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A Moral Stain

Mark ThomasEPA-EFEREXShutterstock

“Foes or friends, this must be heard,” wrote Gunter Grass in his poem “This must be said: what a mess!” This brings me to another poem, written by another German, a pastor named Martin Niemoller, titled “First They Came…” While most of you are probably familiar with this poem, it must be heard again:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this short ‘confessional prose’ because of Israel’s—especially Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s—reaction to the devastating, atrocious, brutal invasion of Putin’s Russian forces into the proud, peace-loving country of Ukraine. We are all accustomed by now to the erroneous, overused term Nazis, Hitler this, Hitler that. But if ever there was a justification for it, then it is now. His name is Putin. Though he too uses the Nazi terminology wrongly for his propagandist usage. Of course, in his case, the name of another maniacal murderer, another megalomaniac despot comes first to mind. Stalin.

Whatever you call him, though, his intentions and actions are very clear, and are playing horrifically daily in front of our eyes. And so is the courageous, inspiring resistance of the Ukrainian people and their leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky—the only other Jewish leader of a country in the world—which has inspired the entire world with his resolute strength under such tremendous pressure. Not much less so for President Biden, for his straight, clear-eyed stand for freedom, democracy, and the Ukrainian people against the tyranny and unprovoked war of Putin and the Russians. He has taken a firm stand from the beginning, and was able to unify not only the American Congress and people of this country (to a large, impressive degree), but also Europe and the entire free world as well.

Who was left behind? Why, Israel of course, the very country one would expect to be at the forefront of those marching and speaking in defense of Ukraine. Another overused term/word, the Holocaust, and its crucial lessons, never had a better time to be used meaningfully. Yet the Israeli government fell silent suddenly. Not its people, no: they demonstrated and raised their voices in support of the Ukrainian people. And not all the government. Foreign Minister (who’s supposed to be the next prime minister after two years to this coalition government) Yair Lapid spoke quite forcefully against the Russian invasion. And Israel, after all, voted together with the other 141 countries in the UN Assembly to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Indeed, as I write this, Israel is planning to establish a field hospital in Lviv, Ukraine. Israel is also, though not problem-free, absorbing many refugees. Some Jews, some not. Among them was a group of Jewish orphaned children. Commendable. Yet PM Bennett, fancying himself Churchill, Kissinger—most likely Chamberlain, however, for his appeasement—had refrained so far from condemning Russia by name or deed. Worse still, the Ukrainian government, hearing the drums of war loud and clear coming from across the border with Russia, had asked America for a supply of the Iron Dome missile defense system, to fight the invading army’s rockets and missiles that were sure to come. Let‘s stop here and think for a moment what a difference to the brave Ukrainian fighters that would’ve made. But no. Though the US administration had agreed, Israel had refused to go ahead with it. Frightened of who and what exactly?

Well… Putin. Our century’s Hitler/Stalin. This goes deep, my friends, to the essence of the creation of Israel and its moral fortitude. I have no doubt that in the days to come Israel would help Ukraine even more. And it will do some good deeds. But in the crucial moment of need, it failed to stand up for the tyrant. Bennett fancied himself a peace negotiator, even broke the Shabbat in order to fly to the dictator’s long table. What for? What did he think? That he will convince him to stop the war? That he can bring peace where there was no wish for peace? He may have confused, when it came to Putin’s treatment of Israel, the snake’s apathy for empathy.

I’m very well aware that Israel has its own needs and calculations. Free air attacks in Syria’s skies on Iran’s forces there, and torpedoing the imminent renewal of The Nuclear Deal with Iran. Which I see, by and by, as Bennett’s real concern and urgent flight to Moscow. His attempt to receive confirmation from the despot that he would cancel his approval of it. Real politics has its demands. But not in that moment of defiance in which the whole world is holding its breath, united (almost) in its worry that a madman, with an immense arsenal of nuclear bombs, will push the trigger and blow this world up.

NO. This was a time for moral strength. For moral clarity—not moral relativity. For everything Israel, the Jewish state is supposed to be about. History was calling. But the call was not returned. Not initially, anyhow. Which the free world—“Foes or friends, this must be heard… This must be said: what a mess!”— will surely remind us of in the next, our own hour of need.

* The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

THE BIG WIN

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When it comes to the Iran Nuclear Deal, the victory in the American Congress of the peace and diplomacy camp, which was led into battle – and make no mistake about it, it was a fierce, and ‘bloody’ battle – by President Obama, the Democrats and J Street, over the war and anti-diplomacy camp, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Republicans and AIPAC, is one for the ages. I will not delve here into the merits and faults of the nuclear agreement itself, not only because it is by now a fait accompli, but also because it was written about, talked about and digested at length everywhere else. Time will tell how wise it was to sign that deal, and how successful it would turn out to be. I, for one, support it – warts and all – and have fought hard, in my own small way, to see it pass in the Congress. Regardless of the success of that deal, the outcome – the crushing defeat of the forces that had mobilized against it – is worth a second thought, and required a thorough analysis. I’m going to give it my best shot here.

