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Tetzaveh and the Iranian Crisis Sermon

As we prepare for Purim and its story of a Persian tyrant with genocidal designs against the Jewish people, my thoughts to turn to the present crisis about modern day Iran.  There has been a great deal written about Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, the recent sanctions and an expected attack by Israel—perhaps as soon as this summer.  One might think that given these sentiments Israelis are stocking gas masks, preparing their safe rooms and spending evenings in bomb shelters.  This is far from the case.  There appears far more worry here than in Israel.

A few observations are in order.  My observations are more about how we navigate this present conflict.  I am not of course the president, prime minister, or chief of staff.  I have no expertise in military matters.  My knowledge is more about our feelings and how we prioritize them, as well as our commitments as Jews.  Not all of these observations agree with each other.  They are meant to help us unpack what is at stake in this crisis.

1. In Israel there is widespread agreement that Iran represents a grave threat.  There is however disagreement over how to deal with this.  The most recent poll indicated that the country is evenly divided regarding a military attack.

2. We should take antisemites and tyrants at their word.  The notion that they can be swayed by reason is flawed.  The idea that the mullahs of Iran will be influenced by rational arguments is false.  Economic sanctions might very well influence them, but reason will not.

3. That being said the comparisons to 1938 are also flawed.  The notion that today’s diplomatic efforts are the same as Chamberlain’s is erroneous.  Not every antisemite, and dictator, is Hitler, as evil and as menacing as they may be.  As Gershom Gorenberg observed when you paint the current crisis in terms of the prelude to World War II then the only acceptable choice becomes a military attack.  There may come a point when that is the only option but such historical analogies shrink our options rather than expand our choices.

4. I take our president at his word when he says that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.  We might disagree about how to prevent this, but as an American and a Jew I have to hope that he means what he says.  I have to believe that America will do everything necessary to prevent Iran from building a bomb.

5. Israel’s existential anxiety is of course greater than that of the US.  Iran’s rulers have threatened to destroy Israel and death to America.  But Israel is threatened by its proximity, by its size and by its limitation in absorbing an attack.  The threats are felt differently here rather than there and we must recognize this and come to terms with this most basic of facts.

6. We feel a great sense of discomfort when Israel and US interests don’t appear in sync.  We feel anxiety when Israel becomes a battleground in American politics.  This will become even more pronounced at the AIPAC conference.  When candidates argue who would best protect Israel we become uneasy.

7. The US should prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons not to protect Israel but because it is in the US interest.  Each nation should act out of its own interest.  I would rather hear words here why Iran is a threat to the US and in Israel why it is threat to Israel.  The Iran hostage crisis defined my highschool years.  In fact Iran’s current president was then a hostage taker.  I do not understand why that is not being discussed in the US.  I do not understand why the discussion appears more about how Iran is a threat to Israel and not how it is a grave threat to the US.

8. Only Israel, its leaders and people can determine what is in its own interests.  This is not because the US is untrustworthy but because this is the very nature of Zionism.  I continue to believe that the definition of Zionism is that Israel must go it alone. The nature of having a Jewish state is that we must not depend on the world—even our greatest ally. We will write Jewish history ourselves—for better or worse. It will no longer be done to us. We will never again be victims. And this is my biggest problem with the tenor of the debate among American Jews. It is all about Jewish victimhood and not what I believe Zionism is truly about, Jewish strength. It is all about America (under Obama) is victimizing the Jewish people, and selling Israel out.  Or it is about portraying Israel as threatened with destruction and so America (and especially American Jews) should come to its rescue.  Both of these pictures are a betrayal of what I believe Zionism should be.

9. I remember the first Gulf War well.  I recall the Scuds falling on Tel Aviv and I suspect that Bush Senior then asked Israel to restrain itself from attacking Iraq so as to preserve that tenuous coalition.  Israel restrained itself at great cost to the Zionist psyche.  Israel was built on the notion that only it could guarantee its own safety, not Patriot missiles but its own might and ingenuity.  This is again at stake—and is certainly a factor in the minds of Israel’s leaders.

Yossi Klein Halevi writes ("Can Israel Trust the United States When It Comes to Iran," TNR, March 2, 2012)
The Iranian nuclear threat could force Israel to choose between two of its essential national values. On the one hand, there is the commitment to Jewish self-defense. On the other hand, there is the longing to be a respectable member of the international community. Allowing an enemy that constantly threatens Israel’s destruction to acquire the means to do so would negate Zionism’s promise to protect the Jewish people. And launching a preemptive strike without American backing could lead to Israel’s isolation and risk Zionism’s promise of restoring the Jews as a nation among nations. 
In this excruciating dilemma, the question of whether Israel can trust the administration to act militarily against Iran becomes all the more crucial. Israeli leaders believe that their window of opportunity in launching a preemptive strike will be closing in the coming months. America, though, with its vastly superior firepower, could retain a military option even after Israel’s lapses. In other words: An Israeli decision not to strike this year will mean that it effectively ceded its self-defense—against a potentially existential threat—to America. When Obama tells Israel to give sanctions time, what he is really saying is: Trust me to stop Iran militarily when you no longer can. 
Thus the very definition of what it means to be a Zionist and an Israeli is also on the table.

10. As American Jews we are destined to live with conflict as well.  We desperately want Israeli and American interests to be synonymous.  But they are not and they never will be.  Each nation has different interests and different agendas.

Yossi Klein Halevi again writes:
In the end the dilemma for both Israel and the U.S. isn’t only strategic but ethical. Israel has a moral responsibility not to surprise its closest friend with an initiative that could drastically affect American well-being. And the U.S. has a moral responsibility not to pressure its closest Middle East ally into forfeiting its right to self-defense against a potentially genocidal enemy. 
In better times, the two allies might have been able to navigate these conflicting needs. But in the absence of mutual trust, what could remain are conflicting perceptions of interest. 
We may soon face the scenario that the two nations we love will not act in harmony and that Israeli, or American, actions will bring criticism, dissension, resentment and perhaps even antisemitism.

We must remain strong.  We must remain resolute.  We must be willing to live with conflict.  We must be willing to fight for Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit.  And as well to defend America’s right to support its own interests—even when they might be contrary to Jewish, and Israeli, interests.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of the ner tamid, the light that must be continually tended.  For American Jews it must be a love of both Israel and America, it must be a love for the country that is our home, and the nation that is our Jewish people’s destiny.  Whatever the coming year brings, that flame must remain our eternal light.


Hi Steve,

Thanks for this piece, which I just read although you published it a few months back. Sadly, the issues remain the same.

I'm happy to see someone in the mainstream rabbinical community addressing the issue of the relationship between Israel and the United States, and I think you did a great job laying it on the line. I think you're a 100% right; it's a difficult and complex relationship, and you offer some insights into how it can be untangled a bit.

Hope you're well. Shira in college and Ari in high school? I think they were four and two when I took your class. Alas, I am old.