Idolatry by any other name

Israelis may not vote for US president, but they suffer from a side-effect of this adoration syndrome.

Obama makes point 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Obama makes point 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In the shopping center at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, among the poster-ads decorating the central walkway, hangs a large photo of Barack Obama with a one-word message: HOPE. Granted, such a word is appropriate for a hospital environment. It bespeaks a yearning common to hospital staff, patients, and their families. It is hoped that healing will take place for all patients. The "hope" identified with Obama, however, is not specific. It is a generalized hope normally associated with messianic prophecy - that change is coming and that the world's problems will be solved. When this generalized hope attaches itself to a specific human, it becomes worship. And worship of a human being - any human being - is idolatry. We were reminded this past week of the biblical injunction against idolatry as we listened to the Ten Commandments in synagogues around the world. This commandment was preceded by the proclamation that our nation, the Jewish people, has been liberated from such slavery. The adoration afforded Obama that has propelled him to the highest office in his country - nay, the world - borders on idolatry. That American Jews have contributed to Obama's rise is not surprising. Most American Jews vote Democrat, even if the presidential candidate is a Carter or a McGovern. Israeli Jews may not vote for the US president, but they suffer from a neurotic side-effect of this "adoration-bordering-on-idolatry" syndrome. They display a neurotic anxiety at every manifestation of presidential approval or disapproval. How many presidents have been described sycophantically by Israeli representatives as "the best friend Israel has ever had." Or conversely, how many Israeli prime ministers have been lamented as having "gotten off on the wrong foot" with this or that president? Such manic-depresssive reactions are inappropriate for a nation - no matter how small - that is truly free. This is not to underestimate the power of the American president - whether a Truman, a Nixon or an Obama. But an elemental truth concerning Israel's 60-year relationship with the US is that while American policy may oscillate somewhat from president to president, its overriding determinants remain 1) that the US wants to see the Jewish state survive, particularly since it is a valuable military asset in the Middle East; but 2) the US has weighty economic interests in the Arab/Muslim world. And so no matter who is president, James Baker was right when, on the eve of the Madrid Conference in 1991, he reminded Israeli and Diaspora Jews that he was not secretary of the Zionist organization but secretary of state of the US and that his chief interests lay with his country. This is not to excuse today's president when his words and deeds reflect an anti-Israel animus. If indeed too many Jews - and non-Jewish Americans, for that matter - view Obama as a god or messianic deliverer, they risk freezing their own capacity to exercise the wisdom, courage and cleverness necessary to maneuver in this Machiavellian world. We Israelis need to remember that the Zionist thrust that led to the establishment of a Jewish state requires us to maintain national self-respect. This means we don't go into euphoric ecstasy at every gesture of presidential approbation. Nor do we sink into a Tisha Be'av despair whenever the White House reacts negatively to this or that Israeli policy. There hasn't been a single US administration that has satisfied our strategic yearnings completely. We thanked God that Harry Truman went against his State Department and supported the establishment of the Jewish state. We were less appreciative, however, of the US embargo on arms to the Middle East precisely when Israel was fighting for its life in 1948. In the Sinai Campaign of 1956, we trembled when Dwight Eisenhower joined the Soviet Union in condemning the action Israel had taken against Nasser's blockade of the Strait of Tiran. David Ben-Gurion held out against retreat from Sinai until there was an "agreement" that the US would henceforth secure general recognition for Israel's right of free passage. But when in 1967 Gamal Abdel Nasser again blockaded the Strait - a clear casus belli - and Israel reminded Lyndon Johnson of the "agreement," all the US could do was caution Israel against any precipitous action. True, once the Six Day War got started, Johnson neutralized the Soviet threat against Israel, but his strategy was dictated by American interests that coincided with Israel's. Was Ronald Reagan a "friend" of Israel? Under his watch in 1981, the US sold AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia. That same year Reagan condemned the Israeli destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Yet, at the same time, the US and Israel colluded to sell arms to Iran in its war with Iraq. And so on through our relations with Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and now Obama. When are we Jews going to get off our idolatrous merry-go-round vis-à-vis American presidents and realize the consistently confirmed proposition that in international relations there are no "friendships" - only interests! National self-respect should never mean arrogance. The State of Israel recognizes that the United States is its principle ally. Israeli political, military, diplomatic and cultural leadership should always be mobilized toward cultivating maximal cooperation between the two countries. At the same time, the determination of policies and strategies, while soliciting US approval, must never be exclusively dependent upon that approval. The single overriding proposition that must guide our struggle for survival and growth is that our national freedom should never condition itself upon the worship of any human leader, no matter how powerful. By any other name, that is still idolatry. The writer is rabbi emeritus of Moreshet Yisrael, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem, and author of Torah Through a Zionist Vision (two volumes) published by Gefen.