To begin with, let me remind you that in the past – not once – I allocated ample time and space to write about the ease with which PM Netanyahu has always handled, and defeated President Obama. He did so on numerous occasions, on all things related to Israel and the Middle East, whether the action and debate was taking place in Israel or in America. I believe I’d once even used the expression, so beloved in Israel, of Netanyahu “eating Obama for breakfast,” in order to demonstrate his total power over the president. The last such instance had occurred with the collapse last year of the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, under the leadership of Obama and his Secretary of State Kerry. PM Netanyahu toyed with them both, pretending to seriously participating in the negotiations, aiming to bring about a Two-State solution, while he had no intention – whatsoever! – to go through with it. Those of us who’d read it correctly, and had even predicted the failed outcome, observed with amazement how Netanyahu – when push came to shove, and when the “idiot” Kerry (as some in Netanyahu’s government had reportedly referred to him) had proved to be just too serious about the whole “damn peace” thing, and indeed was close to a deal – had torpedoed the negotiations with such ease, and together with them the American efforts at peace and diplomacy.

Not this time, though. The long, protracted fight to produce the nuclear deal with Iran; the fact that America had joined forces with the U.N. and with the six (i.e. the P5+1) major powers of the world, was proven to be too much even for Mr. Netanyahu to overcome. It is one thing, you see, with the help of the Republicans, AIPAC — its rich donors and enablers in steps – to muddle and disrupt the internal politics of this country, but the affairs of the world are, thankfully, a different matter. This outcome, and the influence our major allies – Britain, France and Germany – had on the debate in Congress, was crucial. They did not interfere with the democratic process, as indeed Mr. Netanyahu did when he came to Congress and spoke there against the deal, but had made it very clear – with their actions “on the ground,” and with advice whenever requested – that they intend to go through with the agreement no matter the outcome of the vote in congress. Cameron, Hollande and Merkel even wrote a joint – how rare is that? – opinion piece in the Washington Post on “Why we support the Iran deal” on the eve of the first vote in Congress. Overall, this development has had a tremendous, and rightly so, effect on many of the Democrats in Congress, and therefore contributed to the defeat of the forces opposing the deal.

The second major factor in this win was of course President Obama himself. He bravely went to war with all guns blazing, with the firm knowledge that this is going to be his most significant, important Foreign Affairs diplomacy achievement. Remember, he received the Nobel Peace Prize at the beginning of his presidency, and he knew he had to live up to it, and prove it was a good decision after all. It was also his one chance, probably the last one he had, to vanquish Netanyahu and prove him wrong. I was privy to a conference phone call with the president early in the campaign, and I can assure you that he indeed saw it as a must-win battle for his presidency and legacy, and was mobilizing all his forces with the urgency rarely seen or heard since his first election. He was relentless, and for once saw clearly where and how Netanyahu was maneuvering his Republican and AIPAC forces against him, and outmaneuvered him and then some.

As for the democrats in Congress, it was a much slower process, at times painfully so. The effort to mobilize them into recognizing, first, that the pluses of the nuclear deal outnumbered the minuses; and second, the realization that this time each and every one of them was accountable, and personally responsible for his or her decision in standing up to the Republicans, AIPAC and their lobbyist, and protecting their president and its foreign police – was a sight to be seen and behold. They did it one by one, and almost gave us a heart attack while doing so. Most of them in the Senate, minus three defectors, overcame the opposition pressure and at the end stood out with flying colors; protecting the constitution (i.e. the right of the executive branch to decide on foreign policy matters), the legitimacy of Congress in the process, and their democratically elected President. It was not easy for them, doing so, but they saw the light this time and had the necessary courage to follow it to victory.

The last – and by no means the least – major force to fight and deliver this win, is J Street. The liberal, peace-oriented Jewish nonprofit advocacy organization declared its support for the deal and the president early on, and fought tooth and nail – with limited resources, compared to the opponents – to mobilize its supporters, and through them the Jewish people throughout the land to support the president and their Democratic congressmen and senators. It was the first major win for J Street over AIPAC, but it came with cost, and much bitterness. It was very hard for Jews who supported the deal to stand up and be counted; to proclaim their support for the deal against the loud, bombastic, organizational, rabbinical, big-money opposition, as orchestrated by AIPAC, was not an easy thing at all. Friendships were torn apart, even within families. And it may well prove, as the years go by, to be the most decisive, reverberating achievement of this deal: The ability of everyday Jewish people to stand up to the machine. Their ability to say no to AIPAC and its well-oiled operators, and even to their rabbis, and declare proudly: We have a mind of our own in this matter. We, Jews and Israeli Americans, we love and support Israel not less than you, and we care for its security and prosperity not less than you. And yet, we believe that this deal is good for Israel. That what we told our congressman and senators. And proudly so!

It is now left for the citizens of Israel – not for the politicians, oh no, they don’t possess the insight and courage by themselves – to see clearly, and understand deeply, the magnitude of the earthshaking victory and change that has occurred here in America and in its relation to Israel. Especially when it comes to American Jewry. If not, the chasm between Israel and the majority, liberal, progressive, democratic-leaning Jews of America will only continue to widen and grow.

* Published originally on “The Times of Israel.”
** The “Leave a comment” link is the last tag below, in blue.

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