AIPAC, Jersey Pride, Purim and Netanyahu

The following is an email which I sent to my congregation this morning with reflections on the recent AIPAC Policy Conference:

Over the past few days, I had the amazing experience of joining 16,000 fellow Israel activists in Washington, DC for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. It is an event that brings together a broad coalition of supporters of our Jewish homeland and the vital American-Israeli partnership. Attendees represented every stream of Judaism, a political spectrum from left to right and Democrat to Republican and included, as well, members of the Black, Hispanic and Non-Jewish faith communities. The learning and the inspiration for we, who are passionate supporters of our Homeland, was powerful and meaningful. I cannot more strongly urge you to consider supporting AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) at and attending next year’s policy conference.

Of course, it was also a policy conference that found itself at the center of the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday. I will share my reflections about that further on, but first I want to share with you a moment of pride and a very special learning session.

The moment of pride came Monday night when our own Senator Bob Menendez gave a strong, unequivocal speech in defense and support of the State of Israel. He was Jersey Strong in the best sense of that phrase as he declared: “I know there are more than a few people here in Washington who say that I’m outspoken in my defense of Israel—and, frankly, I’m not only proud of it. I’m fully prepared to stand on this stage today—or on any stage anywhere, anytime—to carry that message to both the friends and enemies of Israel around the world…” It was a powerful speech that provoked numerous standing ovations and cries of support. And whether or not one fully agreed with his views, and there were both in the audience, you could not help but be moved by his passion, his intelligence and his commitment. I was so proud to be able to identify him as one of my Senators.

Earlier that day, we Rabbis were blessed to spend an hour over breakfast with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is a phenomenal teacher who shared with us a different way of looking at the Megillah whose story we will retell at Purim Worship services this evening. Hartman noted that most often we focus on Haman and how his genocidal plans for our people were averted. As was noted yesterday, Purim comes to remind us of the need to stand up courageously in the face of those who would seek to destroy us.

Hartman noted, however, that the central mitzvah of Purim is a call to feed the hungry and care for the disenfranchised in our midst and asked how did this become Purim’s commandment. The answer, he said, may be in a focus not on Haman, but rather on King Ahashverosh. Purim, according to Hartman, comes to warn us of the danger of becoming Ahashverosh. Ahashverosh is the perfect example of one who is trapped in a “Palace Mentality”, so self-involved that he is completely unaware of the real world, so privileged that he has lost touch and so cut off that he lives with indifference to the needs of others. Esther becomes trapped in that same world of indifference until Mordechai forces her to look outside herself to see and to know what is really happening outside her.

The Haman’s of the world need to be destroyed. But, Hartman reminded us, in our battle with Haman, we must guard against becoming Ahashverosh. Our discourse about Israel must not just be about survival, but about who we want to be as a people. There is no conflict between fighting for Israel’s survival and fighting for an Israel dedicated to religious pluralism, gender equality, civil rights and economic fairness. We can both speak out on behalf of Israel and speak out when Israel strays from these ideals. Hartman said Americans need to be more like Israelis who see no dichotomy between a concern for survival and a concern for what kind of people we want to be.

That lesson echoed in my ears as we made our way to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to our gathering. I count myself among those who questioned the wisdom of his accepting Speaker Boehner’s invitation to speak before Congress. I felt that in accepting an invitation that had not gone through normal channels, he was risking the broad bi-partisanship that has historically been behind America’s support for Israel. In his focus on survival, he was losing sight of relationships that are critical to that survival. I looked forward to how he would address such concerns.

His words were relatively brief, as he did not want to take away from his address to Congress the following day. But I was heartened by his recognition of the controversy his acceptance had engendered. Before he sought to defeat Haman, he defeated the tendency to become Ahashverosh by acknowledging the world outside his own as he said:

First, let me clarify what is not the purpose of that speech. My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both. I deeply appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel, security cooperation, intelligence sharing, support at the U.N., and much more, some things that I, as Prime Minister of Israel, cannot even divulge to you because it remains in the realm of the confidences that are kept between an American President and an Israeli Prime Minister. I am deeply grateful for this support, and so should you be. My speech is also not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate. An important reason why our alliance has grown stronger decade after decade is that it has been championed by both parties and so it must remain… Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”

But the Prime Minister was equally clear that the uniquely dangerous threat to Israel’s life represented by the Iranian nuclear program compelled him to accept this chance to speak directly to Congress about this existential threat. “American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.” he said. With that difference in mind, he felt compelled to speak directly to congress about an issue that threatens Israel’s very existence.

His speech to Congress yesterday was, in my mind, masterfully written and powerfully delivered. He again made clear his appreciation of the support of the President and the American people for Israel and then laid out very clearly his concerns that the Administration was heading towards a deal with Iran that would be bad in the short term and existentially threatening in the long term. The Administration responded to the speech by calling it nothing more than “rhetoric” that offered nothing new. But as this morning’s Washington Post offered in an editorial entitled “Obama needs to provide real answers to Netanyahu’s arguments”:

Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime,” he said. Is that wrong? For that matter, is it acceptable to free Iran from sanctions within a decade and allow it unlimited nuclear capacity? Rather than continuing its political attacks on Mr. Netanyahu, the administration ought to explain why the deal it is contemplating is justified — or reconsider it.”

As we celebrate Purim, we do so with the hope that the Prime Minister’s words will be taken seriously, that the Haman’s of modern day Persia will be faced down with courage and that the Israel of today will continue to live and prosper as it seeks to build a better tomorrow. And in the words of our Megillah, tonight may we all know light and happiness, joy and glory.

Rabbi Levy

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