Toward the end of the Haggada, after recounting the Ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians before the redemption, the liturgy asserts the ineradicable nature of anti-Semitism and puts forward the belief that God will be there to redeem the Jews.
“In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”
Whether or not you believe in a redeeming God who never fails to save the Jews from their enemies, it is undeniable that confrontation with tyrants and whole civilizations harboring lethal hatred for Jews has been a central theme of Jewish history. In both the time of the Bible and subsequently, genocidal enemies have targeted the Jews.
The tribe of Amalek tried to annihilate the Israelite slaves as they fled Egypt; Haman collaborated with the Persian Emperor Ahasuerus in an effort to kill every Jew in the 127 countries under Persia’s control; there were Greeks and Romans who conquered the Land of Israel and massacred, subjugated and ultimately expelled the Jews from their homeland.
In the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims regularly persecuted Jews. The Inquisition was a concerted attempt to erase Jewish identify through forced conversion. In the 17th century, despot Bohdan Khmelnytsky massacred more than 100,000 Jews in an attempt to eradicate them from Ukraine. In the 19th century, a series of pogroms took place in Russia, leaving thousands dead. And in the 20th century, the Soviet regime, particularly under Stalin, was disproportionately repressive of Jews and regularly used anti-Semitic scapegoat techniques.
And of course there were the Nazis.
Based on the track record, Jews are rightly concerned about the potential for yet another major outburst of lethal anti-Semitism.
“Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t after you,” author Joseph Heller had Yossarian say in Catch-22.
There is a tendency among Jews, however, to confuse very different assumptions. One is the ineradicable nature of anti-Semitism. Looking around the world today, it is fair to reach this conclusion.
But the other tendency is to see in present-day expressions of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews a reflection of a recurring, immutable theme. In this formulation, Hamas is Amalek; the Iranian mullahs are Haman; we are living in 1938; US President Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain, or Haman. The Nazis were Amalek. The massacre on Passover Eve 2002 at the Park Hotel in Netanya was Kristallnacht.
Part of the problem with this way of thinking is that it presents us from understanding the world the way it is. It replaces rational thinking with a mystical determinism. It obscures and even obliterates distinctions that are important to make if we are to understand our world and react to it in a way that maximizes our ability to influence it.
It was precisely this way of thinking that had to be rejected to make room for the sort of Jewish political activism that facilitated the creation of a Jewish state. As long as Jews believed that they were doomed to live in exile and that the Jewish question was unsolvable until there was a radical shift in conditions over which the Jews had no control, there could be no return to Jewish sovereignty. It was no coincidence that Zionism began as a distinctively secular revolution, which was later embraced, in some cases reluctantly, in other cases wholeheartedly, by Jews with religious faith.
More fundamentally, however, maintaining a habit of thought in which present-day violence against Jews is like all previous versions of violence against Jews and that we once again face Amalek or Haman or the Nazis, prevents Jews from recognizing the extent to which the Jewish present is radically different from the Jewish past. For if nothing else makes 2015 different from 1938, and the condition of the Jews today different from their plight under the rule of, say, Ahasuerus it is the existence of a sovereign Jewish state.
With a Jewish state comes not only power but also the responsibility to devise a policy based on the unique circumstances of contemporary reality. You may or may not believe that God will ultimately redeem the Jewish people, but in the meantime, the Jews of Israel must decide their fate based on more rational considerations.
Why only further antagonize a president already not that positively predisposed toward the newly reelected prime minister? There are two primary reasons – one in the airy realm of how Netanyahu grasps his historic role, and the other in the much more practical realm of trying to impact the parameters of a final deal.
IN THE FIRST REALM, Netanyahu keeps shouting from the rooftops about the incoming storm clouds, even though much of the world sees only sunny skies, because that is how he defines his historical role – that is how he views his legacy.
Much has been written of late about how Obama’s push for a nuclear deal is an attempt – like his rapprochement with Cuba – to create some kind of lasting legacy.
Netanyahu also has a legacy he wants to leave. Yet, unlike some of his predecessors, his dream is not leaving the legacy of being the “peacemaker” with the Palestinians, especially not at a time of dramatically shifting sands in the Middle East and a Palestinian partner intent on getting the world to impose a solution on Israel.
Rather, he sees a large part of his legacy as being the world leader who – when history is written – had the courage to stand up and say, “The emperor has no clothes.”
Anyone truly interested in how Netanyahu grasps his own historic role would do well to look at a speech he delivered last year at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Very few world leaders understood the enormity of the threat to humanity posed by Nazism. Churchill was one of them,” he said. “Few among our leaders, primarily Jabotinsky, warned against the imminent destruction facing our nation, but they were widely criticized and their warnings were disregarded, and they were treated as merchants of doom and warmongers.”
The world , he said, understood the reality in the 1930s, they understood the truth. But “they did not want to face the consequences of the truth.”
“Month after month, year after year, more and more information was received in London, Paris and Washington regarding the capabilities and intentions of the Nazi regime,” he said. “The picture was becoming clear to everybody. However, ‘they have eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear.’ When you refuse to accept reality as it is, you can deny it. And this is precisely what the leaders of the West did.”
