This past week, along with over 13,000 other pro-Israel delegates, I attended the AIPAC policy conference. I have been going since my junior year of college when I led a delegation of fellow students. If you have never been, then you should know that it is, hands down, the largest Kiddush you will ever see. Thousands of laypeople, Jewish professionals, clergy, Jews and non-Jews all crammed into the DC Convention Center. Congressmen and senators, policy wonks and journalists, Peres, Netanyahu, Obama, the Maccabeats, even Kathy Ireland (who still looks terrific), all to discuss, affirm and strengthen the bonds between America and Israel. It is a “who’s who” of Jewish leadership. Plenaries and breakout sessions, visits to Capitol Hill, education and advocacy – every year it is totally energizing, a reminder to me, but more importantly to our elected officials of the size, commitment and coherence of the pro-Israel Lobby.
This year, the topic of the entire conference can be distilled down to one word: Iran. From President Obama’s address on Sunday to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s on Monday night, with the meeting of the two taking place in between, one would never known that there was anything else to talk about. Palestinians, 1967 borders, Hamas, settlements – hardly any mention at all. All eyes were turned to Tehran’s maniacal ambitions. How close are they to nuclear capability? What exactly is the threat of a nuclear Iran for Israel, for the Middle East and for America? Are American interests and Israeli interests one and the same? If Israel strikes, should she – will she – do so only with clearance from America? The combination of Iran’s anti-Israel ideology, it and its proxies’ proximity to the Jewish state, and its pursuit of the nuclear weapons – we are, without a doubt, living through one of the most precarious moments in Israel’s history.
Subtlety is not really the order of the day at the Policy Conference. As at any pep rally, nuanced and textured arguments, especially in an election year, are checked at the door. But unlike the Palestinians, Jerusalem or other topics, on the question of the Iranian danger there is actually a rather broad consensus. Nobody in America or in Israel is really disputing the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel and the world. Even David Grossman, perhaps the most prominent spokesmen for the Israeli left, readily stated this week, “We are dealing with the most crucial existential problem that the state of Israel may ever have faced in all its history.” So what is the crux of the debate on Iran? I think the only point of discussion and difference boils down to a tactical question raised by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak a few weeks ago. When sharing his concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, he stated, “Whoever says ‘later’ may find that later is too late.” I think what he meant is that there are those who – while well aware of the Iranian threat – believe that we must slow down, give it time, wait for other strategies to be implemented and have their effect. Barak’s comment, on the other hand, reflects an urgent sense that we are living in an “if not now, then when” moment. To delay, stall, or push off what needs to be done now misreads Iran’s capabilities and underestimates Iran’s intentions and will ultimately lead to our own undoing. The question is: at what point does later become too late?
To a degree, it is a debate about leadership, a debate that is hardly unique to our present moment, but rather, characterizes all junctures of decision and indecision. Though in vastly different circumstances, it is the tension felt by Aaron in his dealings with the Golden Calf in this past week’s Torah portion, Ki Thissa. There he stood, waiting for God and Moses to wrap up their deliberations at the top of Mount Sinai, and before his very eyes the calf was being assembled and constructed. According to the Midrash in Exodus Rabbah, Aaron tried everything he could to delay the project, thinking that Moses would return any moment and put an end to the danger. He suggested that the people give their jewelry, assuming it would buy him time. He proposed that he himself take on the building project, thinking that he could stall. He called for a festival. He did whatever he could, hoping against hope that “later” would never arrive. But for all his tactics, not only did that “later” moment indeed arrive, but it arrived sooner than he anticipated, and by then it was too late. The construction of the Golden Calf was not only the darkest moment of Israel’s forty-year wanderings, but was also the nadir of Aaron’s prophetic career. It represented a tragic miscalculation that so many others have made since. He delayed a necessary confrontation at the critical moment of decision, thinking that he could slow down the inevitable, but the inevitable proved to be inevitable. For Aaron, later was too late, and both he and Israel paid the price.
