Jonathan Pollard may soon move to Israel. For decades, I endorsed the release of this clearly-guilty yet abusively-punished spy whose sustained imprisonment I called “the worst act of official American anti-Semitism in our lifetimes.” Still, I hope Israelis and the government control themselves. Don’t give him a hero’s welcome. He doesn’t deserve it. The American government treated him abominably but he acted unlawfully. And don’t believe he only acted altruistically. That doesn’t explain the thousands of dollars he earned, the diamond-and-sapphire ring his Israeli handlers gave him, or his efforts to shop American secrets to South Africa and possibly Pakistan.
I’m not arguing that a hero’s welcome will annoy many American Jews – which it will. I’m not objecting that gushing about an American who spied on America will alienate Joe Biden – which it will. I fear for Israel’s soul. During this brittle moment in Israel’s political history, and the history of democracy, protecting Israel’s soul is a pressing national security challenge.
In his non-eulogy honoring Theodor Herzl when he died in 1904, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook noted that Israel, like all nations, seeks “material improvement.” But Israel’s unique mission involves cultivating “spirituality” too. Kook blessed the Zionist desire to accumulate “material powers … coupled with spiritual excellence.”
From across the religious spectrum, A.D. Gordon toasted the “cosmic” element of nationality that comes from fusing the people’s “spirit” with their homeland. In 1961, when the Atlantic magazine celebrated Israel’s “Bar Mitzvah year,” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion christened Israel “The Kingdom of the Spirit.”
Obviously, Israel needs spies and soldiers who sometimes act ruthlessly, but you don’t roll out the red carpet when they finally get out of jail. Pensions, yes; parades and medals, no. You also don’t nominate veterans with a history of threatening Arabs to head Israel’s Holocaust holy of holies, Yad Vashem, as Ze’ev Elkin and Bibi Netanyahu did with Effie Eitam. Leading Yad Vashem isn’t just more political pork to distribute. Eitam must be suited to some other plum post, experientially, ideologically, temperamentally and ethically – perhaps a new position protecting parents of fallen soldiers who are protesting democratically from Likud thugs.
Similarly, thank President Donald Trump for supporting Israel, from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to facilitating the Abraham Accords. But keep it subdued. Again, not to placate President-Elect Biden, but because Trump’s presidency has been so divisive, his rhetoric so harmful, and his refusal to accept obvious election results so outrageous. Trump belongs in every democracy-lover’s Hall of Infamy. There are few greater democratic sins. Any loser questioning an election’s sanctity without substantial proof demeans the people. When a still-popular president lashes out, it risks becoming explosive.
A friend shared a photo of the new wine “Pompeo” honoring Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Psagot. I feared Trumpian sour grapes might ruin the taste, but laughed that it’s a “blend” – like Trump: some good, much bad.
Resist your Twitter-perverted impulses to reduce these to left-versus-right clashes – this is right or wrong. When did nationalists stop seeing themselves as patriots, as custodians of the nation’s soul? When did nationalists become transactionalists, only concerned with pragmatic – material – matters? How could they discount that cosmic glue, that spiritual essence so essential for any democratic nation, let alone Israel? It’s not just in our DNA as Jews – it’s why Israelis sacrifice so easily, heroically. Without that higher purpose, without stretching, what are we, who are we –and what will we become?
Alas this spiritual rot infects some rabbis too. Instead of cultivating unity, while illuminating the Torah’s pathways toward higher purposes, some rabbis are spewing hatred. The ongoing, obsessive attacks against the great Halachist Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, our generation’s Yosef Caro, must be repudiated categorically. Melamed’s “sin” was participating last spring in a panel I moderated with a Reform rabbi Delphine Horvilleur.
That the hysterical attacks continue five months later, suggests a deep insecurity lurking behind the rabbinic frowns. What do they fear? Have they so lost faith in their arguments, in Judaism’s shining example, that they ban contact instead of encouraging debate?
Their pathetic whining makes these rabbis look spent, without any ethical inspiration to offer. The ever-confident Rav Kook taught to hug and dance and learn with your fellow Jews. As my oldest son noted: “sure they bash Rav Melamed. But when their kids have any Halachik questions, the first source they trust is Rav Melamed’s Peninei Halakha ,” pearls of Jewish law.
It’s tragic. Hyper-partisan transactional nationalism continues coarsening the nation’s soul, reducing all supporters to enablers – of a stale prime minister’s corruption, a useful president’s anti-democratic disruptions, a self-pitying spy’s delusions of grandeur. These problems distract, when, for example, today, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, demands a collective focus on this abuse epidemic.
Consider how powerful it would be to hear our leaders, our rabbis, denounce this real scourge rather than fighting their phantom fears. Last night, WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, illuminated major buildings throughout Israel in red in solidarity. Na’amat, a Labor Zionist Women’s Organization, produced videos coaching abused women about how to get help, including calling a Na’amat hotline. In June, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, distributed special Covid-19-related grants to fight the growing violence.
All these Zionist organizations understand protecting women as a universal, women’s, national, Jewish, and Zionist issue. That integration demonstrates the kind of concerted spiritual excellence the Torah dictated, Rav Kook articulated, and we deserve from our leaders too.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.