By now we’ve all heard the criticisms of President Obama’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize just a little too early. But Judaism and Jewish values offer a unique perspective on the controversy that others have missed. Let me explain by prefacing with my own grave disappointment in the steady decline of a once mighty prize.
I grew up in awe of the Nobel Peace Prize and its noble recipients. This award was simply amazing, an acknowledgement on the part of our civilization that peace is life’s highest end, fraternity humanity’s greatest goal. I read books on the prize and its recipients. I gave my kids quizzes on the winners and the year in which they received the prize. I went so far as to establish at Oxford University an annual lecture that could be delivered only by winners of the prize. Endowed during the 1990s by philanthropist Edmund Safra, the lecture was delivered to capacity audiences by such luminaries as Elie Wiesel, winner in 1986, Joseph Rotblat, winner in 1995, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, winners in 1994, and most significantly Mikhail Gorbachev, winner in 1990.
I used to wait expectantly for the annual Friday morning in October when the Peace Prize was announced as the culmination of a week-long series of Nobel announcements. And as a young teenager, when I dreamed of what significant achievements my life might one day bring, the Nobel Peace Prize was at the top of the list, even ahead of the presidency of the United States (yes, back then I dreamed big).
But what a drag the last few years have been. For me it began when the prize was awarded in 1994 to Yasser Arafat, the godfather of modern terrorism, whose lasting legacy is not lasting peace with Israel but the army of suicide bombers he launched against the Jewish state to dismember pregnant women and disembowel helpless children. That a cold-blooded killer could win the world’s highest award for peace made the prize into a farce. At Oxford I hosted Kaare Kristiansen, who bravely resigned from the Nobel peace committee after it disgraced itself with the award to Arafat. But one bad apple, I said to myself, could not ruin a prize so majestic in its ambition and scope. But then more strange choices followed – strange not because its recipients lacked virtue but because their achievements seemed to have little connection to peace. The whole purpose of the prize is to promote harmony as humanity’s most noble objective. So what did the prize have to do with Al Gore and climate change, important as the issue is? And why award the prize to Jimmy Carter, whose legacy is not peace between nations but an almost irrational penchant for championing strong-arm dictators at the expense of their oppressed people, including praise he offered for such international criminals as Kim Il Sung, Marshal Tito, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Raul CÃ©dras? Indeed, after the prize was awarded to Mohamed ElBaradei in 2005 it seemed it had simply become a political tool by which to bash the Bush administration, bringing the prize into further discredit.
In light of these developments, last Thursday, the night before the prize’s announcement, I told a friend that I bet President Obama would receive it. My friend was incredulous. “But he hasn’t done anything.” “Yes,” I said, “but he’s not President Bush.” To be honest, even as I said it I did not completely believe it. Surely the members of the Nobel peace committee would not cause Alfred Nobel to turn in his grave by destroying his prize just because they loathed George Bush.
But the next morning the unthinkable happened. A man in office only eight months, who has not resolved a single global conflict and who has yet to disarm the Iranian nuclear menace or confront North Korea’s saber-rattling, won the prize.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not an Obama-basher. Our president is a man of rare eloquence and oratorical gifts. I have supported him strongly through the good he has done and criticized him for the missteps he has taken. But come on. Peace is not simply a great speech and universal harmony is not merely a collection of words.
And here is where Jewish values comes into play. Because perhaps the greatest teaching Judaism has to offer the world is that action is always more important than even the most noble intention. Words can never be a substitute for deeds.
Martin Luther King was arguably the finest American orator of the twentieth century. But he won the 1964 prize for his marches rather than his speeches. It was his courageous actions throughout the South, defying attack dogs, powerful water hoses, and determined assassins, that earned him the prize. It was the change he brought in ending segregation and Jim Crow laws that made him a global hero of peace. Indeed, the speech King gave in accepting the prize in Oslo is considered to have been of his most lackluster addresses, appropriate perhaps in highlighting that it was what he did rather than what he said that really mattered.
And this is where the real guilt of the Nobel committee lies. It has mistakenly and destructively conveyed the message that what a man or woman says is as important as what he or she does. And while we need eloquent words to motivate us and make us march, until those feet start a-stompin’, the speech remains empty rhetoric.
No doubt had our president been given some time, he might have earned the prize outright, based on real achievements confronting Iran, shoring up Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy, and perhaps even disarming North Korea. He might have earned the prize by bringing an end to some of the 30-odd civil wars in Africa where so much of his family still lives. But this prize will now be seen for what it has sadly become, a political statement against Republican governments of the United States.
I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat, preferring to use my God-given intelligence to choose my position on the issues. But my value system comes from Judaism, which has always promoted peace as life’s supreme goal and positive action as the very barometer by which character is built. Indeed, our religion says that God’s very name is Shalom, peace.
The president should of course accept the prize. It is not his fault that the committee awarded him something he has not yet earned. But it would be noble and worthy if he used his speech in Oslo to tell the world that when it comes to people dying and cities being pulverized, words are never enough. Condemning the darkness will never supplant saving the dying, and repudiating the aggressors will never replace protecting the innocent.