Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted the bulk of his speech last week in New Orleans to the threat Israel faces as Iran moves toward full nuclear capability. As he spoke, at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, I could not help thinking about another speech given by a head of state facing a nuclear threat – that of President Kennedy at his 1961 inauguration.
When Kennedy delivered that famous address, America was gripped with fear over the possibility of a nuclear engagement with the Soviet Union. The launch of Sputnik, only a few years earlier, signaled the ability of the Soviets to launch long- range rockets and therefore attack the United States. Students routinely practiced air raid drills in classrooms. Movies and popular culture of the time reflect deep fears of apocalyptic scenarios.
And yet, in such a climate of very real fear, Kennedy used his inauguration speech to call a new, younger generation into the service of American ideals. In bold and soaring rhetoric he both acknowledged the immediacy of the threat at hand, but did not let that threat exhaust the significance of the moment. Kennedy proclaimed:
“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
In this and other powerful statements, Kennedy alluded to the nuclear threat but placed it behind the call to “abolish all forms of human poverty.” Kennedy called for the need to stand up to Soviets in the arms race, in the struggle for political influence in the Americas, but he situates these in the context of a more transcendent call. He places the struggle with Communism in a broader human struggle:
“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
The result is what we might call a pragmatic idealism. Never did Kennedy shirk from the gravity of the threat he faced, but nor did he let fear dampen his call to service. Rather, he used the very real possibility of war to deepen the call to sacrifice, to add resonance to his message.
Netanyahu, for his part, had no such call. He offered no vision of Israel in five, ten, or twenty years hence. His focus was limited to sheer survival – military and economic survival. He spoke with passion about taking on the twin enemies of Iranian belligerence and economic stagnation.
But these are not the causes that build a nation. Zionism, for all its cold pragmatism in the face of Europe’s Jewish question also dreamt of a renewed Jewish spirit. Netanyahu could only offer threats, fears and tax cuts.
The lesson of Kennedy is instructive because it lays bare the false claim that in the face of peril a call to service in the name of ideals is naïve or impossible. Kennedy did both. As I sat with the 650 students from Hillels around the country listening to Netanyahu’s speech, I wondered where a generation such as this would find a leader who could call them to service, and not just to defense.
Daniel Smokler is senior Jewish educator at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU.