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An open letter to Mitt Romney

Israel isn't in need of an echo chamber in the US; it needs an honest friend that will push and cajole, that will always have its best interests at heart

Dear Governor Romney,

First, I would like to express my appreciation for your visit to Israel. Since I know it was an expression of friendship, I would like to write to you about friendship as I understand it. What does it mean to us to have a “friend” in the White House?

On one very basic level, a friend is one with whom one shares one’s life, in good times and bad, exciting and banal. A friend is someone I can simply count on to be there, to be there for me. Someone who is willing to see things also through my eyes and through my needs, who worries when I am in trouble and who is joyful at my successes.

On another level, a friend is one who acts on my behalf, who has my back, who looks out for me and cares for my interests. True friendship is judged through deeds.

True friendship, however, has to be earned, and when it is healthy it is mutual. Israel and the United States have been true friends for many decades. As an Israeli, I can tell you that I believe that one of the criteria which should influence our policies as a sovereign state is how our actions will impact on you, as our friend — not simply because of self-interest, but because I believe that the United States is a force for good in the world and a country that has very often been there for Israel. Your friendship claims me and my country, and when your interests require it, it obligates us to respond accordingly, so long as the consequences for us are not too dire. Friends don’t necessarily owe each other the sacrifice of their existence, but they do owe a willingness to take significant risks.

When Israelis look to the United States from the midst of our loneliness here in the Middle East, we look to someone to be our friend. We not only derive security from that friendship, but also a sense of normalcy and comfort.

There is another dimension of friendship, however, that is essential to any relationship, and that is honesty. In the Jewish tradition, love, loyalty, and honesty create an obligation, one of the 613 commandments, to tell one’s friend when one believes that one’s friend is making a mistake. To have someone’s back means not merely protection from external enemies but also protection from self-inflicted damage. Regardless of the source of danger, a true friend cannot stand idly by.

Mitt Romney addresses the Israeli media in front of the Old City walls in Jerusalem (photo credit: Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)
Mitt Romney addresses the Israeli media in front of the Old City walls in Jerusalem (photo credit: Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

Here, however, many Israelis and Americans get very anxious. They are frightened that such a definition of friendship opens the door to coercion, to using our dependency on you to force us into policies that we have not chosen. Given the disproportionate relationship and our respective abilities and power, this fear is not unfounded. As a sovereign state, like any person or nation, we are endowed with inalienable rights of freedom of expression and the freedom to pursue policies that we believe are essential for our well-being, policies that reflect the will of the majority as expressed by our democratic process.

This fear, however, has created a weakness in our friendship. It has made honesty a secondary value, with friendship expressed, especially by presidential candidates, through unequivocal agreement and support, regardless of what one honestly feels and regardless of the consequences.

As a friend, I am not in need of an echo chamber, nor do I find solace in an unconditional cheering squad. I value my freedom and my right to pursue a policy that others may think is wrong. From my friends, however, I yearn for and desperately need honesty. Don’t tell me only what you think I want to hear; tell me what you think I need to hear. As a true friend, I welcome the times that you push and cajole, for I know that you have my best interests at heart.

Most importantly, I yearn for your involvement. When honesty is not possible, friendship becomes a formality, carted out at ceremonial moments, a mere testimony to a true feeling that has long since passed. We face many critical decisions in the years ahead, decisions that will impact the nature and future direction of our country and at times even its existence. The path forward is often ambiguous, uncertain, and fraught with dangers — regardless of which option we choose. We need a friend who will talk to us honestly. We need a friend who will give us the strength to take risks. We need a friend to help us bring out the best of who we want to be in the midst of a reality that often pulls us in the opposite direction.

I yearn for such a friend in the White House. Travel safely.

Sincerely yours,

Donniel Hartman

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an M.A in political philosophy from New York University, an M.A. in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.