By Amb Michael Oren (address to American Jews on Yom Kippur)
On Yom Kippur we read the Book of Jonah, one of the Bible’s most enigmatic texts. It is also one of the Bible’s shortest texts, weighing in at a page and a half, which is quite an accomplishment for this holiday. And it features one of our scripture’s least distinguished individuals. Jonah–a man whose name, in Hebrew, means dove–not dov, as in Hebrew for bear, but dove as, in English, pigeon.
Yet this same everyman, this Jonah, is tasked by God with a most daunting mission. He is charged with going to the great city of Nineveh and persuading its pernicious people to repent for their sins or else.
Not such an unusual task, you might think. Twenty-first century life is rife with people who warn of the catastrophes awaiting us if we fail to modify our behavior one way or the other. Today we call them pundits, commentators who, if proven correct, claim all the credit but who, if proven wrong, bear none of the responsibility.
Jonah, though, cannot escape the responsibility. Nor can he dodge his
divinely ordained dilemma. If he succeeds in convincing the Ninevehians to atone and no harm befalls them, many will soon question whether that penitence was ever really necessary. Jonah will be labeled an alarmist. But, what if the people of Nineveh ignore the warning and the city meets the same fiery fate as Sodom and Gomorrah? Then Jonah, as a prophet, has failed.
Such is the paradox of prophecy for Jonah, a lose-lose situation. No wonder he runs away. He flees to the sea, only to be swallowed by a gigantic fish, and then to the desert, cowering under a gourd. But, in the end, the fish coughs him up and the gourd withers. The moral is: there is no avoiding Jonah’s paradox. Once elected by God, whatever the risks, he must act.
As such, the Book of Jonah can be read as more than morality play, but also a cautionary tale about the hazards of decision-making. It is a type of political primer, if you will, what the medieval thinkers called a Mirror for Princes. The Talmud teaches us that, in the post-Biblical era, the gift of prophecy is reserved for children and fools. In modern times, we don’t have prophets–pundits, yes, but no prophets. Instead we have statesmen who, like Jonah, often have to make fateful decisions for which they will bear personal responsibility. If not a paradox of prophecy, these leaders face what we might call the quandary of statecraft.
Take, for example, the case of Winston Churchill. During the 1930s, he
warned the world of the dangers of the rapidly rearming German Reich. The British people ignored Churchill- worse they scorned him, only to learn later that he was all along prescient and wise. But what if Churchill had become Britain’s Prime Minister five years earlier and had ordered a pre-emptive strike against Germany? Those same people might have concluded that the Nazis never posed a real threat and that their prime minister was merely a warmonger.
Or consider Harry Truman who, shortly after assuming the presidency in the spring of 1945, had to decide whether to drop America’s terrible secret weapon on Imperial Japan. Today, many people, including some Americans, regard the dropping of the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities as an act of unrivaled brutality, but what if Truman had decided otherwise? What if the United States had invaded the Japanese mainland and lost, as the US Army estimated at the time, more than a million GIs? Truman, the decision-maker, was either the butcher of Japanese civilians or butcher of young Americans. Either way he lost.
The quandary of statecraft: every national leader knows it and few better than Israeli leaders. They, too, have had to make monumental–even existential–decisions.
On May 14th, 1948, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion had to determine whether to realize the two-thousand year-long dream of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. But, by doing so, he risked an onslaught by overwhelming Arab forces against a Jewish population half the size of Washington, DC today armed mainly with handguns.
Another example: my personal hero, Levi Eshkol. On June 5th, 1967, Eshkol had to decide whether to unleash Israel Defense Forces against the Arab armies surrounding the Jewish State and clamoring for its destruction or whether to alienate the international community and especially the United States and be branded an aggressor.
Ben-Gurion’s decision resulted in the creation of the State of Israel and
Eshkol’s in the immortal image of Israeli paratroopers dancing before the Kotel. Nothing is inevitable in history and in both cases the outcome might have been tragically different. Like Churchill and Truman, Ben-Gurion and Eshkol confronted the quandary of statecraft.
They also have to answer to their citizens. Unlike the prophetic leaders of antiquity, presidents and prime ministers are not selected by God but rather elected by the majority of their peoples through a democratic process. In America, the system was modeled on the Roman Republic in which citizens empowered senators to represent them in the distant capital. In tiny Israel, with its multi-party consensual style of democracy, the model is not Rome but rather ancient Athens. The American president, it has been said, represents 300 million constituents; Israeli prime ministers represent 7 million prime ministers.
Israeli democracy is rambunctious and intensely personal, placing the
premium on individual participation. In our family, I can attest, my wife
and I have never voted for the same party. Our son also went his own way politically. Together with his friends, he started a political party in our living room that now holds two seats on the Jerusalem municipality.
At 62 years old, Israel’s democracy is older than more than half of the
democratic governments in the world, which, in turn, account for less than half of the world’s existing nations. Israel is one of the handful of
democracies that has never succumbed to periods of undemocratic rule. And Israel has achieved this extraordinary record in spite of the fact that it is the only democracy never to know a nanosecond of peace and which has endured pressures that would have crushed most other democracies long ago.
In a region inhospitable–even fatal–to government by and of the people, Israel’s democracy thrives.
