Yitro’s lesson for Bibi

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who fashions himself this generation’s Winston Churchill, should consider instead taking a page from a much earlier philo-Semite, one who ensured the survival of the Jewish people through a carefully leveraged relationship, rather than by capitalizing on a proffered bully pulpit.

This week, in synagogues around the world, Jews read the story of Yitro. Yitro—anglicized Jethro—was a priest of Midian and Moses’s father-in-law. Upon hearing of the Exodus from Egypt, Yitro traveled to join the Hebrews in the wilderness. There, he found Moses utterly exhausted. Each day, from sunrise until sunset, Moses was sitting in judgment, adjudicating the manifold problems of the million souls of Israel. Yitro, drawing upon his own deep wisdom and experience, and invoking his privileged relationship with Moses, offers advice to the leader of the Jewish people, suggesting that Moses is attacking the problem before him all wrong. Rather than serving as the only judge, Yitro suggests, Moses—and Israel—would be better served by the establishment of a court system. This would alleviate the pressure on Moses, while simultaneously ensuring that all claimants received the fair hearing that they deserved.

As Netanyahu adamantly insists that he will not be deterred from delivering his ill-conceived address to the U.S. Congress—or whatever portion of Congress is still planning on attending—he would do well to look to Yitro for examples on how best to speak truth to power to effect positive change. Because Netanyahu’s message, like Yitro’s, is of critical importance. As surely as the future of the Jewish people would have been imperiled had Moses exhausted himself, so too will the Jewish future turn exceedingly bleak should President Obama fail in his efforts to head off Iran’s path to a bomb.

First, Netanyahu must understand the framework of the Yitro-Moses relationship. The two men shared a familial bond through Moses’s beloved wife Tzipporah. But even before Moses and Tzipporah were wed, Yitro had taken Moses into him home after Moses fled Egypt. Moses loved Yitro and was primed to accept his advice. Netanyahu, conversely, has been a constant headache for Obama, who has seemed only too happy to repay the Prime Minister in kind.

Next, consider the forum. Yitro addressed Moses privately, away from the eyes of Moses’s constituents. Netanyahu plans precisely the opposite. He hopes to wield Congress as a club, somehow bending the leader of the free world to his will, and forcing Obama to take a tougher stance in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Finally, Netanyahu’s ulterior motive must be recognized. While Yitro offered his advice purely out of a desire to serve God and help the Jewish people, Netanyahu will be standing for reelection just two weeks after mounting the rostrum in the House chamber. It is hard to believe that he did not consider the political benefit of appearing before Congress and letting their waves of applause wash over the Israeli television audience.

Perhaps it’s not too late for Netanyahu to learn from the Bible’s wise Midianite. He should arrange with the Obama administration to trade his very public address to Congress for a private audience at the White House. There, he could present his very valid views on the importance of getting the nuclear negotiations right—or walking away and exploring other options. But he would simultaneously be offering President Obama—who, after all, has two more years in the White House—a rather significant peace offering. This avenue would serve to prevent Israel from becoming a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., while allowing Netanyahu to save face with his electorate in Israel, who will appreciate the relative value of a face-to-face meeting with the President.

Should Netanyahu continue with his plan unabated, he is far more likely to damage the bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship than he is to hinder Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. Yitro, the wise leader who offered his advice to Moses out of love, would certainly not follow Netanyahu’s path. It remains to be seen if Netanyahu possess the wisdom to change direction.

About the Author
Seffi Kogen is Global Director of Young Leadership for AJC, coordinating the organization’s activities for the rising generations of American Jews. He is also the host of People of the Pod, AJC and the Times of Israel's weekly podcast, which can be found at and on your phone’s podcast app.
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