This sermon text, on “International Delegitimization and the Resilience of Israel,” was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5769 (September 12, 2009) as scholar-in-residence at the Young Israel of the West Side in New York City.
I have come from Israel to tell you that Israel is under attack and to ask you to raise your voice in its defense. I have come to tell you that this fall, as we approach Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, we Israelis are indignantly angry and alarmed about the direction we see international opinion and government policy moving. We are resilient, but we are worried.
Israelis are more united than ever around a new security and foreign policy consensus. But we also feel isolated, delegitimized, even demonized. Consequently, we need you to rise up in indignation, and mount a counterattack.
I said that we are resilient, but at the same time worried. Why are we so apprehensive?
Because the intellectual climate and the tone of international debate about Israel and Israeli policies has become venomously poisoned.
It is becoming acceptable, even quite regular, to talk about Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity; to seek criminal prosecution of Israeli leaders and military men in international courts; to debate the Israel is an apartheid state contention; to discuss divestment from Israeli companies; to publish blood libels about Israeli soldiers; to publish op-ed articles in the most respected journals expressing sympathy for the so-called Palestinian “right” of return and advocate for a “one-state” solution; to express respect for despots and religious movements who seek Israel’s destruction and who barely conceal their disdain for the West; to celebratize tyrants and grant them frenzied media glory as if they were rock stars, even here in New York City — including this month.
So we Israelis, as I say, are resilient, but we are worried.
You may think, perhaps, that I am exaggerating. Let’s consider the record.
A Swedish newspaper, albeit a tabloid, decided to publish a blood libel about IDF trafficking in Palestinian organs. Worse still, the accusation was that Israel purposefully kills Palestinians in order to harvest their organs. The author says he doesn’t know or have any proof that it is true, but the newspaper editor says he published it anyway because it could be true! He deems it conceivable that it really happened; that Israel does such things.
The Los Angeles Times published recently an op-ed article, by an Israeli of course, calling for a total boycott of his own country. Again, the decision to publish this on a prestigious op-ed page means that the editor feels that discussion of a global boycott of Israel could or would be legitimate. This wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. We are witnessing the expansion of the marketplace of ideas to include complete defamation, delegitimization, even demonization of Israel.
And thus I say again — we are resilient, but we are worried.
Remember that virtually every government in the world went out their way, a few years ago, to condemn some perfectly innocent cartoons that offended some Moslems by portraying Mohammed. Without making comparative judgments of relative offensiveness, no reasonable person could argue that depicting a long-dead religious figure comes anywhere close to falsely accusing contemporary Jews of murdering innocent Palestinians for their blood and organs. No one intelligent can be unaware of the echoes this brings to the fore of centuries of blood libels against Jews, and their result: pogrom and concentration camp. But the Swedish prime minister and foreign minister reused to distance themselves from, never mind condemn, the article. No other world leader felt the need to comment either.
By choosing to remain silent, they all become facilitators of bigotry.
When the Swedish-style assault on Israel is augmented by organizations that present themselves as global guardians of human rights, it stops being merely absurd; it becomes a campaign aimed at undermining Israel.
Beginning in Durban, and then after each of Israel’s recent wars of defense against Hezbollah and the Hamas, groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, Oxfam and others – many of whom are based here in NY, not in Europe — have published report after report, applying the labels of war crimes, massacres, deliberate attack on civilians, disproportionate force, collective punishment and ethnic cleansing to Israel’s actions. These human rights superpowers are trafficking in an entire world of “lawfare” against Israel, using the language of international law and human rights to criminalize Israel. The next shoe to fall in this regard is the Goldstone report, expected this coming week; the United Nation’s formal investigation of alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Headed by a Jew.
It seems to be open season on Israel.
And thus, despite our resilience, we are worried.
I was just in Toronto. In Toronto, filmmakers and writers from Jane Fonda to Naomi Klein have launched a boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival because it is featuring a few films celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv. They say that Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who is attending, is a war criminal because Tel Aviv is built on stolen Palestinian sand. The so-called Toronto Declaration signed by Fonda and about 100 others says that “in the year when Gaza happened, there shouldn’t be a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv.”
