The following remarks were originally delivered on February 28th, 2015 Parshat Tetzaveh at Congregation Netivot Shalom.
Earlier this week the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, called Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to congress “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel. Her harsh words were disturbing and a striking departure from the rhetoric Republicans and Democrats alike frequently use to describe the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. It is one that has allowed America Jews to regularly balance our loyalty to America with our commitment to build a strong and vibrant Jewish state. But what are the origins of this special relationship?
According to the well known story, on the eve of Israel’s declaration of independence American Zionist leaders sent President Truman’s longtime friend Eddie Jacobson to lobby Truman to recognize the nascent State of Israel. The plan worked and soon after Ben Gurion declared the rebirth of a Jewish state, the United States offered Israel diplomatic recognition. However, the reason why American Zionist leaders asked Jacobson to lobby Truman and did not reach out themselves is less well known.
Leadership of the American Jewish community in the 1940’s was dominated by two men, Stephen Samuel Wise and Abba Hillel Silver. Both served as rabbis of prestigious Reform synagogues and both were committed Zionists long before it became popular in Reform circles, however that is where their similarities ended. Wise was a friend and ardent support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He helped secure the Jewish vote for FDR in 1936 and throughout the war his faith in FDR never wavered. Even as Wise sought to help the Jews of Europe, he consistently deflected criticism over FDR’s unwillingness to do more to save European Jewry and avoided directly confronting Roosevelt over the issue. In contrast, Abba Hillel Silver believed Democrats and Republicans should have to compete for the Jewish vote. In the midst of the war, Silver directly lobbied Congress to pressure Great Britain to lift the White Paper blocking Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. He harshly criticized Wise and urged American Jewry to directly confront the Roosevelt administration over the fate of European Jewry and Zionism. “Are we going to take counsel here of fear of what this one or that one might say, of how our actions are likely to be misinterpreted; or are we to take counsel of our inner moral convictions, of our faith, of our history, of our achievements, and go forward in faith?”Silver asked in a speech, before warning “…Do not beguile yourselves. Do not let anyone beguile you. . . .” His speech galvanized the crowd and helped mobilize American Jewry to actively support Zionism, even in the midst of World War Two. However, Silvers’ approach was not without pitfalls. According to some accounts, in an early meeting with Truman, Silver became so adamant that the Administration do more for Jewish refugees he pounded on the desk in the Oval Office. Truman was furious, he had Silver thrown out and refused to meet with any American Zionist leaders, which is why in March 1948 Zionist leaders needed to call on Eddie Jacobson to lobby Truman for his support.
Throughout Jewish history there have been times when the correct course of action is not clear. Moments when leaders of every generation, like Silver and Wise, could not know for sure if Jewish survival would be better ensured by confronting the dominant world power of the day or accommodating it. Is action always better than inaction? This question was a point of contention of amongst Chazal in the time leading up to the Bar Kochba Rebellion. The Talmud Yerushalmi records a debate between the Rebbe Akiva and Rav Yochanan ben Tora. “Rav Shimon Ben Yochai taught: “Akiva my master would expound the verse a star will come from Jacob as ‘Koziba will come from Jacob.’ When Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Koziba he would say, ‘There is the King Messiah.’ Rav Yochanan ben Torta said: “Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not come.” Rav Shimon ben Yochai records the opinion of his teacher Rebbe Akiva. Rebbe Akiva saw the Romans as a power that had to be confronted, so much so that he saw a messianic potential within the person who would be willing to lead the uprising. Rav Yochanan ben Tora, on the other hand, expresses a far more hesitant view. In this opinion the messiah will not come for a long time, the Romans are here to stay and must be accommodated as best they can to ensure Jewish survival. Neither side knew what a revolt might bring, and both were confronted with the same hard choice.
These cases are clearly imperfect parallels to each other, as well as to our present situation. President Obama is no FDR and he is certainly not the Romans, Bibi is certainly not Rebbe Akiva nor is he Abba Hillel Silver, and those within the Jewish community who oppose the Prime Minister’s speech do so for a myriad of reasons. However, just as in times past we are confronted with a difficult choice over how best to protect the Jewish People and the answer is far from clear. The threats emanating from Iran are real and the consequences of a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran are to terrifying to imagine. Should the leader of the Jewish State risk alienating the president of its strongest ally, in what may ultimately be a futile attempt to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb? The decision is difficult one, but I believe he should. Netanyahu’s address to Congress, with all of its potential pitfalls, will describe the true danger an Iranian Bomb poses not just to Israel but also to the United States. In the seventy years since the Shoah, American Jewry has been haunted by the question “Why were we silent?”, it is not a question we can afford to ask again.