— by Rabbi Ira Stone
I begin with a belated beracha: “Shehechiyanu v’kimanu lazman hazeh,” giving thanks to God that I lived long enough to attend an AIPAC Policy Conference.
When in the long history of the Jewish people has it been possible for 13,000 Jews to gather together in peace, for our own purposes and to exercise our natural right as citizens to present our concerns to the representatives of our government? 2,000 years of Jewish lives would call this a miracle. It is the miracle of America and we should not take it for granted.
Before I share any other highlights from the conference, let me describe one in particular that could equally justify my saying the beracha. The opportunity to be in the same hall with Shimon Perez was unforgettable. To stand and applaud a man who stood next to David Ben-Gurion in the founding of the State of Israel, to re-live imaginatively the transformations that he has lived and from Polish refugee, to Kibbutznik, to soldier in the War of Independence, to political leader, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, architect of peace even when it fails, committed to strength for the purpose of achieving peace — I felt like I was given the opportunity to listen to George Washington, but a George Washington whose rabbi grandfather, at the train station when he left Poland for Palestine, whispered in his ear: “Be Jewish.” He never saw his grandfather again. His grandfather was locked in his shtetl’s synagogue with the rest of his congregation and the synagogue was burned to the ground. President Perez made it clear that “being Jewish,” articulating through his love and devotion to Israel those values that define what is means to be Jewish, has been his life’s work and is our life’s work. Whether via an Israeli national identity or an American national identity, “being Jewish” is the transcendent theme of a Jewish life.
More after the jump.
Susan Rice on Israel
I will return in a moment to other highlights that occurred in the astonishing plenary sessions with 13,000 Jews listening to other historic talks. However, most of the conference is not spent in plenary sessions, but in the more substantive break-out sessions. The session I want to highlight this morning was a briefing by the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. We heard the details, and began to internalize the details of the day to day work that the Ambassador and her staff have to do — every single day — to combat the sheer multitude of anti-Israel rhetoric, resolutions and policy initiatives by a large segment of the UN membership and comprehended just how committed the United States is to daily standing by Israel. But learning the depth of Ambassador Rice’s personal commitment to Israel was not only more moving, but more instructive. She began her remarks by quoting in impeccable Hebrew, Hinei matov u’manayim shevet achim gam yachad — even pronouncing the chet appropriately. She then described her first trip to Israel with her father when she was 14 years old. This African American woman, though not Jewish, climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea and journeyed through Yad Vashem as a teenager, thus putting the lie to the knee-jerk Jewish assumption that we are always alone, that no one else “out there” gets it. The basic assumption of AIPAC is precisely that there are many Americans that “get it” and with a little more effort by a lot more Jews that number could increase exponentially. But the most incredible moment came when Ambassador Rice finished her talk. As those gathered rose to applaud, 400 Rabbis of every denomination spontaneously began singing hinei mah tov u’manayim. It was a spine-tingling, unforgettable moment.
Considerations about Iran
The primary function of AIPAC and the AIPAC Policy Conference is to work to make clear the shared values and shared vision of the United States and Israel and the strengthening of the alliance between the two countries on this basis and with a clear-eyed recognition of the fact that this alliance is the single most important factor in securing Israel’s survival. Whatever critique one might ever have brought to these assertions in the past, their truth is obvious in this moment of history in the looming shadow of Iranian insanity. Much of the focus of the conference was on Iran and the development of a joint U.S/Israeli strategy regarding Iran. It was this theme that many of the plenary speakers spoke about including, of course, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Certainly just having the opportunity to hear the President and the Prime Minister, despite the security line hassles, has to also be included in any list of highlights.
I believe that it is imperative that we realize how essential the support of the United States for Israel is in whatever is coming in the situation with Iran. It is assuring this support that AIPAC is all about. Certainly it is clear that at the moment both the President and the Congress do sincerely support Israel, but that support is likely going to be put to the test. President Obama is rightly using every non-military option at his disposal to precipitate a change in the policies of the Iranian leadership. This is the wise thing for a responsible leader to do. I applaud him, but I’m afraid that the policy will not work. After all, if Adolph Hitler was willing to sacrifice almost certain victory in Europe by wasting a huge amount of resources to persecute Jews, it should be clear that reason will not be a factor in the Iranian’s policy. Moreover, Iran has so much to gain in the long run through the acquisition of nuclear weapons — complete hegemony over the Middle East, complete control of the distribution of oil in the world — that the short term suffering that they will need to absorb will be worth it.
If and when the President’s attempt to use non-military measures to solve the crisis fails, the impact on America will be significant. Maintaining the support of the President and more importantly Congress when the American public begins to experience the consequence of Iranian intransigence will require constant effort. All of us will have to become not only lobbyists of Congress, but lobbyists of our neighbors, our co-workers, even our own friends and family. Second, it is imperative that starting now we help to change the nature of the discourse surrounding these issues. Israel is not threatening nor refraining from a pre-emptive military action. Israel is restraining itself at no little risk from a defensive response to an aggressor. Israel has no border with Iran. Whatever issues there are between Israel and her neighbors have nothing to do with Iran except that Iran has continually supplied military supplies to those terrorist groups that are on Israel’s borders, Hezbollah and Hamas. It has continually supplied money and material to a world-wide network of terrorists who have carried out attacks against Israel, against Jews in other countries and against the United States. Coupled with these real and recognized acts of war, Iran has consistently repeated its chief foreign policy goal: the annihilation of the Jewish State. In the face of these undeniable acts of war, Israel has and continues to show unprecedented restraint. When Israel determines that its survival will no longer allow such restraint it will act and when it does it will not be launching an attack but finally defending itself from attack.
When, God forbid, this happens, there will be consequences for all of us. I hope you can tell from my remarks today that this was an almost unprecedented experience. In the words of so many of the speakers at the conference: “God bless the Jewish people and the State of Israel and God bless the United States of America.”
Ira Stone received his education at Queens College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained a Rabbi in 1979.
He has served congregations in Seattle, Washington and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he has been the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel since 1988. You can read some of his sermons on mussar.