelis to understand that American Jews are not just Jews, but Americans [with American concerns and an American worldview]. And Becker says that American Jews have to understand that Israeli Jews are not just Jews [in their religion], but Israelis [with national security concerns like citizens of any other nation].

Who can argue with the need for mutual understanding and empathy? But I fear that our concerns are far more serious than whether or not Jews on opposite sides of the pond feel each other’s anxiety.

Writing in my Temple Sinai blog about this last month, I shared what I fear most. It was a sentiment in a talkback at the end of a Washington Post article. Responding to news of a possible Israeli strike on Iran one person wrote: “They better be prepared to fight this war on their own.” For all the drumbeats of war in the press, there is a core of Americans who would not take kindly to fighting with or for Israel against Iran.

The issue is not whether Republican candidates or President Obama will stand with Israel. It is whether mainstream America will. If you thought there was unkind media anger on fighting the Iraq war for Israel’s sake, just wait until America enters a fight against Iran, if it comes to that.

I also fear that any future relationship with Iranians who oppose Ahmdinejad’s stated policy of genocide will be impossible if Israel attacks. David Grossman put this fear very well when he said that the hope of energizing the masses of “…more secular, educated, realistic people in Iran” would be destroyed by Israeli bunker-busting bombs as surely as we hope they destroy nuclear facilities.

If it attacks, Israel will be seen as a rogue state itself, not even willing to heed the counsel of its patron, America. I see the resulting international isolation as just as much of a threat to Israel’s survival as Iran’s emerging nuclear capability.

This is why Ha-Aretz, a leading liberal Israeli newspaper, published an editorial praising President Obama’s approach when he called for ratcheting down the war talk because of both increased oil prices and creating a sense of inevitability about military conflict.

That is why a columnist for Yediot Aharonot, Attila Somfalvi, praised America for seeing war as the last, not the first option.

That is why Uri Savir of the Jerusalem Post, the leading English language daily in Israel, wrote that, “Attacking Iran should be the last resort; not an option for Israel at all, as this would be insufficient and too costly, but for the United States under President Obama…Israel should stop being at the rhetorical forefront of the effort against Iran and become a concerned and constructive partner in an international coalition led by the United States.”

The three Israeli papers I read each day, representing left, right and center, all present this point of view.

So, at the end of the day, at the beginning of Shabbat, as concerned as I am for Israel’s well being in the face of this threat, I am not in favor of a pre-emptive strike against Iran. There is a longer road ahead before armed conflict becomes necessary. I hope we exhaust every economic and diplomatic sanction before that day comes. I pray that saner heads in Iran prevail. I pray that neither Israelis nor Americans back themselves into a corner from which the only escape is war.

I still hope. I am not naïve. But I still hope. And even if there will be armed conflict, I believe in the day to come after it.

I believe that next year there will be an Israel.

I believe there will be an Israel next decade and next century as well.

I believe that Israel will survive and thrive because of its wisdom and skill as much as its power.

I believe that Israel will outlast this threat because of its strategic friendship with America and the West.

I know the words of the doomsayers, the nay-sayers and the war- mongers. And I choose not to believe them. There may well be dark days and loss of life, but Israel will not be defeated.

As many of you know, I am a short-term pessimist, but a long- term optimist. How much of an optimist am I? I not only believe Israel will rise above this threat, I believe with all my heart that someday, someday, Roberta Louis Goodman will either use that ticket to Tehran or give it to her child or to her grandchild.

For I believe that war, anger and hatred will not, must not, can not win in the end.  I believe. I believe.  All the world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is not to be afraid. That is what I believe.  That is why I believe.  I am a Jew, part of an Am Olam, an Eternal people that even survived building a Golden Calf. And so, I believe.  I believe.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784