American Politics, Israeli Politics… Pick Your Poison

Regarding the long simmering ill will between the governments of Israel and the United States, I am reminded of the pithy yet profound rabbinic comment on the episode of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis. In assessing whose behavior is more difficult to comprehend, Abraham, with his blind obedience to God’s terrifying command, or Isaac, who utters not a word though he intuits exactly what is happening, the rabbis commented simply “zeh lishhot, v’zeh lishahet.” “One was determined to slaughter, and the other was determined to be slaughtered.” Neither party is beyond reproach.

As I write this, I am sorely tempted to describe both the American and Israeli political systems similarly. Each, in its own unique way, has gone so far out on the limb of political sanity that even the most seasoned observers of their processes are left scratching their heads in some version of dismay.

In Israel, the widely respected Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had previously served with distinction as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, felt constrained to resign from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government after it became clear he was imminently to be replaced by Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Mr. Lieberman, a Russian tough who has flirted with the law, never rose above the rank of corporal in the IDF. He has also, in the past, made amply clear his dislike of the Prime Minister—and vice versa.

In advance of France’s forthcoming peace initiative, which there is ample reason to be wary of, the Prime Minister evidently felt the need to strengthen Israel’s governing coalition along his own ideological lines. At this point, after all the bad feelings between the Obama White House and Netanyahu, appointing Lieberman to the Defense Ministry is tantamount to saying to Obama and Kerry “… and you’re ugly too.” It’s just another way of saying “we don’t care what you think.” And this in the last stages of negotiating a new ten-year military assistance agreement…

But the good news for Israel is that America’s political system at the moment is no better, and arguably worse. What’s going on in Israel makes me cynical, and frustrated, not to mention Israelis themselves. But what’s going on in America makes me embarrassed, and I am hardly alone.

One of our two major parties, the one that gave us Lincoln, has, as its presumptive nominee, a man more like a carnival barker than a potential leader of the free world. He finds new and ever more creative ways to insult those who have the temerity to disagree with him, says whatever pops into his mind at the moment on matters of enormous import to American foreign policy about which he knows nothing, and seems to grow in popularity and voter support no matter what. He has gained more votes than any other Republican during a primary season in which he had sixteen opponents. Kind of makes you feel good inside about America, doesn’t it?

The other major party, the party of FDR and Kennedy, has a leading candidate with a world of experience, but with whom few seem comfortable, even fewer trust, and even fewer still seem inspired by. Running against her, ostensibly from the same party, is a self-declared (Jewish) socialist who has succeeded in gaining the hearts and minds of the millennial generation by promising them a more equitable country and the break-up of America’s big banks without telling them how he would accomplish that, and utilizing the opportunity to criticize Israel along the way. When given the opportunity to appoint members to the party’s Platform Committee, rather than appointing people who might focus on the social justice aspect of his campaign, which is at its core, he instead selected long-time, bitter critics of Israel, so as to provide “more balance” in the party platform’s Middle East plank. Charming…

So, the two countries that I care most about in the world are competing for a title that no sovereign nation should aspire to: whose political system is more broken? At the moment, it’s a neck and neck race down the stretch, but I don’t hear anyone cheering. I’m certainly not. And behind it all, Americans and Israelis are left scratching their heads and wondering where it all went wrong…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.