Netanyahu’s nonsilence speaks volumes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the United States, calling for rejection of a bad nuclear deal with Iran. on March 03, 2015. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO

By Rabbi Seth D. Gordon

Well before accepting the invitation to address Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his critics. Some Israelis are put off or worn down by his political personality, his wheeling and dealing to gain and retain power. His policies are, for some, too hawkish; they charge him with ignoring opportunities to build bridges for peace. Moreover, under his administration, housing prices have dramatically increased even as middle class wages have not, creating a palpable crisis. 

But in the United States, Netanyahu’s ongoing public soap opera clash with President Barack Obama, exacerbated by his speech to Congress, particularly amid our own interminable internal political conflict, has unleashed new, sharp criticism. 

More than 50 Democratic representatives refused to attend his speech. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., turned her back at one point, and later said she cried over the harm that he is doing to U.S.-Israeli relations. Other critics charge Netanyahu with political opportunism, accepting the invitation to speak as a stunt to advance his political fortunes in next week’s Israeli elections. None of these charges is without merit; Bibi provides credible ammunition for his critics. 

But let us not miss another important point. For decades, Netanyahu has been perhaps the most public, passionate and articulate voice against some of the most dangerous forces in the world, from Islamic terrorism in general to Iran – its nuclear ambitions coupled with its nuclear activity, its sponsorship of global terrorism and its overt threat to annihilate Israel. 

Where were others when he bore the lone burden? Perhaps Netanyahu’s primary motivation is not personal political ambition or ego, but a nuclear Iran and its real consequences, consequences that may be abstract, theoretical and distant thousands of miles away in relatively safe America. 

This seems strangely underplayed. Locally, even the headline in the Jewish Light, “Bibi’s U.S. speech exposes partisan fault lines on Israel,” while true, misses the main story. The first words of the same front-page article are: “The controversy …” And the first paragraph is 

about Democrats and the 2016 election. It seems that we cannot get out of our politically charged way to appreciate serious content. 

When the leading Jewish voice in the world speaks about a threat that would annihilate a plurality of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, Jewish media and Jews, let alone conscientious others, should distinguish between the primary and the secondary. Could not the elections and the controversy have been a secondary related story?

One may argue, as Obama did, that there was nothing new in Netanyahu’s speech and, consequently, why should Jewish newspapers highlight the content of his speech? I don’t know about you, but I speak to my congregation 50 to 70 times a year. Surprise! I don’t always say something new. (I do aim to say something important.) Nor did President John F. Kennedy when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” What was new in his words? But JFK’s line is often quoted because of (a) who said it; (b) when it was said; (c) the context of his election and his assassination; and (d) because of its “Ask not” phrasing. 

Netanyahu, rightly or wrongly, was given a rare opportunity at a crucial juncture, and he seized it. What mattered is what he said, that he said it, where he said it, when he said it and how he said it. His words are the primary story. I give Netanyahu credit: He is speaking out boldly and courageously. He represents the people most directly threatened – 5.5 million Jews, 1.5 million non-Jewish Israelis, and the others in the area – by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He represents me. His voice is a unique one at a critical moment.

Just days ago, in celebrating Purim, we read in Megillat Esther that Mordechai, whose Jewish community was under threat by a cruel, hateful Persian (Iranian) official, told Esther, who had a slim opportunity to influence the outcome, “Al t’dami b-nafshech” (“Do not be silent … perhaps you were put in this position for a reason”). Moreover, in halachah (Jewish law), even a reasonable doubt about saving a life suspends nearly all other mitzvot – Shabbat, kashrut, prayer, etc. 

In trying to save life, is Netanyahu not acting responsibly?

No one knows whether the deal being negotiated with Iran is, as Obama says (I am paraphrasing), “the best way to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons,” or whether a better deal could be had, whether its flaws will give Iran cover, whether a more aggressive approach might have been better. As much as we wish, all we mortals can do is use our best intellect – understand the lessons and limitations of history, understand the real ambitions and limitations of our enemies, understand ourselves and our own limitations, make sincere assessments of the challenge – and go forward. 

So, even though he may be wrong, and even though there may be others within Israel’s defense establishment and the U.S. intelligence agencies that disagree with him, the prime minister of Israel’s personal and national and global responsibility does not wither; it is challenged. 

It was reported that Netanyahu now has the distinction as being only one of two foreign leaders to address Congress three times; the other is British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the years before the Nazis were able to unleash their mass death, misery and destruction upon the Jews, Europe and the world, Churchill was a minority voice advocating a more forceful engagement. It was not until Neville Chamberlain’s softer policies failed that Churchill finally ascended as prime minister. Churchill rallied, steadied and inspired his nation, and the world. 

Yet, soon after the war was over, Churchill, regarded as one of the greatest 20th century or any century leaders, was turned out of office by the British public. His personality was too much to bear, and his views had had their moment.

I do not know how Netanyahu will be regarded in history. Conclusive comparisons will need to wait. But at this stage, a few significant similarities are evident: The situation is grave, a leader more directly affected speaks against weak deals, critics are abundant, the personality is large and he may be turned out of office, sooner or later. 

The U.S.-Israeli special alliance, sharing broad and deep common values and history, will survive even public conflict between its leaders. As for the electoral consequences here and in Israel? So be it. No other person is in Netanyahu’s position. Mr. Prime Minister: Even with your flaws, for your nonsilence, I am proud of you.