In England, intellectual and highbrow discourse about Israel – in the media, academia and literary circles — has over the past twenty years gone from moderately pro-Israel to viciously anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. The former Israeli foreign ministry legal advisor Alan Baker, now a lawyer in private practice specializing in international law, tells me that he advises commercial El Al pilots who still due reserve duty in the Israel Air Force – not to pilot flights into Britain, Spain or Belgium – because they could be arrested in those countries for war crimes.
So I ask you: How can we prevent America from becoming like Britain? How do we prevent the talk about boycotting and divesting from apartheid Israel – so prevalent in today’s England — from swimming across the Atlantic? What do we have to do in order to prevent public opinion from sliding into the European-style madness of criminalizing Israel?
Here in New York and in Washington there are malicious intellectual winds blowing as well.
Walter Russell Mead, an important foreign policy thinker at the Council of Foreign Relations here in New York, wrote a major essay in Foreign Affairs magazine in February which calls on the international community to take another, more positive look at the Palestinian right of return. So did Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in an August issue of The New York Times. Mead is a decent, generally favorable to Israel, mainstream guy who has spoken at the think-tank with which I am associated, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel. Yet this does not stop him from today advocating something, which, as you all know, fatally erodes the basis for a Jewish state.
Going down the path of Palestinian return would inexorably lead to the end of Israel. The net result of these articles is that there isn’t room in their strategic heart for a Jewish state in the Mideast. They want us to have more sympathy for Palestinian demands!
In response, I say that the Palestinians already get too much international sympathy. Their history has been one tall tale of rejection of Israel and the world. They should not be shocked that a Jewish state rose and exist. They were on notice of this by the international community ever since 1922. They have continuously denied this and rejected all compromises. Their record of misbehavior needs not to be sympathized with; we need not impute to them more rights!
Sixty years of Israeli achievement and state building cannot and must not be erased because the failing Arab world wants to foist another failure, the Palestinian national movement, and what would assuredly be another failed state — on Israel.
It is the Arab world that is responsible for Palestinian misery, not Israel or the West! They kept Palestinian refugees suffering as pawns and prevented their resettlement. So now Israel and the West should pay? This is bad, dangerous, thinking, and it is gaining a toehold even in important foreign policy circles here in the US.
And in the meantime, Israel’s hard core detractors are having a festive time. Charles Enderlin of French TV2, the father of the Al Dura lie, just received France’s Legion of Honor from President Sarkozy. Anti-Israel activist Felicia Langer just received Germany’s Federal Honor of Cross, and Durban chairperson Mary Robinson was just awarded the US presidential Medal of Freedom by your very own President Barack Obama.
Claudia Rosett has written that we’ve even entered the age of the “celebrity tyrant.” Hardly a week goes by without the exploits of some despot or another snatching the headlines. One week its North Korea’s Kim Jong hosting Bill Clinton for dinner and a detainee pickup. Another week Muamar Kaddafi celebrates the parole of one of his Lockerbie bombers, and then it’s Burma’s Than Shwe milking the hostage-politics racket for a house call by Senator Jim Webb. Mahmoud Ahmadenijad comes to New York and has dinner with 1,000 friends at Grand Hyatt, and lunch with 50 select American opinion-makers at the Intercontinental. Kaddafi is even higher up than Ahmadenijad on the UN speeches list for Sept. 23, coming soon at a General Assembly near you.
A generation ago, dictators of this ilk were a lot less rich in cachet. Saddam Hussein was hiding in a spider hole, Kaddafi was trying to appease America, and Assad was teetering. Today, however, President Obama is dishing out “respect” faster than the rulers of Teheran, Tripoli, Pyongyang or Caracas can spit their contempt right back in his face.
There is, my friends, a strange, hard-to-understand alternative universe overtaking international affairs, in which the discourse is less about decency and morality than about thrills, weirdness, showmanship, and despotic glitterati.
Let me tell you a true story that took place just a few months ago at the Sheba Medical Center/Tel Hashomer Hospital in Israel. I do some public affairs work for the hospital.
Many Palestinian children sick with cancer are treated at this Israeli hospital. Several months ago, there was an eight-year-old Palestinian child from Gaza at the hospital, ill with a rare form of cancer. He was clearly going to die without a bone marrow transplant.
