Netanyahu & Churchill

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The following was written by Rabbi Pini Dunner, of the Beverly Hills Synagogue. He has given permission for his words to be disseminated:

The controversy over Binyamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on the threat from Iran has been raging for weeks. On the face of it those who oppose his appearance on Capitol Hill seem to have some very valid arguments. In the first instance, everyone in Congress is already fully aware of the threat from Iran. Secondly, the United States and others are currently in the middle of tense and delicate negotiations with Iran – the speech therefore seems, at best, to be imprudently timed – or, at worst, well timed, if the intention is to ruin the talks. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, bipartisan support for Israel in Congress has endured for decades – why would Netanyahu be so reckless and irresponsible as to endanger this unanimous support just to give a speech?

On February 4th, British historian Sir Martin Gilbert died at the age of 78. I remember this gentle man well from my years at University College London, where he taught us a course on the history of the Holocaust. Although his contribution to Holocaust history was broad and deep, his greatest contribution to historical literature was certainly as Winston Churchill’s biographer. His incisive insights into Churchill’s personality and political genius are a testament to his prodigious research and profound understanding of his subject.

The curious thing about Winston Churchill is that our view of him is completely dominated by the focus in popular culture on his wartime leadership. It is therefore generally unknown that in 1929, after falling out with his party over British policy in India, Churchill commenced a decade of political obscurity that to even his greatest admirers appeared to represent a slow but inevitable disappearance from meaningful public life. Sir Martin wrote a book about this period that he called ‘The Wilderness Years.’

During those dreadful years Churchill decried the decline in British spending on the military, and he also repeatedly pointed out the growing threat from Hitler’s Germany. Everybody heard him, but no one was listening. Appeasement and isolationism dominated foreign policy, and Churchill’s prescient speeches and brilliantly written articles were dismissed as the rantings of an irrelevant has-been. But this only spurred him on. “Those Germans are not looking for equal status,” he told the House of Commons in 1933, “they are looking for weapons.” In 1934 he shocked his political colleagues by revealing the true extent of German military production, after foreign office friends fed him secret information. Rather than take him seriously, however, and address the threat posed by Germany, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin quipped: “the real danger to [Great Britain] is Winston - he is the warmonger, not Hitler.”

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. Winston Churchill’s warnings are now seen only through the lens of his elevation to the leadership of Great Britain in 1940, and his incredible success as the man who took on and eventually beat the unbeatable Nazi war machine. But what was he thinking in the 1930s as he watched his political career disintegrate ever more with each speech he gave to the House of Commons? His detractors scoffed and derided him as they watched this once great political figure defy the popular political trend and talk about containment, and military action, in an era of conciliation and diplomacy. Churchill was no fool. He knew his message was falling on deaf ears, but he kept going. Why?

In Terumah we are informed for the first time about the Mishkan, the wilderness sanctuary, and how it was to be built. Each piece was constructed in such a way that it could be deconstructed for transportation purposes – except for the poles that held up the Ark of the Covenant: בְטַבְעֹת הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַדִים לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶנּוּ - ‘the poles should remain in the rings of the Ark, they may never be removed.’ Ralbag explains that the Ark needed to demonstrate the completeness of the Torah, as it contained the Luchot. Even if everything else could come apart, the Ark could not, to show that the Torah can never be deconstructed. But the Ralbag’s suggestion seems ridiculous. Surely the generation that had encountered the Almighty at Mount Sinai would never question the integrity of the Torah? And if one of them did, why would this non-removal of the poles make the slightest difference?

Rabbi Alter Henoch Leibowitz z”l explains that keeping the Ark intact was decreed by G-d to confirm that which the Jews already knew, but for one reason or another was proving difficult to hold onto in their hearts. The faithful need to be reinforced, particularly when their faith is being challenged, and their world is falling apart. At such a time, seeing the Ark unchanged, unyielding, and undiminished, would reinvigorate the belief they already had, and give them the strength to go on.

Winston Churchill had no way of knowing that he would one day be Prime Minister of Great Britain, much less that he would spearhead the war against Hitler and his evil cohorts. But even though logic militated against this outcome, he knew with great clarity that his understanding of the dangers posed by fascism and expansionism needed to be heard by those who shared his views, but whose spirit was weakened by the appeasement zeitgeist. They needed to see the Ark of the Covenant unchanged, unyielding and undiminished, if there was to be any hope that Hitler would one day be vanquished.

For this same reason Netanyahu must stride into Congress with confidence and conviction, and tell the world what they all already know – that Iran is intent on becoming a nuclear power. Not because he will convince the appeasers, but because he needs to reenergize the spirits of those who are his fellow travelers, but who have all but given up hope in the face of those who insist on placing the world in grave danger, on the basis of skewed foreign policy and diplomatic incompetence. Let us listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu speak to Congress with pride, in the knowledge that when the time comes, he will be acknowledged as the person who, to his own detriment, called it out loud and clear long before anyone else, and who understands best how to deal with Iran’s evil regime.

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Guest Tuesday, 20 February 2018