Looking At The Candidates, Looking At Ourselves

Judging by the volume and nature of some of the comments posted to my article on Rick Santorum in last week’s Jewish Week, I seem to have touched a raw nerve in some readers. I assume that to be the case because of the tone of some of the postings, which is, shall we say, dismissive of my point of view.

Of all the things that were said, let me respond to this one specifically. No, I did not intentionally omit Muslims when I said that we Jews are “as American as…” and I listed a variety of religions. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed the omission until the reader pointed it out, and it meant nothing other than that I happened, by chance, to omit it. I’m not completely sure what the significance would be if my omission had been intentional, but for the record, it wan’t.

To the reader who signed his name “Curious” and asked how comfortable I am with the current President… I thank you for asking it politely. Some of your fellow commenters asked a variant of it, but with a generous splash of animus thrown in. “More liberal garbage. A poisonous article like this could only be written by someone who supports Obama.” Or, “Give me a break! Jews have bigger problems, like the current occupier of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

To “Curious” I would answer that, after three days at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington this week, I now know that whatever my concerns about some of President Obama’s policies might be, I am more comfortable with him than with some who would claim the privilege of taking his office.

The AIPAC Policy Conference was an amazing event. Being in the same place– and for plenaries, in the same hall– as some thirteen thousand other pro-Israel activists is a heady experience to say the least. Advocating for Israel can be a lonely experience these days. Just ask any university student (there were about three thousand of them at the Conference; very inspiring!). I have nothing but enormous respect for the work that AIPAC does, advancing Israel’s case to American political leaders with enormous skill and dedication, regardless of whether the Israeli government is left or right of center. Given that America is Israel’s most important ally with no one a close second, there is no overstating AIPAC’s importance.

But with this being a presidential election year and the ominous threat of a nuclear Iran monopolizing the thought of the pro-Israel community, the Policy Conference this year bordered on — I thought — an often unfair indictment of President Obama’s policies. Sometimes the criticism was subliminal, other times overt and caustic, as when the Republican Presidential candidates spoke and tripped over each other trying to be tougher in how they would deal with the Iran issue. Send warships now! Articulate your “red lines!” There was a whole lot of metaphorical foaming at the mouth going on, not to mention– as a number of people have pointed out, including the President– a wholly inappropriate subversion of the President’s efforts to bring this crisis to a conclusion without having to resort to military options. One President at a time! It was a shameless political exercise in what should have been a bipartisan context.

That said, let me state this as clearly as I can, because I know that the same people who commented last week are more than likely to find this article distasteful. I am not convinced that President Obama is right is his approach to Iran, and that the critics are wrong. I’m not sure that bringing a bigger stick and a lot less talking to the Iranian issue isn’t the only way to stop them, and I’m all for stopping them. They may be right. And America is asking Israel for a whole lot of trust on an issue which goes to the very heart of their survival.

But even if the critics of the President’s policies are right- and neither I nor you have any real way of knowing that other than gut feeling- I categorically reject the idea persistently and irrationally advanced by far too may in the Jewish community that President Obama is an “enemy of Israel,” or “anti-Israel.” I find that attitude to be despicable and unwarranted by facts on the ground.

Would an enemy of Israel ask for an increase in Israel’s foreign aid allocation at a time when the pressures to cut the American budget are enormous? Would an enemy of Israel create the closest military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries that has ever existed? And this by Israel’s own reckoning! Would an enemy of Israel declare clearly and unambiguously– and repeatedly– that Iran must not be allowed to become a nuclear power, and that a policy of “containment” is not an option? Would an enemy of Israel declare that no option is off the table to avoid a nuclear Iran, very much including a military option, because both Israel and the world cannot afford the risk?

Are we so blinded by our very legitimate fears about Israel’s security that we are willing to alienate an American president whose only real problem about Israel is that he neither thinks nor talks like Jabotinsky? He is, at the end of the day, the President of the United States, and not the Prime Minister of Israel! His job is to protect the United States and its interests in a complex and dangerous world. It seems to me that many friends of Israel want President Obama to talk like a right-wing Israeli leader instead of an American President. That’s not a fair expectation.

Given the current state of the Republican presidential primary campaign, I think there’s a better than even chance that Israel is going to be working with President Obama for another four years, when he doesn’t have to be worrying about re-election. So yes — absolutely yes. It is Israel’s right, and responsibility, to secure its own survival, and be the master of its own fate. But it is also the Israeli government’s responsibility to navigate the political currents of today’s world wisely, and in that regard, it needs America and American support. President Obama is not ruling out a military option if all else fails, and containment is not an option. How much closer on policy can you get than that?

How much do I trust the president? Enough to take him at his word. If Israel decides that, based on its own intelligence estimate, it must act now and not wait, I will support it. But I hope that there is a way to let the sanctions work before the military option is the only viable one. As the President said at his news conference this week, war is not a game, and it’s not fodder for the campaign trail. It is about death and destruction. You go to war when you have to– and not before. You go with the broadest consensus possible. And you try to have your best and most effective ally at your side.

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