My Conversation with Dr. Natan Sachs and the Need for Nuance and Gratitude

This past week, I had the pleasure of having an online conversation with Dr. Natan Sachs, the Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC.  The title of our conversation, which was broadcast to our membership, was “Israel’s Opportunities and Challenges in the US Presidential Elections.”  Dr. Sachs provided an informative and nuanced analysis on many of the hot-button issues surrounding the Middle East, such as: will President Elect Biden walk back any moves made by the Trump administration, the Abraham Accords, Iran and the JCPOA, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and increased partisanship over the Israel-US relationship.

One theme that resurfaced on a number of occasions throughout our conversation was how allegiance to or aversion from a particular individual can have major political implications.  For example, Dr. Sachs mentioned that he believed that one motivation behind some of President Trump’s political moves like pulling out of the JCPOA was simply to differentiate himself from President Obama.  President Trump needed to forge his own legacy and demonstrate that he is radically different than his predecessor.  Additionally, even though he believes that the JCPOA is significantly flawed, Dr. Sachs asserted that there is tremendous domestic pressure for President-elect Biden to return to the JCPOA and hopefully to modify some of the provisions to minimize the likelihood that Iran will have a relatively easy path to a nuclear weapon.  Why is there tremendous domestic pressure?  Because President-elect Biden needs to distance himself from President Trump.  There is often a need to assert that I am taking a different path even if I may agree with many aspects of the path that you have taken.

When we addressed the issue of the increased partisanship in the US-Israel relationship, this issue also came up.  He pointed out that after the Kushner peace plan was rolled out, there is much less hope than ever for a two-state solution even if somehow miraculously the Palestinians became serious about a peace deal.  The reason is that there is little chance that the Palestinians would ever consider anything resembling the Kushner plan, and now that the Kushner plan has been presented to the world, there is little chance that Israel will accept anything less than the Kushner plan.  However, most significantly, Dr. Sachs suggested that while the democratic party on the whole is pro-Israel, some within the party are likely to be more anti-Israel simply because President Trump was so close to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Since the democrats hate President Trump, they are likely to have negative feelings towards President Trump’s close friends.

I find this sentiment troubling, the sentiment that we either must love President Trump and love everything that he does and everyone associated with him, or hate President Trump and hate everything that he does and everyone associated with him.  When it comes to the pandemic, you can love the fact that President Trump poured significant resources into ensuring that a vaccine will likely reach our citizens in record time, and you can hate the fact that he seemed to disregard the medical recommendations encouraging masks and social distancing.

Before the election, someone asked me if it was okay to have hakarat hatov, to express gratitude, for President Trump’s actions towards the state of Israel and still vote for President-Elect Biden.  I told him that it was religiously appropriate to make that calculation.  (As a side point, I want to clarify that I did not tell him to vote for President-elect Biden nor did I necessarily agree with his political analysis.  I just felt that as a Rabbi I believe that how one votes is a personal choice and you are not mandated out of religious conviction to vote for one candidate or another.)  I am well aware that many people would disagree with my response to this congregant.  I believe that, on the one hand, many people think that it is inappropriate to express gratitude to President Trump for anything and, on the other hand, many people think that you are religiously obligated to vote for him out of a sense of hakarat hatov.

I don’t agree with either of those perspectives and that’s why my conversation with Dr. Sachs this past week was so refreshing.  It wasn’t all good for President Trump or all bad for President Trump or all good for President-Elect Biden or all bad for President-Elect Biden.  We stop thinking and developing our own identity when all our choices are merely reactionary.  When we won’t vote for one thing simply because another person did, or we don’t do something because the other person did it, or we aren’t friendly with a third person because he was friendly with another, we are surrendering our own independent thinking and giving up on critical analysis.

To me, it all boils down to the midah of gratitude.  Do we live a life of hakarat hatov, of looking for the good and expressing gratitude for the good?  When we experience a tragedy, we recite the bracha of dayan ha’emet, blessing the God who is a true judge.  When we experience something good, we recite the bracha of hatov v’ha’meitiv, blessing God who is good and does good.  Why don’t we always bless the God of truth whether something good or bad happens?  Doesn’t everything reflect the truth?  I think that the answer is that whenever something happens, it does reflect the truth, the will of God, and we should recite a blessing to acknowledge that whatever happens reflects that will.  However, we are encouraged to look for the good in whatever happens, and when we sense the good, then we recite the bracha of hatov v’ha’meitiv, acknowledging that God is the source of that goodness.  We are obligated to try to find goodness and when we discover it, we do more than accept that it reflects the will of God.  We express gratitude.

This is how we must relate to God and this is how we must relate to others.  Making binary choices of good or bad leaves us divided and bitter at each other, and, according to Dr. Sachs in US-Israel relationships, more oppositional towards the State of Israel.  Appreciating the goodness that someone else may have done, even if we disagree with that person on so many issues, opens the door to greater communication and ultimately unity.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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