‘Motivated by joy, not by sorrow’
Rabbi Mark Shapiro Attends AIPAC Conference
By Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
President Barack Obama, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel President Shimon Peres, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Senator Joe Lieberman. The big names were all there at the recent meeting of AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee).
Over 13,000 people filled the Washington, D.C. Convention Center at the beginning of March to see and hear the “big names” as they clearly and definitively spoke about the unshakeable bond that ties Israel and the United States together.
During the three-day conference, I was moved as more than 20 major figures spoke about the many ways in which they believe Israel and the USA share values and vision. I was moved because I believe what they said was true. I was also encouraged because it is so clear that Israel needs the support of the USA in order to sustain itself in the very rough neighborhood of the Middle East. Especially in light of the terrifying prospect that Iran may acquire nuclear capability, the leadership of President Obama and the United States is critical.
For all that, it turns out that two of the “minor” speakers at AIPAC made the most impressive presentations.
The first was Susan Rice, who is our country’s Ambassador to the United Nations. What a remarkable, thoughtful person with more than 20 years experience in foreign affairs. Rice described a world most of us barely know. It is the daily world of the UN where she said assaults on Israel are “relentless, obsessive, and ugly.” She described how she and the American delegation advocate for Israel in setting after setting: sometimes publicly with a crucial vote or veto at the Security Council but more often quietly behind the scenes.
Ambassador Rice works to build opportunities where Israel can overcome the venom from its antagonists. For example, she told us that after great efforts Israel may be allowed to join the leadership of UNICEF this year. The goal is to insist that Israel be able to participate fully in the good work of the international community.
Rice told us, by the way, not to dissociate from the United Nations. As she said, “Although Israel gets maligned at the United Nations, Israel is not maligned by the United Nations. And the UN,” she continued, “has much good work to do. Do not despair.” As I said, Rice is an outstanding public servant. We may only hear about her occasionally, but she is an absolute star: good for the U.S. and very good for Israel.
Then there was Tal Becker, a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Becker spoke to the rabbis at AIPAC about a very subtle issue. His question: Do we talk so much about the crises threatening Israel’s survival that we leave ourselves no time to consider why Israel really matters?
Becker wasn’t minimizing the dangers Israel confronts, but he was saying that there is more to Israel than trouble. Zionism was never only a response to crisis. It was also a values project! Or, as he put it, there was always an “aspirational” side to Zionism. The goal was to secure a state and then see how the history and traditions of Judaism could shape a unique sovereign nation dedicated to righteousness.
Confronting as much hatred as Israel does, it’s hard to imagine how we or Israel could ever find the time for conversations about ideals and visions. However, Becker’s point was that thinking and visioning about Israel’s future might actually be a breath of fresh air. Shifting the conversation from “survival” to “survival for what” might give lovers of Israel a kind of hope and strength that would make the struggles easier and less draining.
The AIPAC conference was intense and demanding. The primary focus was on assuring that the United States continue its commitment to Israel. On the other hand, one of the alternate messages I came away with has to do with the quality of our own Jewish connection to Israel. Back in 1926, Chaim Nachman Bialik, one of Zionism’s great Hebrew poets, hit the nail on the head. At the end of a five month tour of America, he told an audience of American Zionists, “Work and build the life of our people, motivated by joy, not sorrow.”
The words were right in 1926. When it comes to Israel, I think they still work for us in 2012.
Rabbi Mark Shapiro is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Springfield.