Our Torah is as relevant today as the day it was inscribed. In Genesis, Abram and his nephew Lot have a serious disagreement and ultimately decide to go their separate ways. Maybe one was a conservative and the other a liberal. Not long after they part, Abram hears that the Four Kings have taken Lot captive. Setting aside their disagreements, and without taking a vote or going to the local United Nations for permission, Abram goes it alone, immediately assembling 318 of his warriors, and rescues Lot. Abram later encounters King Malchizedek of Salem who, having heard of Abram’s success, declares, “Blessed is Abram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth...” Both G-d and Abram are honored and blessed for their actions in the eyes of the surrounding communities.
Yet it was only after Abram’s singular willingness to rescue Lot that G-d makes the commitment, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.” (Gen. 15:1) His reward would be the Land of Israel. G-d has always been willing to honor His promise to be a shield for His people; our Jewish people must have the courage to be the sword.
In 2017 our people will reflect on a number of milestones in Israel’s modern history. In 1897 – 120 years ago – Theodor Herzl, a prominent Viennese journalist and thoroughly secularized Jew, went to Paris to report on the trial of a French Jewish officer accused of espionage. It was clear that Alfred Dreyfus was innocent, and also clear that he was found guilty because he was a Jew. The event awakened in Herzl the realization that the Jews of Europe must return to their ancient homeland. He had given birth to Zionism! On August 29, 1897, against the concerns of his fellow Jews in Vienna and Germany, France, England and America, he convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland.
“The Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing the overwhelmingly German-Jewish Reform rabbinate in the United States, likewise condemned Zionism as a movement that would ‘not benefit but infinitely harm our Jewish brethren, where they are still persecuted, by confirming the assertion of their enemies that the Jews are foreigners in the countries in which they are at home and of which they are everywhere the most loyal and patriotic citizens.” (Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State., p. 121) In 1917 – 100 years ago – British Foreign Secretary Alfred Balfour wrote to Lord Lionel Rothschild:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, was the basis of the resolution passed unanimously by the League of Nations at San Remo in 1922, thereafter known as the Palestine Mandate. Britain agreed to work with the Jewish Agency to facilitate the building, populating and re-establishment of the Jewish homeland within the borders of the Mandate. Shortly thereafter, to appease the Arabs, Winston Churchill betrayed Britain’s obligations and divided the Mandate, giving the area east of the Jordan River – 78 percent of the original Mandate – to create a new Arab entity called Transjordan.
On November 29, 1947 – 70 years ago – at Flushing Meadows, New York, the General Assembly of the United Nations (the League of Nation’s successor) voted to again divide the balance of the Mandate west of the Jordan River between the called-for Jewish state and a second Arab state. The original land mass of the Mandate of 1922 was 48,000 square miles. With the second partition, the Jewish state would be reduced to approximately 6,000 square miles – an 80 percent reduction from the original, agreed-upon Mandate borders. In a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions, the partition was passed. Both the U.S. government under Truman and the Russian government under Stalin voted for the resolution, proving that “the heart of the king is in the hand of Hashem.” (Proverbs 21:1) Often overlooked is that on March 19, 1948, the U.S. under Truman had reversed its decision to recognize the future State of Israel, changing its policy from supporting partition to supporting a trusteeship under the U.N. This was the situation until May 12, 1948, when Truman, for his own political ambitions, decided to recognize the new state two days later.
Along with the American change of policy, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo against Israel. “Truman has run out on every commitment he has ever made to the Jewish people,” said U.S. Senator Irving Ives (a Presbyterian). “The evidence is overwhelming not only in official statements but in the record of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, that the President was deliberately and calculatingly playing politics with this explosive issue.” (John Snetsinger, Truman and the Jewish State, p. 132).
A commemoration which I anticipate will seldom be discussed: 1957 – 60 years ago. On July 26, 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, closing it to Israeli shipping – an act of war under international law. President Eisenhower vacillated on what actions the U.S. should take. Israel, with the backing of Britain and France, decided to go to war. Over the strong objections of the U.S. and the U.N., in just eight days Israel defeated the Soviet-armed Egyptian army and took control of the Suez Canal as well as the Sinai. Furious, Eisenhower demanded that Israel withdraw from the Sinai immediately. David Ben- Gurion, Israel’s prime minister, refused. Threats from Eisenhower ensued, including changing the tax code to remove the tax-exempt status of any contributions going to Israel. Enraged, Eisenhower wrote a letter to Ben-Gurion, dated November 8, 1956, insisting he immediately withdraw from the Sinai and threatening that “it would be a matter of greatest regret to all my countrymen if Israeli policy on a matter of such grave concern to the world should in any way impair the friendly cooperation between our two countries.” (David Ben-Gurion, Israel: Years of Challenge, p. 138). Ben-Gurion again refused.
