A friend in Jerusalem pointed out to me the other day that in the eyes of many Israelis, Barack Obama is viewed as a brilliant, thoughtful, and dignified man of integrity. But that almost every move he made regarding the Mideast conflict during his eight-year tenure was problematic, if not worse, for Israel.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is widely seen as a crude, ego-driven, impetuous, and deeply flawed character unfit for the presidency. But almost every move he has made in his first year in office regarding the Mideast, my friend noted, has been supportive of, and many would say beneficial to, Israel.
Obama’s tenure, which began in 2009, got off on the wrong foot when he sought to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze for starters. Soon after, he traveled to Egypt for his major Cairo Speech, extending an olive branch to the murderous mullahs in Iran — while making a point of not visiting Israel during that brief trip to the region. From there it was downhill, with a testy relationship developing between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that grew increasingly worse. The biggest and most serious point of contention was the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, which the White House viewed as a diplomatic triumph, a pragmatic effort to halt Tehran’s march to nuclear arms, at least for the near future. Netanyahu saw the agreement as short-sighted and naive, and would result in Iran being able to fulfill its threat to destroy “the Zionist entity” through nuclear arms within a decade.
Along comes Donald Trump, unexpectedly and seemingly out of nowhere, with his brash and crass style, announcing in a harsh Inaugural Address his vision of an America that is putting the rest of the world on notice. Yet when it comes to a foreign policy seemingly based on threatening and/or offending allies as well as adversaries, his one soft spot is Israel, and especially Netanyahu. For a prime minister grudgingly tolerated at home and on the ropes legally and politically because of a protracted series of criminal investigations, Trump was a godsend.
Seeing the two men smiling and posing together, most recently at Davos, is like a Rorschach test for American Jews who are either repulsed and embarrassed by the obviously warm relationship between the two men or thrilled to see the embodiment of a U.S.-Israel relationship with its “no daylight” bond restored.
Perhaps it’s easier from a distance of thousands of miles for Israelis to filter out Trump, the bullying buffoon seeking to undo the traditional role of government. They can focus instead on the man in the White House who calls out Iran as an enemy that must be confronted, and dispenses with the U.S. role of neutral mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly siding with Jerusalem.
Examples abound of the binary nature of our society one year into the Trump presidency. Every action, speech, or tweet emanating from the administration is seen in terms of black or white (or Red or Blue, politically); opposing sides can’t even agree on what is or isn’t a fact.
The most recent case of divergence was in reaction to Vice President Mike Pence’s two-day visit to Israel, highlighted by his stirring address to the Knesset.
For Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the vice president’s talk was “one of the most Zionist speeches ever given by a non-Jew in the Knesset.” Infusing his remarks with a number of biblical references (with the help of former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we have learned) and reciting the Shehecheyanu blessing in Hebrew (with no need to translate), America’s most famous Evangelical Christian described modern Israel as the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jewish people, dating back to God’s covenant with Abraham.
“The speech was a milestone in American-Israel relations,” Soloveichik wrote in an Opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, adding that many in the audience were moved to bless Pence for his “love of the Jewish state” and with appreciation of the support of tens of millions of Evangelicals fully committed to Israel.
But another prominent American cleric, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Reform movement, focused on what Pence left out of his Knesset speech. Namely, a policy plan for achieving Mideast peace.
Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Yoffie said the address was “a reminder of why Israel’s left is disillusioned and Israel’s right is delusional.”
While appreciating that Pence spoke of the Trump decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and vowed to keep Iran from acquiring acquire nuclear weapons — both steps the rabbi agrees with — he asserted that Pence ignored the reality of “Israel’s demographic issues that are fast turning it into a binational state” and “pretend[ed] that the occupation doesn’t matter to him or to the world.”
And so it goes.
My dilemma: how can a proud American and Zionist find a way to navigate the space, if there is any, between concern about this administration’s threat to democratic values and its full-throated support for Israel?
What comes to mind is the approach David Ben-Gurion, then leader of pre-Israel Palestine, took in facing an impossible quandary in 1939. Hitler had just launched World War II, threatening to eradicate European Jewry. And the British, leading the fight against the Nazis, had issued a document known as the White Paper, declaring its support for the creation of an Arab Palestinian state and freezing Jewish emigration to Palestine.
In response, Ben-Gurion wrote on Sept. 12, 1939: “We shall fight the War as if there was no White Paper, and the White Paper as if there was no War.”
In practice Ben-Gurion and the Jews of Palestine were helpless on both fronts. But in principle, the notion of dividing one’s opinion on a government, or its leader, based on self-interest, political calculations, and ethical values seems reasonable. There are those who for emotional reasons choose to oppose Trump on every front simply because of who he is. But while one can argue over whether the president’s approach to the Mideast is helpful to Israel in the long run, it seems foolhardy and self-defeating to dismiss Trump’s efforts simply because they are his.
We should arrive at conclusions based more on policies than on their source. In the face of toxic divides in our country and our own community, objectivity and thoughtfulness are a precious commodity and we need them more than ever.