While Brexit, Kobe Bryant, the Impeachment trial, and the upcoming Superbowl are on the front pages of the news, for the Jewish People, the ‘Deal of the Century’ was front and center.
Will it work, is the first question. Is it pure politics, is the second.
I, like you, am not a geopolitical expert. I, like you, and frankly everyone in the world, recognizes the complexity of the ever-shifting region. But I hope, you and I, despite our politics, whatever they may be, can still appreciate what happened this past week at the White House.
First to explain what the rationale behind this peace plan really was: Obviously Trump’s “Deal of the Century” looked nothing like previous peace plans which involved shuttle diplomacy or long meetings with the Israeli government and the leadership of the Palestinians. This peace plan was presented without the consent of the Palestinians, leading to the obvious question of what chances does this possibly have? It seems at face value to be bizarre.
Clearly, this is a deliberate radical break from previous plans. It’s a squeeze play – the Trump administration with the implicit and explicit support of many Arab countries is basically telling the Palestinians, this may not be a great deal for you, but there is no better alternative. Take it or leave it. But if you leave it, many of your regular Arab supporters aren’t supporting you any longer.
It’s tough and it’s harsh, and that’s exactly why, some argue, it just may work. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/28/trump-peace-plan-is-squeeze-play-against-palestinians-it-might-work/)
Though I hesitate to draw direct comparisons between the parsha and modern-day news as the comparisons tend to be sloppy and inaccurate, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.
Like Pharaoh, the Palestinian leadership seems to have a fetish with the word, no. Like Mahmoud Abbas said this past week, “We say 1000 times; No, no, and no to the deal of the century.”
Which is rather precise. They said no to the 1947 UN Partition plan. They said no to Israel’s request not to attack in 1967. They said no to an Israeli offer to return the Golan Heights in 2000 and they said no to a peace plan later that year that offered the Palestinians their own state with East Jerusalem as capital. No, no, no.
And each time, like the ancient Pharaoh, it did not end well for the no-party. By rejecting the partition plan, they were left with a smaller land than had been offered. By ignoring Israel’s entreaties not to attack in ’67, Jordan lost control of the West Bank. By rejecting the incredible offers of 2000, many of the most peace-loving Israelis became completely disillusioned to the prospect of peace. You cannot keep on saying no and expect things to work in your favor. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/opinion/middle-east-peace-plan.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage)
And like ancient Egypt, not everyone agreed with their leadership. In the opening passages of our parsha, we find an open revolt against Pharaoh, his servants beg him to reconsider. But he does not.
And tragically, his servants who were willing to concede, who were willing to make peace with the Jewish People, end up suffering along with everyone else. There’s a reason we spill some wine at our Pesach Seder. Not everyone’s necessarily guilty, but citizens suffer for the stupidity of their leaders. And that’s sad, it’s terribly sad.
There are undoubtedly scores of Arabs living in the West Bank and in Gaza who would gladly strike a deal with Israel but are afraid to open their mouths. There are many who simply don’t know better because of a terrible and toxic education. And that too is terribly sad. Sad that innocent people have to be subject to humiliating checkpoints and sad that people who just want to live normal lives are subject to abject poverty. We too need to spill some wine, acknowledging that Mahmoud Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, does not reflect the opinion of all those he represents and that many of them, truly don’t know better, due to no fault of their own.
But the emotions that struck me hardest this past week, were pride and gratitude.
As the Egyptian plagues wrap up, the Torah feels the need to inform us that Moshe was greatly respected by all the Egyptians. It would seem, that the respect Moshe had, in the streets, and even in the Egyptian palace, was an important component of the redemption process.
Which makes a lot of sense – to be free it was not enough for them to not be enslaved, the Jewish People needed to develop a sense of self-respect, a sense of dignity. They needed to transform from being spit upon to becoming a nation of priests. That’s no easy transition. But seeing their leader, seeing Moshe walk through the halls of government and command the utmost respect, I am sure helped them see themselves in a new light.
Sadly, throughout our history, we have not had leaders who could walk through the hallways of government and make demands for the Jewish People. At times this was because our Jewish leaders were not influential enough. But at other times, far more tragically, Jewish leaders were influential, and chose to remain silent.