Let me be clear about what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am not suggesting that Israel must presently take matters into its own hands. I am terribly troubled that in all of the posturing of this past week, there has been a deafening silence on what I believe to be a critical element of the conversation, namely: once Israel or America attacks Iran, what exactly do the next 24 hours look like? What happens when Hezbollah launches 50,000 rockets into Israel? What happens when the price of oil spikes above $200 a barrel? What happens when there is a retaliatory terrorist strike on American soil? I believe that Israel has every right to be “master of its own fate.” That is, in a nutshell, the whole point of a sovereign Jewish state. As was stated with great clarity this past week, “No nation can gamble its sovereignty and security on perfect knowledge of a clandestine effort by an avowed enemy.” (Howard Kohr) But what I would really like to hear, what I am not hearing, are brutally honest discussions on what a post-strike world looks like, and why the certainty of that terrible eventuality is preferable to the uncertainty wrought by every other terrible scenario. Aaron’s model of leadership may not recommend itself to us, but let’s not forget that the real hero of this week’s Torah reading is Moses – ready to stand in the breach, talk the Almighty down and save Israel from certain destruction. Just because we are living through an “if not now, then when” moment, doesn’t mean that we cannot move forward with thought, intention and a bit of humility earned by our recent experiences. Sometimes the boldest leader is the one who is able to keep a cool head in the midst of a chorus counseling otherwise.
2012 is not 1938, and Iran is not Osirak. Tempting as they may be, sloganism, fear mongering and reckless bluster strike me as terribly misplaced considering the stakes at hand. Certainly our future memories of Americans and Israelis who will pay the ultimate sacrifice for present decisions should be unsullied by the crass posturing of election year politics. Again, Israel doesn’t need to apologize for self-defense. As Menachem Begin himself stated as doctrine following Osirak, “…under no circumstances will Israel ever allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.” (Y. Avner, The Prime Ministers, p. 555) And yet, it was that same Begin who differentiated between what he called “wars of choice,” and “wars of no alternative,” describing ’48 and’73 as the latter, and surprisingly, ’67 as the former, a war of choice. In retrospect, of course, it was the necessary and right choice, but as Begin himself explained when discussing Egyptian aggression leading up to Israel’s strike, “We must be honest with ourselves…While it is indeed true that the closing of the Straits of Tiran was an act of aggression, a casus belli, there is always room for a great deal of consideration as to whether it is necessary to make a casus into a bellum.” (R. Haass, pp. 9-10). Just because striking Iran would be a war of choice does not mean it would not be well justified – now or later. But like Joshua overhearing the sounds of war coming from the camp, we need to rise above the boisterous din and insist on sober and rigorous analysis in assessing the likely costs, benefits and consequences of every option on the table.
So what should be done and when? Let’s start with the more manageable question of what you and I should do. Let me offer a lighter image, but one that hopefully provides the beginnings of the answer. On Monday, the lunch that AIPAC served was, in good Jewish fashion, Chinese food. As I was listening to the speaker, I did what I always do when eating Chinese food – I opened up my fortune cookie. The fortune read, “Your work helps ensure Israel’s safety and security.” While I didn’t check all the other cookies, I am willing to bet that everyone else’s fortune said pretty much the same thing. The symbolism of that moment for me, and I hope for all of us, is the take-home message of the conference. The stakes are too high, the window too small, the situation too grave to leave anything to fortune. Our work helps ensure Israel’s safety and security. With Purim still in our rearview mirror, like Queen Esther herself, we must be responsive to our people’s present needs; we dare not leave anything to chance. Sitting this round out is a decision for indecision that our people can ill afford and it is simply not an option to arrive too late.
“I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night.” (Isaiah 62) May we, Americans Jews privileged to live in the company of a sovereign Israel, serve as the watchmen on her walls, neither resting nor holding our peace, vigilant and responsive to our obligations in shaping the present and future security of the Jewish State.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is spiritual leader of the Park Avenue Synagogue.