And then he got to one of his main points: “As prime minister of Israel, I do not hesitate to speak the truth to the world, even when faced with so many blind eyes and deaf ears. It is not only my right, it is my duty... Today, we are not afraid to speak the truth to world leaders, as is written in our Bible: ‘I will speak of your testimonies before kings, and I will not be ashamed...’ ‘Listen, for I will speak noble thoughts; the opening of my lips will reveal right things.’” That view of his historical role is the reason he keeps speaking out against Iran, though others accuse him of “crying wolf,” of “war-mongering,” of being a merchant of doom and beseech him to “shut up about Iran already, it’s not working. We hear your arguments, yet are not convinced.”
WHICH LEADS TO the practical reasons Netanyahu continues to scream against the accord. He is simply not convinced that the world is not convinced, or cannot be convinced.
The sense in the Prime Minister’s Office is that since Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the deal, the parameters of the accord have been more carefully scrutinized. And that, from their perspective, is a good thing.
In this view it is essential to talk about the absurdity of negotiating with smiling Iranian negotiators, as the country gobbles up more and more parts of the Middle East; essential to talk about how Iran’s weapon program is, incredibly, not part of what is being discussed; important to talk about how the world went from a position of no uranium enrichment for Iran, to reportedly allowing 6,500 centrifuges; and critical to bring to the surface that the agreement does not call for the dismantlement of once-clandestine underground facilities not needed for peaceful nuclear developments.
Bring up these issues again and again and again until something sinks in. Expose more and more problematic elements of the agreement, in the hopes that this will impact upon public opinion, upon Congress and, ultimately, upon those at the top making the decisions.
The efficacy of this approach was seen by those advocating it immediately after Netanyahu’s Congress speech, when The Washington Post lead editorial the next day was headlined: “Obama needs to provide real answers to Netanyahu’s arguments.”
“Rather than continuing its political attacks on Mr. Netanyahu, the administration ought to explain why the deal it is contemplating is justified – or reconsider it,” the paper wrote, highlighting a key argument that Netanyahu made in his speech: that controls on Iran’s nuclear program should be linked to its behavior throughout the world and maintained “for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world.”
This week the Post ran another editorial highlighting one of the elements that Netanyahu hit hard on in his statements this week: that the talks are continuing even though Iran is stonewalling in providing answers to long-standing questions about its nuclear program posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“As the Obama administration pushes to complete an agreement-in-principle with Iran on its nuclear program by Tuesday, it has done little to soothe concerns that it is rushing too quickly to settle, offering too many concessions and ignoring glaring warning signs that Tehran won’t abide by any accord,” the paper wrote.
“An appropriate response to this blatant violation of agreements would be to insist that Iran complete the IAEA work plan before any long-term accord is signed or any further sanctions lifted.”
Netanyahu’s statement this week that the world must demand that Iran “come clean with the IAEA on past weaponization efforts” surely had a part in placing this issue now on the public agenda. And even The Economist, a publication generally very critical of Netanyahu, wrote this week that he “has a point on Iran.”
DURING THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN, Netanyahu came under much criticism for failing, despite his hooting and hollering over all these years, in stopping Iran’s nuclear march. But there is a degree of disingenuousness in this argument.
Iran has been trying for nearly three decades to get a bomb. It is definitely as intelligent, efficient and technologically sophisticated a society as others with nuclear capacity nearby, such as India, Pakistan, Russia and – if foreign reports are to be believed – Israel.
When Iran started its nuclear march in the late 1980s, the country’s ayatollahs certainly thought that three decades hence they would be in possession of a nuclear device. That they are not is due to many different factors – one being the hooting and hollering of Israeli leaders, beginning with Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 all the way down through Netanyahu today.
“It is now more than 27 years since the Iranians started this endeavor to have a nuclear weapon, and judging by their technical capabilities, they should have a nuclear weapon by now,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former top Military Intelligence officer and until January the director- general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
“If they don’t have it, it is because Israel has managed to form a global opposition to this attempt, and because of other things that Israel has done, and because of some things the Americans and the Europeans have done during this period,” he said. “ So there are ways to keep Iran away from nuclear capability.”
Even an agreement, if signed, would still keep them at some distant from the bomb – and Israelis would likely do everything possible, during the interim period, to ensure they don’t actually get it. As Kuperwasser put it, Israel will retain the option of “doing whatever we need necessary to slow down the way the Iranians move forward toward a nuclear weapon.”
In the meantime, Netanyahu will keep up the rhetorical, public pressure, believing that while to the outside observer it may not seem to be having any effect – because the sides are continuing to talk – it is helping to create an atmosphere, and to get people, such as US congressmen, to ask questions.
“The concessions offered to Iran in Lausanne would ensure a bad deal that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and the peace of the world,” he said Wednesday in a statement.
“Now is the time for the international community to insist on a better deal. A better deal would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior.
Iran must stop its aggression in the region, stop its terrorism throughout the world and stop its threats to annihilate Israel. That should be nonnegotiable and that’s the deal that the world powers must insist upon.”
By continuing to say this, by continuing to spell out what elements Israel believes needs to be included in a deal, Netanyahu is hoping to shape the final product – even if, on the surface, it appears as if no one is really listening.