By Shalom L. Goldman | (Informed Comment) | – –
Now that the Democratic senators have blocked a challenge to the Iran deal, pundits are looking at what the most persuasive arguments in the presentations to Democratic members of Congress were. What persuaded most Democrats to back the Iran deal, despite the well-funded campaigns against it?
According to the New York Times account, it seems that the testimony of two senior Israeli intelligence experts, who supported the agreement with Iran, played a key role.
Like many other security experts in Israel they assured those members of congress who would listen that Israel’s security would not be endangered if the deal went through. There were enough safeguards, they felt, built into the the agreement.
The fight over the deal in Congress–has been mirrored by a fight both within Israel and within American Jewish organizations and communities—with many professional and communal relationships now frayed by the intensity and harshness of the arguments and counter-arguments.
Though Prime Minister Netanyahu has not yet responded to the Democratic senators’ decisive vote–one can easily anticipate his reaction. He will be furious, as he has put all of his considerable political influence in the US into the effort to block the deal.
When earlier this year Speaker John Boehner’s invited to Netanyahu to address both houses of Congress, the Israeli Prime Minister used the opportunity to frame the question of US relations with Iran in terms far distant from the language of security experts. Rather he employed the language of religious rhetoric.
In the opening remarks of his March 2015 43 minute address to Congress Netanyahu evoked the ancient past , rather that the Middle Eastern present. Hearkening back to Biblical times and Biblical language, he told the assembled:
“My friends, I’ve come here today because, as prime minister of Israel, I feel a profound obligation to speak to you about an issue that could well threaten the survival of my country and the future of my people: Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. We’re an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people.
Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
The plot was foiled. Our people were saved. (APPLAUSE) 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, 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. ”
These dramatic opening remarks and the speech that followed drew 26 standing ovations. Netanyahu’s previous address to Congress, in 2011, drew 29 ovations –and as many a pundit has noted , Netanyahu gets thundering applause in Washington , but no ovations in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset (but then, to be fair, nor does any other Israeli leader!)
In late July I wrote about the Likud’s deep focus on Holocaust memory and on the rhetoric of an eternally endangered Israel, a rhetoric that speaks to many on the Israeli Jewish right and the American Christian right. I noted that ” over the past few months Netanyahu’s many admirers in Congress have been echoing and reinforcing the view that Iran is today’s Nazi Germany, and this depiction may have also carried some weight in American public opinion .
In Mid July perennial presidential candidate Mike Huckabee denounced the Iran agreement in terms that are directly from the Likud playbook. He described it as a deal which would “take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven” – a reference to crematoria in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
In the six weeks that have passed since that unfortunate and much-condemned analogy of Huckabee’s– an analogy that seemed to further marginalize him — he has now moved to center stage as the most prominent and strident supporter of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who was freed from jail earlier this week. And, like much of the current Republican rhetoric around Israel and Iran, the rhetoric around the same sex marriage issue is first and foremost Biblical. The Bible, according to Huckabee and many other Evangelical conservatives, forbids homosexuality and, by extension, same-sex marriage.
And as the stakes concerning the Iran deal grow larger, and the 2016 elections grow closer, Huckabee and other Republican candidates –as well as their Israeli counterpart Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu–are turning to Biblical authority to back their claims.
In Huckabee’s case this makes some sense–he is an ordained Baptist Minister. To understand Netanyahu’s Bible thumping the American reader needs more context —for Netanyahu and his wife Sara come from an assertively secular background, as do many in the Likud political tradition.
My point here is that one can’t imagine Yitzhak Rabin, another assertively secular Israeli leader, invoking Biblical authority in a speech to Israelis or Americans .
Nor can one imagine Sara Netanyahu telling an American journalist that though she buys kosher food in the supermarket, she makes sure that its ‘treyf’ by the time its cooked and served. But this is what David Ben Gurion’s American-born wife Paula said when asked whether she kept a kosher kitchen. Like her husband, Paula enjoyed flaunting her anti-clerical attitudes and actions
The Right’s Prime Minister’s –from Menachem Begin onward — have appealed to the ancient rather than the modern, the conservative , rather than the liberal, the particularistic aspects of religion, rather than the universal. In the past few years even the once secular Netanyahu has taken to quoting the Bible more often—to the delight of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which features a video of a study session led by the Prime Minister.
Sounding more like the late Jerry Falwell than his younger secular self, Bibi said only a few days ago that the Bible “always reflects on contemporary events. It always touches on the present and on the eternal life of humanity in general and our people in particular.”
The Likud, the party led by Netanyahu, grew out of Revisionist or ‘right wing’ Zionism, a movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky and one that broke away from the larger socialist-oriented Zionist movement later led by David Ben Gurion.
Evocation of the ancient Biblical past and constant to reference to the memory of the Holocaust, are two hallmarks of Likud rhetoric. Not that these ideas were absent from the rhetoric of the various Labor governments of the past–but the Likud made them their trademark, the basis of their party’s world- view. The Likud, the party led by Netanyahu, grew out of Revisionist or ‘right wing’ Zionism, a movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky and one that broke away from the larger socialist-oriented Zionist movement later led by David Ben Gurion.
In the nineteen twenties and thirties many members of this rightist movement identified with European fascism. (Ben Gurion often referred to Jabotinsky as the ‘Duce’ of the Jewish right.) When under Nazi influence Italian and other fascisms were saturated with anti-Semitism the Jewish right disassociated itself from its European counterparts. But it never relinquished its emphasis on uncompromising use of force in its struggle for its political goals. Most prominent among these goals were maximalist territorial ambitions in British Mandate Palestine–or as the Revisionist slogan had it ‘ There are two banks to the Jordan River–and both of them are ours.” Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Prof Benzion Netanyahu of Cornell University was for a time Jabotinsky’s secretary–and he and his wife brought up their three sons in an atmosphere suffused with devotion to the Revisionist cause. Part and parcel of this cause was the lingering resentment that for the first three decades of Israeli statehood Ben Gurion’s Left-oriented party ruled. It was only in 1977 that Mencahem Begin led the Right to power.
And it was then that Benzion Netanyahu and other the Revisionists were able to move into positions of influence in government, media, and politics. In the decades that followed Begin’s 1977 overturn of the Israeli socialist paradigm, the Revisionists of the elder Netanyahu’s generation were too old to yield power.
But their children (the so-called “Revisionist Princes,” Benjamin Netanyahu foremost among them) could contend for the prize of the prime minister’s office. In the 80s and 90s Bibi, encouraged and aided by his influential father, rose to prominence in Israel. And he won the Prime Minister’s office, —not only once, but four times.
Netanyahu has dismissed the speculation that his father’s ideas hold sway over his decision-making; he has deemed all such speculation ‘psychobabble.’ But a reading of his father’s very radical rightist opinions might convince the reader otherwise.
The Likud, like the Republican Party in the years since Karl Rove energized the Evangelical base for George W Bush’s election campaigns, knows how to play the religion card in order to influence both the Israeli and American electorate.
Shalom L. Goldman is Pardon Tillinghast Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity: Seven Twentieth Century Converts (Lexington Books, 2015)