Comparative history: Abraham Lincoln and Israel

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Seth D. Gord

By consensus, American historians regard Abraham Lincoln as our greatest President. With the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (which I have not seen) and on the heels of Bill O’Reilly’s bestseller “Killing Lincoln,” Americans are enjoying a new infusion of our 16th president.  

Yet, Lincoln’s election was unquestionably the most divisive moment in American history. Seven states seceded from the Union, and four more would follow; nearly one-third of the states had formally seceded and others were agitating. The Civil War mired Americans in combat with each other for four long, terrible years, resulting in more than 600,000 deaths — more than 10 times the number of soldiers killed in Vietnam and more than 50 percent more than the number of Americans killed in World War II.  

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Just months before the 1864 presidential election was about to take place, Lincoln believed that he would lose. If not for Confederate General John Hood’s aggressive tactics, which enabled General William Tecumseh Sherman to march to Atlanta thus splitting the South, history would have been so different.  Lincoln would likely have been remembered as a failed and terrible president. 

Why revere Lincoln? We look back and credit him with maintaining the Union and eradicating slavery. We accentuate this part of the story and correspondingly relegate the misery of war and its casualties to the background. Add Lincoln’s tragic assassination to the narrative and we become even more interested in and more proud of Lincoln the man.  

With Israel, the opposite is true. Too many bury the real moral and political issues and promote the pictures of dead children. Lincoln did not confuse the two.  And as long as we do, more will die, needlessly. Moral clarity is a pre-condition to true justice and peace.

The primary source of misery and death is that at least a significant number of Arab-Palestinian-Muslim leaders, and a significant percentage of their population, believes and actively teaches that Israel, a Jewish State, is illegitimate. The latest revelations, though unsurprising, come from Hamas and Hezbollah leaders. Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas, explained the recent Hamas-launched rockets: “We are sending a short and simple message:  There is no security for any Zionist on any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises.”  

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of heavily armed Lebanon-based Hezbollah, states, “The battle with us is going to be all over occupied Palestine, from the border with Lebanon to the frontier with Jordan to the Red Sea.”  

Some argue that Israeli concessions would bring peace. While such a claim may be true theoretically or with other peoples, it is not true today, it has not been true for the past decades, and it was not true from the inception of the Jewish State.  It never has been true.  The most generous Israeli offer made to the Palestinians, by Ehud Barack in 2000 with U.S. President Bill Clinton, sharply divided the Israeli public; but Yassir Arafat rejected it and responded with an intifada.  And in addition to Arab responses of war in 1948, 1967 (they mobilized for war), and 1973, and innumerable acts of terrorism, Arab leaders have from the outset rejected any partition plan.  At least a significant part of the Arab-Palestinian-Moslem world — Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran, and their supporters and sympathizers — seek an end to the Jewish State.  

And they have enablers.  

In the mid 1930s, the British government, which in its 1917 Balfour Declaration had looked favorably upon a Jewish National Home, changed its mind.  Why?  It needed Arab support for the war against the Nazis. But even after the war, the British government would not challenge the Arabs.  Immigration to what would be later called “Israel” was to be curtailed to a bare trickle, and would be subject to Arab approval.  

David Ben Gurion adamantly refused to accept such conditions, and a serious and ultimately deadly conflict with Britain ensued, until Britain withdrew from the region in frustration. What is not well known is that because of Britain’s approach, at a later critical juncture, American support for the Jewish State had weakened and was about to turn. If not for Ben Gurion’s military commitment, there might not have been an Israel; whatever measure of sympathy there was for the Jewish State, military weakness was fueling American doubt. Reluctantly, Israel needs to employ its military because the same attitudes still prevail in the Arab-Palestinian-Moslem world.

Reluctantly.  I have seen news reports and pictures focused on the death of Palestinian children. Ironically, Jews care more for Arab civilians than do Arab leaders. 

For generations the Arab world has kept its refugees suffering as a political tool. Hamas and Hizbollah leaders place their rockets amid population centers and use their civilians as shields. Suicide bombers are regarded as heroes and streets are named for them. Terrorist attacks, like the recent one on a Tel Aviv bus, are celebrated as occasions to hand out candies. 

As long as this attitude prevails and these moral crimes are excused, more innocent children will die needlessly.   

Conversely, commenting on this week’s Torah parashah, “Jacob was afraid and distressed,” our tradition taught that he was “afraid” of being killed, and “distressed” that he would have to kill others.  

In this spirit Golda Meir said to Anwar Sadat: “We can forgive you for killing our children, but we cannot forgive you for making us kill yours.” The slander of the age, depicted in those photos, is the insinuation that Jews do not care about killing Arab children. 

I have heard reports say that this needs a political solution, not a military one.  Agreed.  

But what then is the political issue?  

It is the militant refusal of too many Arabs-Palestinians-Moslems to accept a Jewish State. As long as Arab-Palestinian-Moslem nations teach their children that Israel is illegitimate, that Israel’s existence is criminal, and that Jews are evil, enough adorable young children will eventually become terrorists and militants. When there is recognition of Jewish historical claims to Israel, when their children are no longer taught to hate Jews, there can be peace.  

President Lincoln did not choose war — he did not want death. But if war were imposed upon him, and if the choice was to capitulate to dissolution, or the spread of slavery, he was willing to fight.  In the face of Arab hate, Israel will not dissolve itself.  

I think Mr. Lincoln would have resolutely supported Israel.