Monday, June 8, 2009

The Early Results: Obama 1, Extremism 0

One could make an argument that the most important election in Israel's history will be taking place this Friday, and not a single Israeli will be casting a vote.

I'm happy to say that we can already evaluate President Obama's Cairo speech as a smashing success. The first results are in, from Lebanon, and while we can't draw definitive connections between the speech and the results, the fact is that the pro American ruling coalition did much better than they were expected to do just, well, five days ago.

A Lebanon controlled by Hezbullah would have had severe consequences for Israel's security. Were Iran to go in the same direction in its elections on Friday (a longer shot in a far less democratic environment), we might rightly claim that Obama has changed more than the mood - he's changed the map.

And it could happen. (See the NY Times blog: Red vs. Blue in Iran, and an excellent analysys, Elections in Iran – Part II from MEMRI)

Given all that, and especially if Iran votes out Ahmadinejad this week or in a runoff later, maybe this would be the time for Israel to give the US President a limited, six month, window to work more of his magic. A six month settlement freeze would seem like a huge gesture, given the Likud government's right wing proclivities. It actually would be a great political risk for the PM. But it would be a small price to pay for the chance to see if Obama is able to bring about serious forward movement from Arab countries on upgrading relations with Israel and to build consensus in removing the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama has given Netanyahu the perfect shield from the internal dissent (who wants to diss America), and now, some results to boot.

All that makes lots of sense from these shores, but will it be enough to shift Israeli opinion, which is now split right down the middle. The settlements are no longer the symbols of the Zionist pioneer spirit that they used to be, at least for the secular majority, but the right wing has become increasingly vocal, chauvinistic and anti-Arab.

That phenomenon is being felt even here in the US among Jews. See Rabbi Sidney Schwarz's piece in last week's Jewish Week on what he witnessed at the recent Salute to Israel parade in New York.

Then a band launched into a rousing rendition of Am Yisrael Chai. I spent more than 25 years as an activist for Soviet Jewry. This was our theme song signaling solidarity both with the history of our people and with all those oppressed Jews in the world whose cause we championed. A group of young men in their 20's with kippot and tziztzit were right in front of me dancing in a frenzy. But they alternated the verse that meant "the people of Israel lives" with "all the Arabs must die." It rhymed with the Hebrew. Given the way all joined in, it was clear that this was not the first time it was sung.

I leaned over to a young man who was next to me, also wearing a kippah and tzitzit. I nodded at the dancers and asked: "Does this song bother you?" He looked at me with a suspicious look and replied: "This is Zionism."

And even worse (if that is possible), read Moment Magazine's recent survey of rabbis representing different movements on the question, "How should Jews treat their Arab neighbors?"

The shocking response of the Chabad rabbi, Manis Friedman, became subject of an article in this week's Forward, Rabbi’s Comments on Treatment of Arabs Show a Different Side of Chabad .

To be fair, Friedman has tried to backtrack from his statements (see A Statement from Rabbi Friedman), but it is very hard to backtrack from his original response to the question:

I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.

The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East. First, the Arabs will stop using children as shields. Second, they will stop taking hostages knowing that we will not be intimidated. Third, with their holy sites destroyed, they will stop believing that G-d is on their side. Result: no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war.

Zero tolerance for stone throwing, for rockets, for kidnapping will mean that the state has achieved sovereignty. Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.

Many people would agree to the zero tolerance part, but the biblical references are downright scary. While Chabad, like all movements, is not monolithic, there is an underlying belief that the State of Israel must become, ultimately a theocracy, and that the secular government is less than legitimate. In practice, it is problematic for many Chabad leaders to sing Hatikva, which expresses allegiance for the secular state.

There is no comparison, of course, between right wing, Arab hating Jewish extremists and the terrorism practiced by extremists who actually put these theories into practice by actually killing and maiming innocent civilians. I do not intend to equate the two. But President Obama has started a process that may lead to a rise of moderation and nuance in the face of all extremism. Those of us who believe that God speaks in a still small voice can only pray that he succeeds.

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