Democracy in Israel is not only personal and vibrant, but also grave,
because the stakes are so enormously high. Recalling Jonah’s paradox, the leaders we elect are confronted with grueling decisions.
Consider the case of terror. Israel today is threatened with two major
terror organizations: Hamas in Gaza and, in Lebanon, Hizbollah. Both are backed by Iran and both call openly for Israel’s destruction. And, over the past five years, both have acted on that call by firing nearly 15,000 rockets at Israeli towns and villages.
Next imagine that you’re the prime minister of Israel. You know that in
order to keep those thousands of rockets out of Hamas’s hands you need to blockade Gaza from the sea. The policy is risky–people may get hurt, especially if they’re armed extremists–and liable to make you very unpopular in the world. But you have to choose between being popular and watching idly while a million Israelis come under rocket fire. You have to choose between popular and being alive.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has nearly quadrupled the rockets in its arsenal.
They’re bigger, more accurate rockets, with a range that can reach every Israeli city, even Eilat. Worse: Hizbollah has positioned those rockets under homes, hospitals, and schools, confident that if Israelis try to defend themselves from those missiles, they will be branded war criminals.
Imagine, again, that you’re Israel’s prime minister. Do you wait until
Hizbollah finds a pretext to fire those rockets or do you act preemptively?
Do you risk having the much of the country being reduced to rubble or having that same country reduced to international pariah status?
The terror threat is a very poignant example of the quandary of statecraft in Israel, but an even thornier case is posed by the peace process.
Yes, the peace process, with its vision of two peoples living in adjacent states in a relationship of permanent and legitimate peace. What could be so hazardous about that?
Well, let’s return to that Kafkaesque scenario in which you wake up one morning and find yourself transformed into Israel’s prime minister.
You know that to create that neighboring state that you’re going to have to give up some land, but not just any land, but land regarded as sacred by the majority of the Jewish people for more than three thousand years. You know that a great many of your countrymen have made their homes in these areas and that numerous Israelis have given their lives in their defense. You know that Israel has in the past withdrawn from territories in an effort to generate peace but that it received no peace but rather war. And, lastly, you know that many Arabs view the two-state solution as a two stage solution in which the ultimate stage is Israel’s dissolution.
What, then, Mr. or Ms. Prime Minister, do you do?
You could opt for maintaining the status quo, with the risk of deepening Israel’s international isolation or you could specify a vision of peace that significantly reduces its perils. You could, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done, insist that the future Palestinian State be effectively demilitarized, without an army that could bombard Israeli cities or an air force that could shoot down planes landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. You could insist that the Palestinian State reciprocally recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and so put an end to all future claims and conflicts.
Even then, of course, Israel will be running incalculable risks, for what if the Palestinian state implodes and becomes another Gaza or Lebanon? What do you do if, a week after the peace treaty is signed, a rocket falls on Tel Aviv?
More than Gaza, more than peace, the ultimate quandary of statecraft centers on Iran.
This is the radical, genocidal Iran whose leaders regularly call for
Israel’s annihilation and provides terrorists with the means for
accomplishing that goal. This is the Iran that undermines governments
throughout the Middle East and even South America, and an Iran that shoots its own people protesting for freedom.
Iran does all this without nuclear weapons–imagine what it would do with the nuclear arms it is assiduously developing. And imagine what you, awakening once again as the Israeli Prime Minister, will decide. Do you remain passive while Iran provides nuclear weaponry to terrorist groups, targets Tel Aviv with nuclear-tipped missiles, and triggers a nuclear arms race throughout the region? Or do you act, as Israel has now, joining with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, hoping to dissuade its rulers from nuclearizing? And, if that fails, do you keep all options on the table, with the potentially far-reaching risks those options entail?
The issues of terror, the peace process, and Iran evoke strong emotions in this country and around the world, and often spark criticism of Israeli policies. Yet it’s crucial to recall that those policies are determined by the leaders elected through one of the world’s most robust and resilient democracies. Recall that the people of Israel–not of Europe, not of the United States–bear the fullest consequences for their leaders’ decisions.
There is no escaping the responsibility–as Jonah learned thousands of years ago–and that responsibility is borne by our leaders and by the majority of the people they represent. Israel today faces decisions every bit as daunting as those confronting Jonah, but we will not run away. There is no gourd to hide under or fish to swallow us whole.
Terror, the peace process, Iran–our Ninevehs–await.
Support us as we grapple with these towering challenges. Back us in our efforts to defend ourselves from terrorist rockets. Uphold us if we have to make painful sacrifices for peace or if we decide that the terms of the proposed treaty fail to justify those sacrifices. Stand with us as we resist Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Respect the decisions we take through our democratic system and respect the risks that we, more than any other nation, take.
The message of the Book of Jonah is one of personal and collective
atonement, but it is also a message of unity and faith. “In my trouble I
called to the Lord,” proclaims Jonah, “VaYa’aneini” – “and He answered me.”
Let us–Israelis and the American Jews–united by our faith, our peoplehood, and our common love for democracy. Let us assume responsibility for our decisions, crushingly difficult though they may often be, and appreciative of the quandaries our leaders face. When we call out, let us answer one another with the assurance that no challenge–no paradoxes, no Ninevehs–can defeat us.