In the 1940’s, the late, Rabbi Stephen Wise, was president of the World Jewish Congress, president of the American Jewish Congress, a founder and board member of the ACLU and a board member of the NAACP – he was by far the most influential Jew of his time. And yet, in order to maintain his warm relationship with FDR, Rabbi Wise refused to criticize the administration. The Nazi Olympics, the Nuremberg rallies, Kristallnacht, and even after Rabbi Wise got wind of what was really going on in Europe, he not only remained silent but he attacked those who protested, lambasting the group of 500 rabbis who marched on DC in 1943.
Historians suggest that FDR held his personal relationship with Rabbi Wise over his head. Rabbi Wise wanted President Roosevelt to help, but felt that his silence and support would be a more effective way of receiving the help they needed. In a private letter to his son, after sharing that the President sent regards to the rabbi, he wistfully adds, “If only he could help my people.”
But Rabbi Wise did not have the respect of the administration nor the self-respect to speak up when it was so desperately needed. (https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/297806/franklin-roosevelt-holocaust)
Thirty years later, one of the most powerful political advisors in American history, Henry Kissinger, was then the acting Secretary of State. As many historians have pointed out, his influence with President Nixon was outsized. At times, some felt that Kissinger was the President.
In one recently declassified recording, President Nixon describes his nervousness about an upcoming summit between the US and the Soviet Union. Nixon was afraid that Jews would cause problems. If they did, threatened the President, it would be the worst thing that happened to them. Not only that, he said, I would blame the Jews publicly for causing its failure. To which Kissinger replied, “I agree completely. They brought it on themselves.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/some-new-comments-richard-nixon-subject-jews-and-blacks/311870/)
In another tape, Kissinger is heard saying that helping Soviet Jews emigrate was not an objective of American foreign policy. And then he added, and I quote: “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/nyregion/17nyc.html)
I recently heard a story from Larry Weinberg, a past president of AIPAC. In 1944, he was a soldier in the U.S. 100th infantry division. They were in combat in the Vosges Mountains when a fellow soldier came to tell him they had found a Jewish man hiding in the woods who wanted to know if any of the American soldiers were Jewish. He describes running to meet the man, finding him gaunt and unshaven. As he got closer, he was filled with emotion, feeling as if he was somehow part of this man’s liberation. He reached out to the man who asked him in Yiddish if he was a Jew. Larry responded enthusiastically, “Yes, I am a Jew!” The man came closer, spit in his face and said, “You came too late,” and walked away.
And so, with our not so recent history in mind, a history of influential Jews who allowed their own standing with Presidents to blind them to the plight of their brethren, who were not confident enough to stand up for their fellow Jews when they desperately needed them to stand up, Jews who were too late – I find it incredibly heartening to know that so many Jews do have the confidence today to stand up and speak up; to ignore all the accusations of being a Jew first and an American second, and do whatever they can to help the Jewish People. Now.
Like Moshe proudly walking through the halls of the Egyptian palaces, inspiring confidence in all of the Jewish people, regardless of your politics, there is something uplifting about a White House room filled with Jews, many of them wearing their kippas, who are proudly and confidently speaking up for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel.
Like the Jews in Egypt, when we pray for redemption, we are not just asking for freedom to practice our faith and be our own people, no.
To be truly free means you are not looking over your shoulder, embarrassed of what you do or say or look like.
To be really free means you are not embarrassed to say that Jews across the globe are my family and I love and care for them and I cannot imagine them living in constant fear and danger.
To be free means that you can proudly say, I am a Jew, I am proud to be a Jew; I am proud of the values the Torah teaches us and I love every Jew, regardless of where they live or what they believe because they are my family.
That’s freedom. And I find myself feeling incredibly privileged to live in a time in which this is so.
So I return to the questions we started with: Will this peace plan be successful? Is this just political maneuvering, going after votes in Florida and trying to stay in office in Israel?
I don’t know.
None of that impacts my feelings this week. Feelings that justice was served; that you cannot say no over and over again and expect a positive outcome. Feelings of sympathy to the many Arabs who don’t deserve this in any way, shape or form. Feelings of pride. Proud that we are able to embrace who we are in the highest halls of government. And finally, feelings of hope; hope that our self-confidence translates into a deepening connection to our faith, and like in Egypt, that our Jewish pride is a step forward in bringing about the ultimate redemption, a time of true and lasting peace. May we see it speedily in our days.