US & Israel, 2 countries, a shared idea

Israel, losing its way, must rekindle its visionary dreams.

Statue of Liberty_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Statue of Liberty_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The United States of America celebrates its 235th Independence Day today, more unsure of itself and its role in the world than it has been since assuming leadership of the Western world early last century.
Economy crippled by astronomical debt and stubbornly high levels of unemployment, and a military seeking a strategy to leave Afghanistan and Iraq firmly behind them, the US is no longer the world’s unipower, able, if it ever was, to shape the world according to its vision.
But this does not mean America should give up on its dream. As President Shimon Peres noted last week at the US ambassador’s July 4 reception, while some criticize the US, “all of us know that a world without the US would be the greatest mistake of all – for all of us.”
While acknowledging the differences in size, resources and power between Israel and America, Peres then remarked that “the US and Israel share something fundamental and essential: We are both, first and foremost, an idea... We are nations that seek to set an example, to be a shining light guiding the evolution of a better society and better mankind. We don’t have a choice but to be exceptional, each in its own way.”
And as America begins to turn inward to examine how it can reinvigorate itself in the light of the challenges – both domestic and external – it faces, it is also time for Jerusalem to conduct some soul-searching to discover its “shining light guiding the evolution of a better society.”
FOR ONE thing, Israel needs to place the rule of law over that of the beliefs of rabbis. In the case of rabbis Dov Lior and Ya’acov Yosef, the issue is not so much whether they are guilty of incitement by writing an endorsement for the book Torat Hamelech, which justifies the killing of non-Jews in a time of war, but that they refused a police summons for questioning for over two months.
Any regular citizen would have been immediately hauled in by the police had they refused such a summons; what’s unacceptable in Lior’s and Yosef’s case is not that they were brought in for questioning, but that the police delayed such action for so long. A rabbi, no matter how venerable, is not above the law, and neither is the Torah he espouses.
Thankfully, like America, which was established by the Founding Fathers seeking to escape religious persecution, Israel is a democracy, not a theocracy, and the Torah and its practitioners should have no special standing when it comes to the demands of the secular authorities. There is no law that grants rabbis special status, and should the State Attorney’s Office suspect a rabbi of incitement, it is incumbent on the police to open their inquiries and question the relevant rabbi.
But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s limp-wristed reaction last week to Lior’s arrest and the subsequent demonstrations outside the Supreme Court and Deputy State Attorney Shai Nitzan’s home was far from being a “shining light.” Waiting a full day before issuing a comment, and that only after being goaded by opposition leader Tzipi Livni, all the prime minister could come up with was “Israel is a law-abiding state” and “the law includes everyone, and I call on all Israel’s citizens to uphold it.” No word about Lior’s evading arrest for two months, and no support for Nitzan, who has been targeted by extreme religious right-wingers only because he is conscientiously carrying out his duties as a Justice Ministry official.
AND IN terms of the outside world, Israel is also losing its way. The clearest evidence of this came from World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder’s warning last week that Israel was facing increasing international isolation because of its failure to launch a diplomatic initiative regarding the Palestinians.
Lauder is no Peace Now spokesman or J Street supporter. A staunch Netanyahu backer for decades and a Ronald Reagan-appointed US ambassador to Austria in the 1980s, Lauder has also been a fierce critic of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies, most recently arguing that Obama’s call for negotiations to take place on the basis of the 1967 lines (with territorial swaps ) endangered Israel.
So when somebody with this background stands up and tells a conference of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians in Jerusalem that Israel must present a diplomatic plan in order to regain international support and block Palestinian efforts to obtain unilateral recognition for statehood from the UN in September, it’s definitely worth listening.
To make his point even clearer, Lauder also criticized the conditions Netanyahu has set for talks, such as the Palestinians needing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The only way Israel can escape its international isolation is to agree to begin negotiations without preconditions, Lauder insisted.
With September drawing ever closer, Israel is running out of time to put itself back on course to following the dream so eloquently laid out by President Peres.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.