President Barack Obama, in his recent speech to the Muslim world, failed to acknowledge “a fundamental historic truth” about Jewish ties to the land of Israel, a longtime advisor to Israeli political leaders said Monday evening in Squirrel Hill.
“There was not a word in the president’s speech about 3,000 years of Jewish history … a history that eternally binds Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) to the Jewish people, the land of which the Jews, though exiled, never really left,” Ambassador Yehuda Avner told some 300 people at the Chabad Lubavitch Center on Wightman Street.
Instead, he said Obama based Israeli statehood on a history of Jewish suffering — specifically the Holocaust.
Avner’s criticism of Obama’s June 4 address in Cairo came at the end of a tribute to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died 15 years ago this summer. In his role as an Israeli diplomat, Avner said he became an “unofficial liaison” between Schneerson and decades of Israeli leaders.
Schneerson is perhaps best known for creating a network of emissaries across the Jewish world. That network came to Pittsburgh in the 1940s, but has expanded across the region, Rabbi Israel Altein, assistant to the dean at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, said. In 1994, the Lubavitch movement had one center in Pittsburgh, but “since the Rebbe’s passing, Chabad has grown leaps and bounds, with four Chabad Houses in the center of the city, with centers in the north, the south, the east and in West Virginia.”
Avner said the momentum behind that expansion made the Lubavitch movement “the greatest Jewish movement of outreach anywhere and at any time in the world.”
The British-born Avner moved to Palestine in 1947 and fought in the War of Independence in 1948. Over the past 50 years, he has worked in various capacities under several Israeli administrations, including those of Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and also served as the Israeli ambassador to several countries.
Avner recalled a time in 1972 when Rabin, then an ambassador to the United States, was kept waiting when he came to Brooklyn to greet Schneerson on his 70th birthday.
Avner described Rabin as “a straight-as-a-die, no-nonsense agnostic” wearing “a red, silk bar mitzvah yarmulke” as he fidgeted in the waiting room surrounded by “bustling” bearded men all “identically clad in black suits and fedoras.
“He looked like an alien in a foreign land,” Avner said, to laughter.
Once they made it in to Schneerson’s office, Rabin “displayed no interest when the Rebbe spoke to him of things celestial” but “once the Rebbe began speaking to him of Washington affairs, Rabin was amazed, absolutely amazed, at his knowledge, at his connections and at his instinct” and left saying “That man … knows more about what’s going on Israel and the Middle East than all the members of our Knesset put together.”
Avner described former President Zalman Shazar and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin breaking diplomatic protocol by going to visit Schneerson, rather than asking Schneerson to come visit them. Shazar defended this decision, Avner recalled, by saying he “may be president” but he’s “also a simple chassid going to meet his rebbe.”
While Avner spent most of his 45-minute speech offering an inside account of former Israeli prime ministers and presidents seeking counsel with Schneerson, he devoted the latter third to speculating how Schneerson might have responded to current global politics and President Obama’s recent efforts to promote peace in the Middle East.
Based on meetings over three decades, Avner believes Schneerson would have pointed out “a number of basic flaws in what was otherwise a speech which had much merit.”
Prime among those flaws, according to Avner, was Obama’s assertion that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” Avner called those “undoubtedly noble words,” but believed “the Rebbe would have bridled at them.
“He would have bridled at them because by justifying our ties to Eretz Yisrael only because of our long suffering, culminating in the Holocaust, the president was betraying a fundamental historic truth” about Jewish ties to the land of Israel, Avner said.
He added that the Arabs needed to “internalize” a message: “If there is ever to be peace between us, it is a message that says that Eretz Yisrael belongs to Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) for ever and ever,” a line that received applause.
Avner said he could imagine Schneerson warning against a nuclear-armed Iran, but also finding “good reason for great optimism” in the divide between the mostly Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Middle East.
But Avner also said, “if all else fails, the man to whose tribute we pay memory tonight would make it plain that Israel must do what it has to do in its own self-defense, reminding those who need to be reminded that the distance from Tehran and Tel Aviv is exactly the same as that from Tel Aviv and Tehran.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)