Sydney, Australia: I had an extremely moving Shabbat at Central Synagogue in Bondi, where I had first arrived as a student emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1988.
Invited now as scholar in residence, after two long years of lockdown in Australia, by Rabbi Levi Wolf, who built the congregation into one of the world’s most celebrated shuls, I was moved to tears to be reunited with a community and friends I have known since I was 19 years old and where I married a local girl named Debbie.
There were many moving moments. A bat mitzvah girl of 12 spoke emotionally of coming Jewishly of age and then cried while the entire community serenaded her in song. There was the yahrzeit of Elie Wiesel – six years to the day – which I highlighted in my sermons, sharing the story of how I held his frail hand the night before the great man died. And then, unexpectedly, there was the giant photo of Benjamin Netanyahu on the walls of the shul as you enter.
It’s a remarkable photograph. Netanyahu is standing at the shul lectern in animated oratorical mode while thousands of congregants are staring intently at him. It was February 2017, the first-ever visit by a sitting prime minister of Israel to Australia and his only communal speech while there.
It is a testament to the distances he would travel to engage the Jewish people and assure them that he would protect them as Israel’s prime minister.
The prime minister spoke about the battle against antisemitism and how “by all accounts, we should have disappeared.” The Jewish people had one goal for 2,000 years: “to come back to our ancient homeland and reconstitute our life, build our own state, define our own future, control our own destiny.” Jews are different from other nations because “the Jews refused to die. They’re reborn again and again and again. And throughout the centuries, our people never succumbed to their fate, no matter how large the oppression, no matter how great the oppression and the persecution.”
“The Jews refused to die. They’re reborn again and again and again."Benjamin Netanyahu
As I stared intently at the photo and thought of the recent implosion of Israel’s government, I asked myself whether any other Israeli figure could inspire such awe in the audience as is so clear from the photograph. Was it the office that electrified the Australian congregants, or the man?
Knowing Netanyahu for more than 30 years, my answer is easy. Bibi is Israel’s indispensable leader not only because of his unequaled stature but principally because of his unequaled Jewish pride. If you want to understand why Bibi is now poised to do what no Israeli prime minister before him has done and return to office for the third time, it all comes down to Jewish pride.
Because of all the Jewish leaders I have had the privilege of getting to know – including hosting six Israeli prime ministers as rabbi at Oxford University – Bibi is one of the proudest Jews I have ever met.
I have known Bibi since he came to speak for me at Oxford in about 1991 and more than 1,000 Jewish students gave him a standing ovation after one of the greatest speeches I have ever witnessed. At the time, he was deputy foreign minister and had already established a reputation as a fierce defender of Israel, after serving as UN ambassador.
He was driven to the campus by the local police, and I sat in the back seat with him, narrating the history of Oxford. Bibi was impressed with the history of the world’s oldest English-language university, but remarked that for all its grandeur and intellectual past, he could not help reminding me that at the Jewish people’s darkest moment during the Holocaust, Britain had closed the gates to Palestine.
For all the positive things the British had done, including the Balfour Declaration calling for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, he felt passionately that they had let the Jewish people down in its hour of need. He said it knowing that the men assigned to protect him could hear all his comments.
He couldn’t care less. It was our first meeting, and he oozed Jewish pride from every pore of his being.
Unlike so many Jews inside and outside Israel, he does not feel the need to apologize for Israel’s actions and is not afraid to take on all critics. At Oxford he gave six lectures in one day and, even more impressive, went into the lion’s den to meet with pro-Palestinian faculty at St. Antony’s College who attacked him relentlessly. He never lost his cool.
Then and now, Bibi was charismatic, a brilliant tactician, and an incomparable master of Israel’s majestic narrative. Those qualities, however, are secondary to the irrepressible Jewish pride that animates his speeches. Abba Eban was as erudite, but he did not convey the same passion.
What sets Bibi apart is his sense of Jewish destiny. Bibi is not Orthodox observant. But I have always believed he feels a spiritual calling from God to protect the Jewish people.
He inherited the belief that the Jewish people must be strong from his father, the noted historian Benzion, whom I also was fortunate to bring to Oxford to lecture.
People forget that Bibi is not just a rhetorical defender of Israel. He served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, which gained worldwide fame in 1976 for carrying out the Entebbe rescue mission during which his brother Yoni was killed.
Bibi was wounded in the daring raid on the Beirut airport in 1968 when commandos destroyed 14 airplanes belonging to Arab airlines following multiple terrorist attacks on El Al. He also fought in the Yom Kippur War.
Interestingly, Naftali Bennett also served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. He was the first kippah-wearing observant prime minister and a good spokesman for Israel. But the sense that he was born to protect the Jewish people is something that Bibi uniquely conveys.
The writer's relationship with Netanyahu
I HAVE been privileged to have a relationship with Bibi through the years and was never prouder than when he spoke to a joint session of Congress in 2015 to make the case against signing a nuclear deal with Iran. I was in the audience with Elie Wiesel, whom I had brought to the speech, and I could not believe what I witnessed. The prime minister of a small country that is a beneficiary of the United States was challenging the president, the most powerful man on earth, from just down the road from Pennsylvania Avenue.
This was controversial, especially among Democrats and liberal Jews, who saw it as disrespectful to president Barack Obama. When history calls, however, you don’t worry about politics. At that moment, all that mattered was the security of Israel, which Netanyahu believed (and I agreed) was threatened by Obama’s willingness to provide Iran with an economic windfall in exchange for an unverifiable deal that would not prevent the regime vowing to destroy Israel from building nuclear weapons.
Think about the chutzpah of a prime minister of a tiny nation the size of New Jersey challenging the leader of the free world.
I can think of only one other occasion when an Israeli prime minister had the guts to publicly call out an American president. That was when Menachem Begin, a man who also put defending the Jewish people above all else, responded to president Ronald Reagan’s decision to punish Israel for annexing the Golan Heights. He called in the US ambassador and said, “Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic?... You will not frighten us with punishments. He who threatens us will find us deaf to his threats.”
Netanyahu may or may not serve again as prime minister. But whoever occupies that august post would do well to note his singular global focus that the Jewish people must be safe and strong, and that the first role of any Israeli leader is serving as champion and protector of God’s chosen people.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 36 books, including most recently, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell.