Congratulations on being chosen to lead the next government of Israel. No doubt you will make an outstanding prime minister.
About 15 years ago, I hosted you at Oxford University. A large Palestinian student demonstration greeted you with the words, “Netanyahu, you should know, we support the PLO!” You courageously walked over to the leaders of the demonstration and invited them into your lecture. By the time you finished delivering a truly masterful oration, the students gave you a standing ovation. Many of your sharpest critics told me that night that it was the finest speech they had ever heard. I well remember its content. You cited the extraordinary fact that, in the history of the world, two democracies had never gone to war against one another. You clearly and squarely put the onus of Middle East peace on the Arabs through the process of democratization. But it was your ability to transcend the parochial box into which most Israeli statesmen are placed and speak out as a forceful advocate of global human rights that electrified the audience. You argued that if the 22 Arab nations that surround Israel were democracies rather than dictatorships, peace would begin to spread throughout the Middle East. You also argued that our Arab brothers and sisters deserve to live in freedom, just as Israel’s Jews and Arabs do. On that night, as on countless television appearances that preceded it, you established yourself as the most eloquent spokesperson Israel has ever produced, the scholarly and silver-tongued Abba Eban included.
Truth regardless of consequences By the time you became prime minister, however, it seemed that you somehow got sidetracked and your eloquence was not always in evidence. Somehow forgetting that Israel’s truest battle is for the hearts and minds of people everywhere, you got mired in the peace process that, under your watch, as under the prime ministers who preceded and succeeded you, produced mostly negative results. I waited patiently to hear you bring your brilliant arguments about the need for Arab countries to democratize and how these 400 million citizens of the world deserved the same rights to protest their government or read the truth in a newspaper as Israel’s Arabs do. Instead, even under your watch, it seemed that the world believed that Israel’s unwillingness to relinquish large tracts of land was the most significant obstacle to Middle East peace, even as successive land-for-peace deals yielded the twin results of Israel being less secure and more hated than ever before.
There was another reason that I eagerly awaited the paradox of an Israeli prime minister becoming the Middle East’s foremost champion of Arab freedoms. I have always believed that Israel’s long-term survival was directly dependent on the country’s living up to its ancient biblical mandate of serving as a light unto the nations. Israel must be a blessing to other peoples. We’re beginning to see this in fields like medicine, technology, and agriculture where Israeli inventiveness and know-how are saving and improving lives all over the world. But I was hoping that this would be most felt in Israel’s gift of personal dignity and the wisdom to master life’s meaning, at which Jews and Judaism have always excelled.
Take the fact that last year President Shimon Peres convened an international conference to discuss the Jewish people’s future. I have always marveled at the exclusivity of these conventions. Why not also host an international conference on the future of the family, as the West’s divorce rate hovers at one out of two marriages? The Jewish people are famous for the strength of their families. Why not make Israel the supreme repository of the wisdom by which to raise healthy children and create strong marriages? Or a conference on the dignity of women, at which Israel also excels, what with its female soldiers, leading female politicians, and the archetypal Israeli mothers who are strong enough to send their sons off to battle but gentle enough to rear all their children with genuine hopes of peace? Or an international conference on coexistence between ethnicities, given that Israel is the first country in the history of the world to actually import black men and women into freedom rather than slavery? Who better to discuss the ultimate brotherhood of humankind than a country composed entirely of immigrants of every shade and hue?
You will say, but Shmuley, they are all Jews, and the world accuses us of racism and exclusivity. And how can we become the world’s leading advocate of a woman’s dignity and the family when all the world wants to hear about is the Arab-Israeli conflict? But that’s just the point. Why would someone as eloquent as you, and as capable of powerful persuasion as you, allow the world to define Israel rather than finally having Israel define itself? Does the world accuse the Dalai Lama of exclusivity and racism for arguing that Tibetan Buddhists deserve their own country as a sanctuary and haven? And yes, I understand that China invaded Tibet, but who elected the Dalai Lama to represent the Tibetan people? He is, in effect, a hereditary monarch who has never been chosen through a public plebiscite. But the world supports him because he and his people are seen as a great light to humanity, a man whose country has given spirituality to us materialistic Westerners. Meanwhile, Israel is perceived as a country whose principal contribution to the rest of the world remains checkpoints, security firms, and Uzis.
It is time for Israel to become a light to the world, and in you Israel finally has a prime minister whose mastery of the press and eloquence can finally break through the nonstop noise of conflict. At Oxford you spoke eloquently of your brother’s loss at Entebbe and of how the action he led in Uganda helped to eventually topple the monster Idi Amin, a man who slaughtered countless defenseless Africans. Would it be asking too much that you use your perch as one of the world’s most visible leaders to do the same, now that you have a mulligan?
We all know that for now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tragically insoluble. With killers like Hamas and Hezbollah dominating the leadership and a hate-filled, menacing Iran arming these terrorists, Israel cannot make peace with those who believe that it is just a matter of time before Israel is overrun. That’s why the time has come to change the direction of Israel’s story into the blessing that Israel is to the world rather than the curse it is to the Palestinians. Your point during the campaign that you intend to pursue peace by focusing on the Palestinians’ economic deprivation and helping them build their institutions is a brilliant first step.
To be sure, none of this will be easy. But having served as a rabbi at Oxford for 11 years and seen the deep and unmerited hostility Israel elicits, I can tell you that if you can get a standing ovation from 1,000 Oxford students, then you can get the same positive reaction from CNN, MSNBC, and even the BBC.