After four months of heated negotiations, the U.S. finally relented and on March 9, 1957 gave written assurances that it would support Israel if Egypt ever again closed the canal to Israeli shipping. Israel finally withdrew. Intimidated by accusations of dual loyalty, American Jewish organizations were terrified. This was the 1950s and anti-Semitism in the U.S. was prevalent.
It is interesting to note that the war had lasted just eight days, with the truce being signed on November 6. Shortly thereafter, Gen. George C. Marshall – no fan of Israel or Jews – described the Sinai Campaign as “one of the most brilliant battles in world history.”
The focus of attention this year will no doubt be the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. On May 23, 1967 – just 10 years after the U.S. gave Israel its written assurance of defensive support – Egypt’s then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser again closed the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, announcing on Cairo Radio: “The Arab people is firmly and steadfastly resolved to wipe Israel off the map and restore the honor of Palestine’s Arabs. … The Arab people want to fight. We have been waiting for the proper moment. … Lately we have felt our strength has grown and with the help of [Allah] we shall prevail. … Since we have taken this step we must be prepared to wage a total war against Israel.” (Zeev Avner, The War of 1967, p.2). Nasser demanded that the U.N. withdraw its peacekeepers stationed in the Sinai after the 1956 war, and then-secretary-general U Thant willingly complied, disregarding the U.N. obligations under the truce agreement of 1957.
This was to be a war of annihilation. The world watched silently. On May 30, G-d hardened Nasser’s heart as he signed a military pact with King Hussein, putting the Jordanian army under the command of Egypt. The 1957 agreement had been made with then-president Eisenhower. In 1967 it came to the desk of President Lyndon Johnson, the newest American president who knew not Ben-Gurion!
“Secretary Rusk and Undersecretary Rostow had prepared a policy memorandum for the president. A meeting was scheduled for noon to discuss it and to plan for the Eban [foreign ministers] meeting. Walt Rostow called [Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ephraim] Evron to request a delay in Eban’s meeting with the president, claiming that Johnson was busy studying the 1957 documents on the American commitment concerning the strait.” (William Quandt, Decade of Decisions, p. 50). Looking for a way out of honoring the agreement, Johnson stalled, and under pressure, threatened Israel: “IF ISRAEL GOES IT ALONE, IT WILL BE ALONE!” So much for the written assurances of an American president! In Israel, people began digging graves in parks and playgrounds for the soldiers they anticipated would be killed.
After Johnson’s refusal to honor the American agreement, Levi Eschol, Israel’s then-prime minster, called Menachem Begin, the opposition leader, and formed a unity government. Without informing the U.S., at 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, June 4, Israeli jets took off, going west over the Mediterranean. Not long into their flight, they made a 180-degree turn, heading back east toward Egypt. For almost 20 years of Israel’s existence, the U.S. had continued its arms embargo against Israel so as to maintain its relationships with the Arab oil-producing countries. But remember, “If you stay silent, help will come from another…” Israel was flying French Mirage and Mystere jets. “I will be your shield, Abram; you must be willing to be the sword. Your reward will be great.” Caught off guard, the entire Egyptian air force was destroyed in the first four hours of the war.
FIVE DAYS LATER, THE WAR WAS OVER AND ISRAEL WAS NOT ONLY BLESSED WITH UNEXPECTED SUCCESS, BUT ITS REWARD WAS GREAT! Liberated were our Biblical homelands of Judea and Samaria, and Jerusalem was again reunified as the eternal capital of Israel.
We so often hear the hypnotically comforting words that the “rock-solid” relationship between the U.S. and Israel is based on shared values. I guess that’s why the U.S. enjoys such close ties with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates: shared values and democracy.
In the real world, where relationships are based on interests and not fantasy, countries deal with a concept called “balance of power.” Prior to the Six-Day War, the Soviet Union had begun to assert itself into the Middle East through Nasser’s Egypt. It was only after Israel’s “miraculous victory” in the Six- Day War that America began to realize Israel’s strategic value in the Middle East and allowed Israel to begin purchasing American weaponry. But going forward, Israel always paid a price not just for weaponry but also in diplomacy, beginning with American demand in the Yom Kippur War not to preempt.
It was Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joseph Sisco who in 1971 acknowledged, “IF ISRAEL WASN’T IN OUR BEST INTERESTS, IT WOULDN’T GET A DIME!”
If you want fantasy, go to Disneyland. Jews and Israel live in Realityland, where a still small voice promises, “I will be your shield, Abram. Your reward will be great!”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ISRAEL – L’OLAM VA’ED!
Shabbat Shalom, 06/02/2017 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger *
* Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com