Sheba worked hard to obtain permission to enter Gaza and test the child’s relatives, until they found an 18-year-old brother who was an almost perfect bone marrow match. The problem was that Israeli authorities didn’t want to grant this brother entry into Israel for the operation, because he was a Hamas activist.
A number of doctors at the hospital are senior activists in the Israeli NGO, Physicians for Human Rights, and they, along with Shimon Peres’s son-in-law, who is also a senior physician at the hospital, successfully petitioned the Israeli Ministry of Defense to grant special dispensation, and allow the brother into Israel. In order to save his little brother’s life.
The brother arrived Friday afternoon. Friday night, the doctor’s began the delicate procedure. Within a 24-hour window, you need to suppress the patient’s immune system, harvest the bone marrow from the donor brother, and transplant. The procedure began.
But Friday night at midnight the donor brother from Gaza disappeared. Just disappeared. Gone. The doctors went crazy. One nurse said: I saw two Shin Bet agents come and take him away. The secret General Security Service spirited the 18-year old away. This was a death sentence for the sick eight-year old Palestinian child.
What do you do? The hospital director called the prime minister’s office in the middle of the night; which called the Shin Bet. Where is my bone-marrow donor, he demanded to know!
Yes, we took him away, explained the Shin Bet. You see, they had been eavesdropping on the 18-year-old’s cell phone conversations. From within an Israeli hospital, to which he had been specially brought in order to save the life of his younger brother, this youthful Palestinian terrorist was giving instructions on the phone to the Hamas in Gaza how to get past security at Tel Hashomer Hospital and blow the place up!
Now, I want all of you to remember: We’re the war criminals! Right?
So my friends, it is a scary world. There is a lot to fear. A lot to daven (pray) about.
Hazal, our sages, say that fear is good. Shlomo Hamelech said in Mishlei (Ecclesiastes): “Ashrei adam mefahed tamid.” It is good to always be a bit afraid. Rabbi Soloveitchik famously taught that true tefilla (prayer) arises from a sense of fear and trepidation. From tzara. “Only the sufferer truly prays,” wrote the Rav. “If man does not find himself in narrow straits, if he is not troubled by anything, if he does not know what tzara is — then he need not pray. To a happy man, to a contented man, the secret of prayer was not revealed. G-d needs not thanks or hymns. He wants to hear the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality. He expects prayer to rise from a suffering world cognizant of its genuine needs.”
We daven on Rosh Hashana:
ובכן תן פחדך ד’ אלוקינו על כל מעשיך
ואימתך על כל מה שבראת
ויירואך כל המעשים
וישתחו לפניך כל הברואים…
“Make all the world fear you, oh G-d, and impose your trepidation on all creation, and all mankind will be in awe of you and bow down to you….”
In other words, it all begins with shock and awe: “חיל ורעדה יאוחיזון”
The midrash in the book of Esther says that nothing galvanized the Jewish People to teshuva, repentance, more than the shekalim of Haman, the silver coins that he paid to King Achashverosh as bribe money in order to get a royal edict to kill all the Jews. Haman’s shekalim, says the midrash — Haman’s threat to annihilate the Jewish people – was more effective at moving Jews to repentance than the prophecies and admonitions all 46 prophets in Tanach, the Bible!
So, my friends, our concern for Israel, our trepidation over the intellectual climate about Israel – should galvanize us to prayer and to action.
To speak out and speak up in defense of Israel.
And I ask you: has American Jewry done all it can and should, to push back against unfair and immoral pressure on Israel?
Let’s take the issue of Washington’s pressure on Israel over the settlement issue. I’m not here going to get into the issue itself, or express an opinion of the wisdom or effectiveness of the Obama Administrations’ decision to make settlements a paramount issue.
But I am going to question the Administration’s indecent one-sidedness in pressuring Israel while not similarly showing toughness towards Arabs. This imbalance has created a very unhelpful dynamic in the region, whereby the Arabs feel they can sit back and do nothing while America delivers Israel.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress on May 27 that “With respect to settlements, the president was very clear. He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions… That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, and we intend to press that point.”
