The Obamathon is over. The barriers have been removed, the security forces have been deployed elsewhere, and the port-a-potties that dotted Jerusalem for their comfort have been carted away. Nevertheless, the excitement of Obamafest 2013 remains, the legacy of his affirming words still linger, and the payback he expects on Iran, with the Palestinians, has yet to be fully calculated – or collected.
“I’d love to sit at a cafe and just hang out,” President Barack Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 last week. Echoing many presidential predecessors who bristled in what Harry Truman called “the great White jail,” Obama confessed: “Sometimes I have this fantasy that I can put on a disguise and wear a fake mustache.” He mused about wandering Tel Aviv and meeting university students casually. In that spirit, I offer an alternative itinerary – with the requisite reading list to befit his earlier incarnation as a law professor. This itinerary would confirm Obama’s insight from his 2008 Atlantic interview, that Zionism reflects “the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.” More important, it would refute charges that Israel is America’s albatross or an obstacle to peace, reminding the President why polls show Americans support the Jewish state overwhelmingly.
Recently two teachers went to pay their respects to their principal as he sat shiva in Jerusalem. In one of those remarkable everyday moments of cooperation that never make headlines, one teacher was Jewish another was Arab, and they drove together naturally, happily. Unfortunately, in one of those horrific moments of violence that frequently make headlines, some religious teens harassed them, damning the Arab and Jew for riding together. The teachers were unhurt, but their car was damaged, as was the social fabric, the delicate lattice of social ties and values that define a society.
The master of ceremonies at Monday night’s AIPAC gala, introducing hundreds of leading American Senators and members of Congress to 13,000 enthusiastic Israel supporters, joked that “the chosen people” were now encountering “the elected people.” This AIPAC Israel love-fest, more freewheeling and fun carnival than dark political conspiracy, highlighted the deep, enduring, constructive friendship between the United States and Israel. Wandering around Washington’s packed Convention Center, seeing so many manifestations of the extraordinary American-Israel bond, I was struck yet again by how hard Israel’s enemies — call them the Benighted People — work to hijack the debate and rob us of anything good. The harshness of the criticism polarizes the debate and inflames the region, making these people, who call themselves progressives, a destructive, reactionary force advancing war not peace, unreason not reason, hurting all involved, damaging their supposedly beloved Palestinians as well as their intended target the Jews, er, I mean “only” Israelis.
Amid this weekend’s festive Purim spirit, Israel’s biggest adloyada festival occurred in the new Knesset. Adloyada is the standard for Purim partying, with Jews commanded to drink themselves silly, until they cannot distinguish – ad-lo-yada — between evil Haman and virtuous Mordechai. With Tzipi Livni emerging as Bibi Netanyahu’s first ally, with rumors that Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch might enter the government, and with continuing fears despite Netanyahu’s most recent moves that Yesh Atid, the centrist party that was most open to entering the government, might not be welcomed in the government, it has been hard to distinguish, fiction from fact, and promises from lies.
As preparations for Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel proceed, we need some conceptual, and linguistic groundwork, not just the usual itinerary generating, security planning, and soporific statement-drafting. For too long, the debate about American-Israeli relations has been too polarizing. Let’s silence the sky-is-falling cries proclaiming crisis and predicting disaster. Americans and Israelis should celebrate their deep, enduring relationship, cemented by Obama’s foreign policy formula from his second inaugural address: “our interests and our conscience.” With most Americans being “pro-Israel,” using the language of “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel” when discussing American politicians– including Obama and even Chuck Hagel — is foolish and self-defeating.
As the first almond trees in Israel start budding – bringing to life the famous children’s song, HaShkeidah Porachat – a new optimism is flourishing in Israel too. The election results continue to excite and inspire. I recently visited Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a veteran civil rights activist who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., and may be his generation’s leading Reform Zionist. When Dick examined the Yesh Atid list, filled with impressive people sacrificing for public service, including social activists and security experts, mixing secular Jewish educators like Ruth Calderon with open-minded Haredi rabbis like Dov Lipman he told his wife: “This is the Israel we signed up for.”
Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, the Rationalist Rebbe who with King David’s passion, Maimonides’ wisdom and Ben-Gurion’s institution-building skill, devoted his life to cultivating an expansive Judaism, an idealistic Zionism, and a functional Israel, died today in his beloved city of Jerusalem. Born in Brooklyn in 1931, educated at Yeshiva University and Fordham University, he began making his mark in Montreal in the 1960s. There, as a congregational rabbi, a McGill University professor, and a founder of the Akiva school, he honed his trademark abilities as a populist philosopher in the best sense of both words – speaking to the student within all of us, making illuminating Jewish and Western ideas relevant to generations of devotees. In 1971, inspired by the Six Day War, and, he quipped, guilty of taking his own sermons too seriously, he moved to Israel, with his extraordinary wife Bobbi and their children. Believing that “Israel offers Jews an unprecedented opportunity to regenerate the primary roots of Judaism,” this American thinker became an Israeli builder, founding the Shalom Hartman Institute think tank, named after his father, and establishing Hartman junior high schools and high schools, now teaching hundreds of boys and girls annually his humanistic, ethical, approach to tradition and modernity.
While Israel’s political mood is often as mercurial as its winter weather, this is ridiculous. As this winter whipsawed Israelis from torrential rains, hammering winds, and even snow to stunning sunshine, Israel has been buffeted from Election Day jubilation to Coalition-Construction anxiety, with Syrian chaos mounting, Iran’s nuclear threat continuing, and the UN Human Rights Council enabling Palestinian extremism by launching a new round of international lawfare against Israel. So many reminders of so many enemies’ irrational hatred for the Jewish state’s existence now threaten the great optimism Israel’s elections generated.
Despite all the Likud lamentations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should see the 2013 election results as a gift. Israeli voters demolished the growing stereotype of them as overwhelming right-wing and religious, let alone allegedly racist, anti-democratic, and theocratic. Blue-and-white ballot boxes across the country tallied Israel’s centrist sentiments, chaotic complexity, and democratic dynamism. And when a country’s standing improves, so does its leader’s.