This is a lesson in how to lose friends and alienate people.
Last Sunday my organization This World: The Values Network hosted its annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, honoring Michael Steinhardt, Ambassador Ron Dermer and Senator Cory Booker, the actor Sean Penn, and John Prendergast. New Jersey governor Chris Christie was the keynote speaker, with Governor Rick Perry of Texas giving dinner co-hosts Sheldon and Miriam Adelson an award for all they do for the global Jewish community.
There was widespread media speculation that in the wake of Christie calling the West Bank “the occupied territories” at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas he would use the opportunity “to make amends” to the pro-Israel community.
Christie devoted his speech to a criticism of American foreign policy. He spoke of how we no longer hold tyrants accountable and how our friends are feeling let down by America’s growing impotence on the world stage. He criticized the Obama Administration for drawing a red line in the sand on chemical gas in Syria without following up with consequences.
The speech seemed an appropriate follow-up to the remarks I had given moments earlier, of the need to bring healing to the world through the spread of Jewish values. Christian values ask us to turn the other cheek and love our neighbors, which is fine, but not when it comes to the confrontation with evil and mass murder. I spoke of the Jewish Biblical commandment to never “stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” I implored the crowd to get behind the spread of Jewish values in the form of political policy that would indict a man like Bashar Assad who gasses children with impunity.
Christie’s speech received global media coverage, perceived as an indictment of American policy that allows atrocities to continue and does little to support liberty and freedom.
But Christie did not mention Israel, and that has led to a week of non-stop attacks on the governor by pro-Israel groups. The attacks have ranged from “He’s no friend of Israel” to the particularly absurd “He’s pro-Arab and an enemy of Israel.”
The non-stop assault on the governor by pro-Israel critics is confusing. Is their intention to make their words into prophecy?
Here are the facts.
First, Christie accepted my invitation to speak at the dinner. He’s a busy guy and I’m grateful. I’m amazed that this simple fact of his accepting to speak yet again before a staunchly pro-Israel crowd is being overlooked. Ours was a Jewish values dinner and I’m going to show hakarat hatov, the most supreme of all Jewish values, gratitude.
Second, Christie told a press conference in Trenton, reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that at the dinner he called for a “robust, direct foreign policy that actually allows our friends to feel a sense of security, and allows our enemies to understand that if you mess with our friends, we’re going to take you on.” He said that if people didn’t interpret the speech “as supportive of Israel, they weren’t smart enough to be in the room,” and added, “I don’t go to these things to pander.”
Truth be told, I wish he would not have omitted mention of Israel. But to jump from there to declaring him no friend of Israel is sheer stupidity and the worst kind of pro-Israel activism.
Christie has made only one foreign trip in all the time he has been governor of New Jersey. That was a visit to the State of Israel. He was accorded a rare honor in being invited for dinner at the home of Prime Minister Netanyahu who has repeatedly praised him, declaring him to be a good friend of the Jewish state. High ranking Israeli diplomats have told me repeatedly that Christie regularly responds to requests they make of him to bolster the Jewish state and his support of Israel is solid.
Christie told me that his commitment to Israel is unshakable and there is no reason to believe it isn’t. So why didn’t he mention Israel? I’m assuming that with the media expectation that he was going to “make amends,” he decided that anything he said would be perceived as insincere and an attempt to pander. I disagree with that calculation. But that does not change the strong friendship he has always shown the Jewish community and Israel.
I discussed with Governor Christie his support of Imam Muhammad Qatanani, a man whose presence in New Jersey I repeatedly criticized during my Congressional campaign. The governor told me he came to know the Imam when he was US Attorney. I conveyed to him our community’s serious concerns about a man who was arrested by Israel for his connections to, and support of, Hamas. This is something Governor Christie should and must address.
But the sheer lunacy of judging a man’s entire career by one or two speeches and relationships, against the wider body of support he has always demonstrated to Israel, is an affront to Jewish values. As I said at the dinner,’’I could care less what people believe. I don’t judge them by how they vote. And I don’t much care if they make verbal gaffes. What I do care about is what they do. Hamaaseh who ha’ikar — action is everything.”
America should not be supporting Israel because the Jewish community appreciates or demands it but because Israel’s cause is just. Developing a moral American foreign policy, as Christie advocated, that supports nations that battle evil terrorists and does not force them to make peace with parties who seek their annihilation is one of the strongest ways to support Israel.
What a shame to unnecessarily push people into the enemy’s camp when the Jewish people and Israel are in need of every friend we have.