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Gary Rosenblatt

Israel’s Most Eloquent Defender

Tal Becker, would-be peace maker – and advocate of power – has an urgent message for American Jews: Show courage.

The first question posed from the audience following moderator Abigail Pogrebin’s hour-long interview last Tuesday evening with Dr. Tal Becker, a veteran expert on Israeli legal, political and diplomatic affairs, was personal and to the point.

Would he consider being a candidate for prime minister?

“No,” he answered immediately, without further comment. But it was understandable why many attending the program at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Cultural Center in New York City, and those of us viewing the event online, might have uttered a sigh of disappointment over his response.

At a time when Israel is being pilloried by the international community and mainstream media for continuing to wage war against Hamas, and when Jerusalem’s leaders seem unable to defend their actions clearly, we had just witnessed Becker doing what he does best: informing and inspiring his audience by explaining Israel’s efforts to balance power and morality as it battles an evil terrorist group, and asserting that Hamas must be defeated for the good of Palestinians as well as Israelis.

To those in Israel, and its supporters, who say that war demands the IDF be as brutal as its enemies, Becker insisted “that proposition is false. There is no such thing as protecting the Jewish body and not the Jewish soul.”

He described the Jewish soul as “asking ourselves ongoing moral questions, like how morality and power can co-exist,” questions for “even the hardest situations – even with an evil organization that wants to maximize the killing of its own people.”

Becker, a 52-year-old native of Australia who settled in Israel 30 years ago, has played a key role for decades, sometimes publicly and sometimes behind the scenes, in numerous Israeli peace efforts, including the Abraham Accords. Most recently, as a member of the legal team appearing before the International Court of Justice at the Hague, he delivered Israel’s opening remarks in its defense against South Africa’s accusation that Israel is committing genocide.

On Tuesday evening, he described that day as “sickening,” an “inversion of reality at The Hague,” and confided that in preparing for his speech, he feared he would cry. He credited his wife with reminding him that his role was to be “a vessel” in delivering the words that needed to be said.

In his highly praised remarks that day in January, he noted that the word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish survivor of WWII, to describe “the devastating evil that the Nazi Holocaust unleashed.”  Becker closed his speech by asserting: “The Genocide Convention was a solemn promise made to the Jewish people and to all peoples of Never Again. The applicant [South Africa], in effect, invites the court to betray that promise.”

On Tuesday evening, recalling that experience and the level of anti-Semitism in the world today, he observed that it has reached the point where words being used are “morally indefensible” yet “socially acceptable.” Sadly, he said, “it takes courage to state honest facts.”

Israel’s enemies responded to the October 7 attacks “exhilarated it happened” and at the same time “denying it happened,” he said, an example of the illogic and depravity of anti-Semitism.

Describing the trauma Israelis continue to deal with since October 7, Becker observed  that “a pogrom took place where pogroms were never meant to happen again. Israel was supposed to be the answer.” But unlike the usual response to pogroms throughout  Jewish history, when Jews chose either to flee or assimilate, Becker said, “Israel stood up” on October 8, a unified country determined to fight back.

To critics calling on Israel to stop the war, saying “enough,” Becker responded: “The tragedy of war follows us every day. But the answer can’t be ‘enough.’” That answer gives Hamas a victory and allows it to continue to rule in Gaza, he said, “and condemns Israelis and Palestinians to live under a death cult.”

He argued that the military campaign in Rafah must continue for two important reasons. One, that if the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt remain intact, Hamas will be able to rearm and reconstitute itself by continuing to smuggle arms in from Egypt. And two, Israel’s actions in seeking to deny Hamas the chance to regain power are “in the interest of anyone who doesn’t want Israelis and Palestinians to live under terror.”

Grounded as he is in his commitment to morality, Becker’s insistence that “power is not a vice” takes on added significance, especially to liberal American Jews, when he asserts that “Jews having power may be one of the most just outcomes in our history.”

He observed that “Israel represents two ideas that are anathema to a certain way people see the world today.” One is power, which is viewed as inherently unjust by many in our society. Yes, he says, it must be used wisely and as compassionately as possible. And he recognizes that many American Jews are not comfortable with it, but “power is good and just in that it allows us to defend ourselves.”

For some, he added, “it’s nice to be moral and powerless, but sometimes we have no choice.”

The other prevalent ideology out of sync with Israeli culture asserts that victimhood is a virtue. “It’s a condition, not a virtue,” Becker said, noting that “Zionism is the refusal to be victims, even though some of us have a hard time letting go of victimhood. We have to rise above that.”

Never Give Up Hope

How can we counter the anti-Israel bias so prevalent today?

Becker described a recent meeting he had with 27 ambassadors of countries calling on Israel to halt the fighting in Rafah. He told them Israel recognizes its responsibility, and asked the ambassadors which of their countries has called on Hamas to come out from hiding behind its citizens. Awkward silence followed.

Finally, Becker said, one ambassador acknowledged that his country had no influence on Hamas but does have influence on Israel. “This isn’t about influence,” Becker replied. “You are rewarding Hamas’s strategy, giving them immunity for hiding.”

But the constant and detailed preoccupation among mainstream media in how Israel is waging war while giving a virtual free pass to Hamas, whose cynical military strategy is to assure that as many of its citizens as possible are exposed to enemy fire, continues with little or no comment.

Becker acknowledged that Israel is losing the public relations battle and that there is “no easy answer” to widespread media bias against Israel. “We need those willing to broadcast our ideas,” he said, noting that TV producers seek immediate, dramatic images. “It’s hard for us,” he said, to compete with scenes of destruction while Israeli officials are saying they are going to investigate, need more time, etc.

“The extent to which our enemies think the gap [between Israel and the U.S.] is widening makes those enemies feel more empowered.”

Still, Becker takes a measure of comfort in the reality that Saudi Arabia and other key Sunni Arab states fear Iran and are taking steps to reduce radical Islam in their societies, increasingly willing to reimagine a relationship with Israel.

“We are not in a zero-sum game with the Palestinians or Islam,” he said. “We are in a zero-sum game with Hamas and Iran. We make a great mistake if we don’t differentiate between those two situations.”

While Palestinians continue to refuse Israel’s legitimacy as a state in the region, “our response can’t be that’s all there is.” Becker believes that Jewish sovereignty in the Arab world can be accepted by some states, and eventually by the Palestinians. “I do not accept that we should not be in the business of hope,” he asserted. “Jewish history proves that.”

Becker’s most dramatic statement came at evening’s end.

“For now,” he said, “for an upcoming politician or journalist or professor who supports Israel, the cost of expressing” those sentiments in their circles “has gone up. That’s a problem.

“There is a massive need to make it less courageous” to publicly speak out for Israel.

He described a critical moment he believes American Jews are facing now, at least symbolically  – whether, in walking near a college campus or other potentially unsafe space, to tuck a Jewish star away or leave it out.

“There’s a natural tendency to look for safety, to be quiet,” Becker said. “But that’s the most dangerous thing we can do now. It will make it less and less possible to be Jewish openly and more possible to be anti-Semitic.

“Take your Magen David and put it out,” wear it.

About the Author
Gary Rosenblatt is the former editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.