Dear candidates Obama and Romney,
If there’s one aspect of Rosh Hashana that those outside the Jewish community are familiar with, it’s the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn whose siren-like cry marks the arrival of a new year.
Marc Angel, the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Synagogue in New York City, explains that spiritually sensitive people in the midst of a spiritual rut not only hear the shofar audibly, but also “within their minds.”
“It challenges them to re-energize themselves, to refocus on their goals,” Angel says. “The inner shofar keeps them alert.”
Politicians, too, need an “inner shofar.” To participate in politics is to recognize that there will always be competing and irreconcilable differences. To manage these in a civilized fashion is what separates democratic societies from authoritarian and totalitarian ones. For politics is one avenue that allows the members of society to pursue happiness of their own volition, instead of having it imposed upon them in the name of some utopia that leaders who retain power through fear and violence are forever promising.
If either of you has an inner shofar, you will need to heed it as you assess America’s place in the world. And you may find that you will have to heed it every day, because America’s adversaries do not practice politics in the sense that we do.
Allow me, then, to respectfully submit three ideas as to how, in its engagement with the world, America should reflect its core values:
Remind the world that human rights has no better friend than liberal democracy
One current human rights emergency that those of us living in free societies are painfully unaware of is the global trend of Christian persecution. Approximately 100 million Christians live with varying degrees of discrimination, harassment, and violence, mainly in the Islamic world, and also in unreconstructed Communist tyrannies like China and North Korea. Christians like Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran and Aasia Bibi in Pakistan languish in prison cells simply for refusing to recant their faith. Islamists routinely attack Christians in Nigeria and Egypt for the mere act of attending church.
Jews, of course, remember the past horrors inflicted upon us by Christendom. But we also understand that here in America, Jews and Christians live as equals, sharing many common values. Above all, we remember that the Nazi rampage that culminated in the Holocaust was a sidebar in the media coverage of the time. That’s why the imperative of “never again” applies not just to us, but also to any nation or group facing the threat of genocide. That insight is enabled because we live in a liberal democracy and because we know that liberal democracy is, when all is said and done, the best guarantee that human rights will be honored.
Remind the world that liberal democracy is not one system among many, but the best system of all
It’s not very fashionable to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: liberal democracy, particularly as it has evolved in the U.S., is a far superior system than any other. Millions of the immigrants who flock westward do so because they are fleeing the indignities imposed by Shari’a law and by the whims of Communist dictators. All these people risk life and limb out of the conviction that their choice is, in the words of General John Stark, “to live free or die.”
Fostering the growth of liberal democracy should be an explicit foreign policy goal of the U.S. That—and not surrender or appeasement—is the strongest guarantee of our stability.
It means, too, that we treasure the alliances we have with other democracies. During the High Holy Day period, Jews everywhere turn their thoughts towards Israel. We remember in particular how, on Yom Kippur in 1973, the Arab states launched a war of elimination against the one Jewish state on the planet. And then we reflect that little has changed.
To know that the U.S. will never abandon Israel, and never sell out her vital strategic interests in the name of diplomatic one-upmanship, is both a source of comfort and fear. Comfort that it is true for now, and fear that one day it might not be so. That’s why I would ask you to consider this observation: whoever is in power in Israel, whether of the left or the right, will not sway from the orientation towards America that has guided Israel since its founding. That is why Israel is America’s most reliable ally in the Middle East. As the extraordinary upheavals in the Arab world over the last two years demonstrate, the same cannot be said for the rest of the region, where our friends were corrupt thugs now removed, like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or, sadly, still in place, as in Saudi Arabia, a country that still bans Jews from entering its borders.
Remind the world that retaining our military edge is a means of maintaining stability, not undermining it
If weapons of mass destruction are to be a presence in our world, better that they should be in the hands of democracies that will use them as a deterrent. That, ultimately, is the reason why Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons: the anxiety that the Tehran regime will use them is well-founded, but even their possession risks changing the balance of power in the Middle East against our interests.
Moreover, do we want to set off an arms race in the region, so that Wahabi Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt seek out their own nukes? If the victor in your coming electoral contest does not act decisively in the ensuing months, we will lose control of the Iranian situation—and that will amount to the worst outcome of all.
In the context of our own debate on defense spending, you are both aware that China’s military budget has increased by more than 11 per cent, whereas we are casting doubt on our core military doctrines, like the ability to fight wars simultaneously. As the atrocities of 9/11 proved, we don’t search out wars; wars come to us. And if we don’t keep our military edge, we let down both our own people and our allies.
The year ahead is fraught with risks. I hope and pray that you will be the masters of those risks—not the servants.
Shana Tova u’metuka,
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.