A senior White House aide to President Joe Biden has been in touch with me periodically. We’ve maintained an informal, off-the-record relationship, in which we speak via WhatsApp about what’s happening within the US administration, on the one hand, and the pulse of Israeli politics, on the other.
A couple of times, he has put the president on the line, but only briefly to exchange a cordial comment with no substance.
The aide has also asked me on a few occasions to brief some members of Congress on particular developments in Israel, or to give background to a particular issue, including the role of Jerusalem in Jewish history.
The eternal capital of the Jewish people was the subject of a discussion I had with a few senators, when the question of maintaining the US Embassy in Jerusalem was coming up. The aide asked me to speak to a number of senators who were on the fence regarding the future home of the embassy, but who would be sympathetic to an Israeli-Jewish perspective.
This past Sunday, I was asked to conduct a video discussion regarding Operation Breaking Dawn. The aide has told me on a number of occasions that the members of Congress have agreed to talk to me because he stresses that I am not a member of the Israeli government.
He says that he has directed some of them to the op-ed pages of The Jerusalem Post to show the diversity of our articles. According to the presidential aide, one member of the House said of me after looking at a sampling of op-ed articles: “OK, he’s pro-Israel but he’s not extreme.”
IN THIS past Sunday’s video call with a few House Democrats, I experienced a Napoleon moment, of all things; not exactly what I had anticipated in a discussion with US lawmakers on the subject of an Israeli fight against Islamic Jihad terror.
First, we discussed Gaza. Two of the three House members did not realize that the 2005 disengagement meant that Israel had withdrawn totally from the strip. We discussed all the usual subjects: the rocket attacks from Gaza, the humanitarian situation inside the Hamas-ruled territory, this particular operation and also Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
“It must be unusual for Israelis to have someone with no real military experience as prime minister,” one of the congressional participants said.
Jerusalem and her mourners
Then, we broached the subject of Jerusalem. “Why, when you’re in such a sensitive situation, do so many people have to ascend the mount?” asked one House member. So we talked about Tisha Be’av.
Apparently, these members of Congress did not realize how the destruction of the Temple, twice, remained such a central theme to Jews through the ages, including in the State of Israel.
The participants recognized that Tisha Be’av is an important date when Jews remember that the destruction happened. But then the conversation took a strange twist to make them realize that there was more.
As I was speaking to them, I became a bit hoarse and cleared my throat. One of the House members said with a smile: “Take a drink of water.”
I replied: “I’d prefer to avoid doing that because I’m fasting for Tisha Be’av.” That’s when this became a more detailed discussion about this day of mourning: a certain segment of the population is fasting, not working, and spending hours in the synagogue; sitting on low surfaces, no less, to give dramatic expression to the feeling of national mourning.
One House member had a look of amazement on his face. “A couple of millennia,” he wondered, “and this date is still marked in such a prevalent manner?”
Another of the House members truly surprised me when she said that she had once heard that Napoleon had made a comment in that regard.
I found the quote: “A nation that cries and fasts for over 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.” The often-told story is attributed to when Napoleon himself encountered a Jewish community mourning on Tisha Be’av.
THERE ARE different versions to this story, and at least some have said that it isn’t true.
But whether or not the story is true didn’t make a difference in my chat with the House representatives this week. Whether or not that line was ever uttered, the concept itself had an impact on them. They were not aware that events that happened so long ago were in fact still an occasion on which a “nation cries and fasts.”
When I read Napoleon’s would-be quote to my small audience, the House member who first mentioned it perked up and said: “That’s it. But I never understood the context in which he said it.”
I was asked if my voice could last for a few more minutes. I said I was fine, even without the benefit of taking a drink. The last questioner asked how I was going to break the fast. I then received advice not to stuff myself after such a long hiatus without culinary consumption. The conversation turned from historic events to whether pasta was a good way to resume eating after a break of over 24 hours.
Our time was up. The conversation had gone to places I never expected. And we pledged to speak again sometime soon.
The writer is op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.