A Jerusalem Post columnist has suggested language for a similarly harsh Obama attitude to Iran. Here is what this tough approach would sound like if it was applied to Iran. “With respect to Iran and its nuclear weapons and sponsorship of terrorism, the president was very clear. He wants to see a stop to nuclear weapons – not just some nuclear weapons, not just the warheads, not just the missiles … That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, and we intend to press that point.”
But you never heard that, did you?!
Or how about the Syrians? “With respect to Syrian sponsorship of terrorism, the president was very clear. He wants to see a stop to Syrian sponsorship of terrorism – not just training terrorists, not just giving them safe passage, not just against Israel, not just against Iraq … That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, and we intend to press that point.”
But again, neither President Obama nor Secretary Clinton has ever come close to mouthing such tough love for Syria.
So I ask: Where has the voice of American Jewry been on this matter of Obama Administration one-sided pressure on Israel?
Chazal comment on the fact that during the exodus from Egypt, Am Yisrael passed through a place called Pi Hachirot, which in earlier times had been called Pitom. And they explain that pitom comes from the Hebrew peh satum, a closed mouth, a silenced tongue. Slaves are silenced. They have no voice. When the Jewish People left Egypt, however, Pitom, peh satum, became Pi Hachirot, freed mouths. And then they could use that freed tongue to sing shira, to give thanks to G-d. To speak up for themselves.
We too, today, have to find our freed tongues, and not be silenced by political correctness or winds of political chill. American Jewry has to be, it must be, Israel and the Jewish People’s bedrock of support in the face of a creeping, insidious, deep political chill against Israel.
To put it in the prophet Yeshayahu’s words that we read in today’s haftara – all chomotayich Yerusahlayim hifkatedly shomrim, kol hayom vechol halayla. We must beef up the guards on the ramparts of Jerusalem, who stand watch in protection of Israel, all day and all night.
Who are the shomrim, the sentries that guard Jerusalem? The Radak says the shomrim are the Jews of the Diaspora, who day and night pray for security and peace in Zion; who advocate for Israel among the nations of the world; who defend Israel against ludicrous and outrageous accusations of war crimes; who speak out against unfair and imbalanced pressures on Israel from Washington; who support the building and expansion of Jerusalem, and more.
Again, the words of the haftara: Leman Zion lo eheshe ulemann Yerushalayim lo eshkot, ad yetze kenoga tzidkata veyeshuata kelapid yivar.
My friends, the cholent is waiting. “I won’t keep you much longer” – as Henry the Eighth is said to have told each of his eight wives. But I have additional message to impart to you this morning. That the people of Israel are strong and resilient and more united than ever.
Despite all the international criticism we have discussed, and the pressures from friendly capitals, a new national consensus has emerged in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu faithfully and accurately represents that new consensus.
The consensus is that in principle we are prepared to partition the land with the Palestinians and allow for their state to emerge alongside ours. But in practice there is no chance in the world that we can allow this to happen anytime soon, because the Palestinians are very, very far from being anywhere ready to give us the security and recognition and compromises that we need.
The net result is that we will have to manage the conflict for a long time. Not all problems have solutions or ready solutions.
Israel can, must and will do all that it can to better manage the conflict, to lower the flames, to improve the quality of life for people on both sides of the conflict. But there is unlikely to be any grand conflict resolution over the next two years, as President Obama has declared.
The coalescence in Israel around this sober paradigm gives us resilience. We are not going to be pushed into any precipitous or risky new disengagements or withdrawals. It’s not just a question of unity. There has emerged a more profound Israeli consensus. It is the realization that – we’re not to blame! We’re not blaming ourselves. The world may be blaming us, but we’re not! And this self-assurance gives us tremendous buoyancy and strength.
We need you too, to recognize, understand, respect, reflect and reinforce that new consensus.
Moshe Rabbeinu admonishes us in today’s parasha: Chizku veimtzu al tiraoo veal taartzu mipneihem, ki hashem elokecha hu haholech imach, lo yarpecha velo yaazvecha, lo tira velo techat. Fear not, be strong, because G-d will be with you, He will not abandon nor leave you, fear not.
Bechol tzaratam lo tzar, says the haftara. G-d will not allow our enemies to hit us as they wish. Imo anochi betzara. He is with us in our affliction. He will protect us, if we act wisely and decisively, speak out and stand together!
Thank you for this opportunity to address you. Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.