In 1806 the Jewish community of France received a series of instructions and questions, penned by Count Louis Mole on behalf of Napoleon. Included in the text were questions about national and religious identity (In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen considered brethren or strangers?), loyalty (do the Jews born in France consider France as their country?), and legal status (do the Jews in France feel bound to obey the laws and to follow the civic code of France?). At the heart of the document is a single question: do you consider yourselves Frenchmen first, or Jews first? In modern parlance, when push comes to shove, is your Jewish identity more important to you than your French identity? If you were forced to choose between loyalties, how would you choose?
To an American Jew living in the 21st century the text has an anachronistic feel and flavor. In our minds we have long ago resolved these questions, and we live comfortably in two skins, one Jewish and one American. We don’t see those identities as contradictory, as working against one another, but rather as parts of a whole, as seamlessly integrated aspects of who we are and how we live. It is not uncommon in Jewish organizations today to see the flag of Israel and the flag of the United States displayed, proudly hanging in the same room and visually capturing this symbiotic sense that Judaism and American life easily go hand in hand.
But tensions between the current administrations in Israel and the US have tested these assumptions over the last few years. The relationship between Israel and the US is strong, no question about it. At the same time, there is also no question that Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak Obama do not exactly have a warm and fuzzy relationship. In the Jewish community some have taken sides, believing if you are for Obama you are against Israel, to be truly for Israel you must be against the Obama administration. In other words, you have to choose, you have to either support Israel, or support the US, and you can’t fully do both.
This tension has become much more pronounced and public because of the speech that PM Netanyahu is scheduled to give to Congress on March 3rd. I expect you know the background, but on one foot – in a highly unusual (some say unprecedented) process, Bibi was invited to speak not by the President (the standard diplomatic protocol), but rather by John Boehner, to a joint session of Congress. To top it off, the administration was never notified (by either side) that any kind of invitation had been extended. And, to make matters worse, the speech is intended to be about Iran policy, and critical of the current US administration’s approach. Both sides drew lines in the sand, refusing to budge. It was announced Joe Biden would (conveniently) be out of town. Some Democrats have said they would not attend. As my Bubbie used to say, ‘oy vey!’
Lets leave behind the perceived Obama vs. Israel tension. In many ways it is a red herring, a false dichotomy, a political trick of the trade used to make people worried and unsettled. In a sense, a modern day version of the Napoleonic letter. The truth is you don’t have to choose! You can like Obama and be a strong Israel supporter. You can dislike Obama and love the US and Israel too. Rather than worrying about which side you should be on, imagine for a moment if this wasn’t about a contest of wills and libidos, but rather about one question and one question alone: if Bibi speaks, is it good or is it bad for Israel? That seems to me to be the question we should be focusing on. Not whether it is insulting to this person or that person, not whether the administration’s feelings have been hurt, not whether Bibi needs to save face. Instead, is this a good or bad thing for Israel?
And I don’t know about you, but I am having a hard time understanding how this is good for Israel. Do we really believe that one speech will change US policy about Iran? After all of the closed door conversations, all of the diplomatic discussions over the last year, one speech is going to move Congress to do what Bibi feels is in Israel’s best interests? Let alone the President, who is responsible for setting foreign policy? No way. So if that goal cannot be accomplished, what good for Israel can come out of this planned speech? The answer seems to be none. Why, then, should the Prime Minister of Israel put his country in such a difficult situation? Why should he put American Jews in this position? I would say retrench and regroup. Focus on the Israeli elections (March 17!) and on the upcoming AIPAC conference. Both of those arenas seem appropriate for getting out a message. Let Israel off the hook, let things settle down, and then we can all get to the real business at hand. Lord knows, there is ‘what’ to do!