What America Gets

Many people seemed happy to treat President Obama’s speeches last month on the Middle East and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s before Congress as some sort of sports tournament, rooting and scoring and declaring winners and losers. There were even inspections of each player’s stats, not the tallying of runs-batted-in or touchdowns but rather the parsing of subtle phrases and revisiting of other players’ records.

Some in the stands saw in the innings of addresses an American president trying to restart negotiations in order to derail the potentially disastrous establishment of a Palestinian state in the United Nations planned for September; and an Israeli leader arrogantly misrepresenting what his American counterpart actually said, publicly and rudely chiding him. Others saw a cold American president all-too-ready to compromise Israel’s security; and a triumphant Israeli leader speaking hard truth to haughty power.

Among those rooting for Mr. Netanyahu and booing at Mr. Obama was Walter Russell Mead, a Bard College professor of foreign affairs and humanities, and editor-at-large of The American Interest.

Whatever the merits of his cheers and jeers, though, a few paragraphs of Professor Mead’s essay on the declamation competition, concerning the warm response Mr. Netanyahu received from Congress, bear quoting:

“Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that [G-d] favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that [G-d] favors and protects America.

“It means more. The existence of Israel means that the [G-d] of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race. For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.

“Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don’t ‘get’ Israel also don’t ‘get’ America and don’t ‘get’ [G-d].”

There’s something embarrassing about the fact that declaring belief in the Divine is crucial for an American political candidate while for most Israeli leaders mere mention of Him seems off-limits. But Mr. Mead’s observation is poignant. Even if many Israelis and Israeli leaders telegraph a kochi vi’otzem yadi (“My strength and the power of my hand”) mindset, most Americans and their political representatives see a Higher Power at work in the world. And see Israel and the Jewish people as worthy of their concern and hope.

That should give us all pause. We are in galus, to be sure, in exile from our land—and, worst of all, from the relationship to the Creator we once merited. But as the stages and venues of our exile have unfolded, the way-station called the United States of America has proven itself unique. Yes, there are Jew-haters here too. But the overwhelming aggregates of both our country’s political establishment and its populace are well-disposed, deeply so, to Jewish citizens and to a Jewish state halfway around the world.

And so, while we may be tempted at times to succumb to the coarseness of American political debate, allowing disagreement to devolve into derogation; or tempted to afford laws of the land less respect than they deserve (in the eyes not only of government but of halacha), it behooves us all to stop and control ourselves. And remind ourselves how fortunate we are, in a world where hatred of Jews is widespread and visceral, to live in a land that provides us not only freedom and protection but concern and respect.

Remembering that is not corny or jingoist. It’s an expression of what may be the most fundamental Jewish high ideal, hakaras hatov—in its most literal sense: recognition of the good.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: [email protected]

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