Nuancing Netanyahu

When asked to comment on the Israeli film, Oslo Diaries, I noted that I see it as a valuable perspective on a missed opportunity for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. it is a sobering reminder that there were sincere proponents for peace on the Palestinian side. I also noted but that that the movie is a “hatchet job,” on Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

A friend wrote that if it is a “hatchet job,” it is a deserved “hatchet job.” He then went on to ask rhetorically if Netanyahu’s silence in the face of right wing sentiment against Yitzhak Rabin and Netanyahu’s words contributed to Rabin’s death. (Indeed that rhetoric is replayed often on Israeli television as the anniversary of Rabin’s death approaches each year.)

History has made Rabin the fallen crusader for peace, and indeed his death was a tragedy that set back progress to peace that has not begun to move forward since.

Still, to simply blame Netanyahu for the sorry state of current Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations or lack thereof is an oversimplification.

I wrote back to my friend:

As you recall, I began my remarks about the film by saying, “I am no fan of the current Prime Minister of Israel.”

Further, I hope he will be indicted on criminal charges, and on more than one occasion I have publicly called for him to resign.

I also believe history will hold him accountable as your letter suggests, for his rhetoric in the days before Rabin’s assassination.

So I don’t disagree that he “deserves” it.

But  …

We often make the same mistake with Netanyahu that many who oppose President Trump make. In attempts to vilify them (even if they “deserve “it) we fail to apprehend and appreciate what makes them popular enough with so many people that they are elected (in Netanyahu’s case repeatedly) to the highest office in the land.

Netanyahu is now the person who has served Israel as prime minister longer than anyone else in its history. Is it only because Israelis are fools or greedy grabbers of Palestinian lands and oppressors of The Palestinian people? Or do we from the safety of Sanibel fail to grasp the existential threat to its existence, which Israel has lived (or perceives with lots of good reason that it lives) since well before it officially became a state? Do we fail to understand that most of Israel’s population descends from those who fled as refugees from Arab countries that robbed their families of homes, possessions, fortunes and lives?

They arrived in Israel with the shirts on their backs where they were absorbed, housed, taught a new language and the skills to make a living. They don’t trust the Arabs or any promises they would make.

Another significant percentage are refugees or descendants of refugees from the Former Soviet Union that backed the Arab world in their struggles against Israel. They, too, have no confidence that the Arab world will honor a commitment to peace with Israel.

Finally, there remain descendants of holocaust refuges who are well aware that Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League joined forces with Hitler, and vowed to perpetrate the destruction of Israel in a way that will remind the world of the Mongolian massacres.

Netanyahu – whether we like it or not — effectively speaks to their fears, and if we ignore those fears, we can never understand Israel’s reality, as we should.

So, just to say he “deserves it” should not blind us to the propaganda motive inherent in a film released just as an Israeli election campaign is getting underway.




The Bible’s most Troubling Verse

The Hebrew Bible contains 23,145 verses and if I had permission to excise only one, I have no doubt which it would be: “Happy the one who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock” (Psalm 137:9).

Psalms 137 is a stirring lament over the destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.E. and the exile of a significant percentage of its population to Babylon. The rage and humiliation of the exiles, with their “harps hung on the willows near Babylon’s rivers,” is palpable as they commit to remember their beloved Jerusalem even as Judah’s captors taunt them: “Sing us some of Zion’s songs!” (Psalm 137:2-3, 5).

Coming as it does, so abruptly at the end of one of Scripture’s most poignant passages, verse 9 stuns the reader, and as Robert Alter writes in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line.”

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Hebrew Bible is its honesty. As I wrote in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, “The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws.”

The same must be said of the biblical author.

We understand his (or her) anger at seeing his homeland conquered, his beloved Temple razed to the ground, and loved ones savagely tortured and killed. But to wish to brutally murder the infant children of the captors … that is too much. I find myself ardently wishing the editors had deleted the psalm’s final words.

Aside from the sheer horror they evoke, they distract readers from the power and beauty of connecting to the Jewish homeland, the way the poet, our people, and we ourselves do.

In the current debate about whether being anti-Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, we must remember that the land of Israel has been an inextricable part of our people’s covenant with God since God first charged Abram to go forth from the land of his birth “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

In other words Since God first called us to be a people, the land of Israel has been part of what it means for us to be Jews.

Of course, it is possible to support Israel and criticize the actions or policies of her government just as those of us who love this country freely take its leaders to task for things they say and do.

But saying Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish State while failing to question the right of more than 20 Arab and Islamic states to exist is crossing a line to anti-Semitism.

In Leviticus Rabbah 36:5, Resh Lakish told the parable of a king who had three sons, each one brought up by one of his maidservants. So, whenever the king inquired about the well-being of his sons, he would add: Inquire also about the well-being of her who brought them up.  So, too, whenever the Holy One mentions the patriarchs, God mentions the Land with them.

Psalm 137 is a magnificent statement of the centrality of Israel to our being. Can we ever forsake or forget Jerusalem? Never! But I would love to forget the psalm’s final verse!

(This essay originally appeared on the blog)



O Christmas Tree Cast Along the Curb

O Christmas tree, cast along the curb,

What tales would you tell?

Were you decorated with tinsel

and heirloom ornaments

each filled with memory and meaning

and hung carefully on a branch?


Did you share a celebration filled with joy

and overflowing love?

Did you witness the reunion of generations

gathered from corners of the nation

or the world?

Did you see students return from college

in university swag

filled with new knowledge

and so glad to be home?

Or did you vainly try

to lift the spirits

of one alone and forlorn,

missing a dead spouse

and feeling forgotten

by family and friends?

O Christmas tree,  cast along the curb

What tales would you tell?


(Reflection for January 4, 2019)