In Plain Language: Who loves ya, baby?

Polls differ on just how deep an impression he made on us, but everyone seems to agree that we no longer have the same venal, visceral distrust of the Prez that we had before Air Force One landed.

US President Barack Obama lays wreath at Yad Vashem 390 (photo credit: Screenshot Channel 10)
US President Barack Obama lays wreath at Yad Vashem 390
(photo credit: Screenshot Channel 10)
As I sit here in the midst of these Days of Wine and Matzot, chomping on a square of unleavened bread (alas, it’s only somewhat tastier than the box it comes in; why can’t they flavor it with onions, poppy seeds, garlic or zatar?), I read the headlines reflecting on US President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel. Actually tour de force would be a better term, as Obama really wowed the crowd while he was here. Polls differ on just how deep an impression he made on us, but everyone seems to agree that we no longer have the same venal, visceral distrust of the Prez that we had before Air Force One landed.
The love was mutual, and real. We had the red carpet rolled out – literally – at Ben-Gurion Airport, and we showed Obama genuine honor and Israeli hospitality.
He was greeted by our entire cabinet, lauded by enthusiastic audiences wherever he spoke, and hailed by grateful citizens at every stop. I suspect that this was the warmest reception any foreign dignitary has received in our country since Sadat came to Jerusalem three decades ago to break the psychological barrier between ourselves and Egypt.
And that is as it should be. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the United States for the financial, military and political support it has extended to us, past, present and future. America was the first country to vote in favor of our statehood, and has steadfastly stood by us ever since, a kind of “big brother” in the community of nations.
We Jews consider the act of “hakarat hatov” – recognizing the good that others do for us – to be among our most sacred values and principles. We never forget a friend or an act of goodness on our behalf.
When Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev – the architect of Perestroika and the cessation of the Cold War – was placed under house arrest in 1991, his first visitor was Elie Wiesel. Stunned by Wiesel’s appearance, Gorbachev asked him why he had come.
“You helped our people achieve their dream of emigration,” said Wiesel, “and we never forget or abandon a friend.”
YET HAVING said all this, we must tread very carefully here. While we acknowledge all the good sent our way by America, we cannot cross the line from gratitude to subservience. We must always maintain our independence, our strong sense of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Our fate must never rest in the hands of anyone other than ourselves, and God.
This sacrosanct stance is exemplified on Passover.
The Haggada asks the famous question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and answers by telling our story of liberation, beginning with the paragraph, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt... and God took us out from there with a strong, outstretched arm. Had He not liberated us, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh.”
But wait a minute! Does anyone really believe that eventually, as society progressed, we would not be freed and made into equal citizens with full rights? Could our servitude really have lasted indefinitely? Surely we would have ultimately gained our freedom! The point is that then we would have been indebted to Pharaoh, or some other potentate or government, and not to God. And the whole essence of Passover is confirming our appreciation for God, and all that He does for us throughout history.
The same point is emphasized in the momentous miracle of the splitting of the sea. After more than a century in slavery, we finally exit Egypt. And then, just a few days later, we are back in crisis mode, standing anxiously between the Pharaoh and the Deep Reed Sea. I ask you: Hadn’t we suffered enough? Did we need yet another trauma so soon after our Exodus? But the rabbis explain: God heard the Israelites saying (as recorded in the verse), “And it was, when Pharaoh sent the Children of Israel out of Egypt...,” and He reacted indignantly, “Excuse me? Who did you say released you?! Pharaoh? Not Me? It appears you need another lesson as to who your real benefactor is!” And so followed the final triumph at the sea, followed by the nation’s declaration that “the people believed in God, and Moses his servant.”
Which brings us to Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As has been said so many times before, the Shoah remains virtually inexplicable; in fact, we are only beginning to recognize the hideous scope of the horror and havoc it wrought upon our people. Attempts to “explain” how and why this greatest of tragedies befell our people are ill-advised.
But one undeniable lesson, as clear as the noses on our faces, emerges from the Holocaust: When the chips are down, we cannot expect any foreign country to rescue us. Even those Western nations that valiantly fought Germany and that have a high moral fiber were largely unable or unwilling to come to our aid, even when they knew full well the genocide being carried out against us.
Whether it was France’s willing collaboration with the Nazis; the British “White Paper” effectively closing Palestine; or the US decision to turn away our fleeing masses “yearning to be free” of the death camps and crematoria, the “enlightened” world was too paranoid, too preoccupied or too passive to prevent the Final Solution from being implemented.
And so, when foreign dignitaries – like Obama – make their courtesy call to Yad Vashem, the message conveyed to them must not be that we “deserve” Israel after suffering so much during the Holocaust. The message must be that never again will we allow ourselves to be placed in a position where our survival depends upon someone else’s good will or benevolence, and that we will do whatever it takes – regardless of international pressure or public opinion – to ensure that the ovens of Auschwitz never fire up again.
May God – who surely loves us – give us the strength and capability to defend ourselves and define our own future.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]