Rising to the Occasion

By Ruth R. Wisse

The Weekly Standard

March 16, 2015

On the day that Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was leaving for the United States to give what the Washington Post called “the most important speech of his life,” my grandchildren were watching Big Hero 6. When I heard the smallest of the animated characters say, “We didn’t set out to be super-heroes, but sometimes life doesn’t go the way you planned,” it sounded like the tagline for Bibi’s launch as hero of the free world.

Can such a hero prevail? Elected leaders of democratic societies can rarely rise to courage or bravery of heroic proportions because of the compromise it takes to get reelected and because critical electorates feel compelled to cut leaders down to their size. In his nine nonsuccessive years heading Israel’s government, Netanyahu has taken as much political firepower as Israel has from its enemies. Nonetheless, like the country he heads, Netanyahu has grown stronger in every round. Despite attacks against him from both sides of the Atlantic, he gave Congress one of the boldest speeches in its great history—a speech its audience knew was as consequential for America as it was for the Jews.

Heroism needs a theater of opportunity to demonstrate its engagement with evil. Alas, the real and present danger is not in dispute. Running for office in 2012, President Barack Obama declared Iran “a threat to our national security” and vowed that it “would not get a nuclear weapon.” The danger has since then dramatically increased as Iran directly and through its terrorist proxies now controls the territory from Iran and Iraq through Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean. Iran threatens America and Israel—the big and little Satan alike—but its boast that Israel will be “a one-bomb state” prompted Netanyahu to differentiate this week between the threats to America’s security and to Israel’s survival.

So it fell to the prime minister of Israel to explain the dangers the Obama administration’s proposed agreement with Iran posed “not only to Israel, but also [to] the peace of the entire world.” No doubt everyone would have preferred Netanyahu’s speech to be given by the commander in chief of the world’s superpower rather than by the leader of the Jewish state, if only because sooner or later American strength will be required to defeat the new super-threats. Even England could not defeat Nazism on its own. But the Talmud teaches, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man,” which Yiddish translates as being a mentsh, a worthy human being. In times of peril this apparently simple task may require heroic capacities. President Obama’s disinclination to identify let alone resist the forces of evil made it imperative for the prime minister of Israel to do so in his stead.

It was to be expected that as the son of a Jewish historian, Netanyahu would relate his appearance on the eve of Purim to events 2,500 years earlier, when a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. They were saved by courageous Queen Esther, who exposed the plot, persuaded the king to reverse Haman’s verdict, and won for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. “Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred .  .  . of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated—he tweets. You know, in Iran, there isn’t exactly free Internet. But he tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.” Enmity against the Jewish people remains oddly repetitive, and Netanyahu was claiming for the Jews of today the same right that Esther won to defend against their enemies.

A more familiar historical parallel than the one with ancient Persia is the one Netanyahu drew between radical Islam and radical Nazism that likewise targeted the Jews as warmup for the conquest of Europe. Depending on their points of view, commentators on the current scene invoke Chamberlain at Munich as an augury of appeasement or Churchill before Congress after Pearl Harbor. The parallel is especially painful, not only because Elie Wiesel was sitting in the gallery to remind us of the missing third of the Jewish people but because of the similarities that persist despite Netanyahu’s stated confidence that “Israel will stand!”

Much has happened since the Second World War to justify Bibi’s faith in the Jewish future. In a famous Hebrew story written in Palestine in 1942 ironically entitled “The Sermon,” an ordinary member of a kibbutz named Yudka announces to his colleagues that he strongly “objects” to Jewish history. He says Jewish history was made for the Jews by Gentiles, and ought never to be taught to the children: “It has no adventures, no conquering heroes, no great rulers or potentates. All it has is a mob of beaten, groaning, weeping, begging Jews. And you’ll agree with me that there’s nothing interesting about that .  .  . nothing!” 

How very surprised Yudka would have been at the reception the U.S. Congress gave the leader of the Jewish state that his kibbutz helped bring into being. He might have been even more surprised that this “uninteresting” Jewish experience was what the allegedly “chickens—” Netanyahu used to warn the world against getting it wrong again.

In fact, the Jews were never the passive beggars Yudka described but rather a people constituted politically very differently from others. Religions that claimed to be universal tried to make others subject to their truth. Nations that claimed superiority tried to expand their reach and powers. Jews who were dedicated to pursuing their way of life among other nations were consequently dependent on the reciprocal toleration of other nations. Belligerents through the millennia found easy prey in people who had no incentive to aggress against them. The malignancy of some of those Gentile nations does not reflect on the achievements of the Jews.

In his conclusion, Netanyahu invoked Moses, who led the Jews from enslavement in Egypt and gave them a civilizing constitution. But Jews thrived in their homeland and wherever else they were admitted only if they could protect whatever they achieved. Time and again, the gap between their visible attainments and their ability to protect those assets invited stronger nations, envious neighbors, and even their former protectors to expropriate, expel, or exterminate them. Jews became the no-fail target of the world’s most murderous regimes—Nazism yesterday, Iran today. As targets of the foulest forces, they became a constant reminder of the evil that must be resisted. Netanyahu used this history to remind Americans: Unless you soldier effectively, you will incite genocidal hostility against you.

President Barack Obama came into office believing that he could put an end to war and to the need for war. His make-believe has instead emboldened warmongers, encouraged expansionists, and fired up apocalyptic ideologues. When America gave up the task of “policing” the free world, it imperiled hope for maintaining order in any part of that world. Police are not infallible, but their absence makes evildoers implacable. No peaceable nation can expect to thrive without defensive power equal to its accomplishment. America itself is not too big to fail.

Netanyahu could not replace Barack Obama as leader of the free world. Unlike supermen in comic books or superheroes of animated film, he cannot protect America. But what Bibi could do, and did do, was to identify the dangers that the president and his followers have tried to obscure. Because of the cruelty directed against them in particular, Jews protect the world best when they best protect themselves and have something to teach about the necessary ratio of defensive power to peace. Neither Netanyahu nor the people of Israel set out to be heroes. Sometimes it simply requires taking up the task you were assigned.

Ruth R. Wisse, a former professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of Jews and Power and No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.