NEW YORK — As the story goes, a visitor to the Biblical Zoo in Israel was amazed when he approached the cage of the wolf and the lamb. There they were, peacefully resting near each other, calling to mind the prophecy of Isaiah, who imagined messianic times of peace.
“How is it possible to have a wolf and lamb live together?” the visitor asked the zookeeper.
“Simple,” the zookeeper said. “Every day a new lamb.”
And so it is in the Middle East, where appearances of stability give way to predators and daily bloodshed.
Once again we’ve come to know that it doesn’t take much to unleash violent Arab passion against the United States and Israel, be it cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed or the trailer of an amateur film none of us had ever heard of. The result: attacks on embassies, protests against a U.S. government that provides countless aid to these countries and horrific violence.
Many Americans will shake their heads in wonder and dismay at this wild display of Islamic fundamentalist anger. But within a few days they will go back to wondering why Israel can’t just get along with its neighbors, too many of whom seek its destruction.
Every day a new lamb, indeed.
In the Middle East, where the Jewish state remains a pariah, Israelis constantly strive to bolster their security and learn how not only to survive but to thrive in a sea of hostility. And their track record is quite remarkable, not only in terms of their scientific, technological, medical and economic successes, but in achieving the kind of day-to-day normalcy that most of us cannot even imagine.
Still, it’s not easy for Israel to explain its feelings of deep vulnerability to a world that sees the Jewish state as a military powerhouse. Today the international community may want to believe that Iran does not pose an existential threat to Western civilization in general and Israel in particular, that the imams and president in Tehran may talk tough about wiping out “the Zionist entity” but that’s just rhetoric and they are too sophisticated to risk an attack, and so on. And that all may be true.
But what if there’s a chance that a revolutionary government whose mandate is to impose the will of Islam on the West and is seeking nuclear arms to achieve its aims, is telling the truth when it speaks of destroying Israel?
Just last week, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard called a press conference to assert that if Israel or any other country launches an attack on Iran, “nothing will remain of Israel.”
Can a government, in Jerusalem take the risk of relying on the United States, or any country, to save it from nuclear attack? Isn’t the purpose of Zionism to make the Jewish state self-sufficient? As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted in his speech to AIPAC earlier this year, “When it comes to Israel’s survival we must always remain the masters of our fate.”
Trying to understand the most recent public flare-up between Washington and Jerusalem — between, more personally, the president and the prime minister — I can fully appreciate why Netanyahu hoped to prod President Barack Obama into making a public commitment assuring Israel of America’s protection. But I can’t understand why the Israeli leader chose to go public, insisting on “red lines” and embarrassing his most powerful ally, resulting in the opposite of the desired effect and looking to all the world like he is trying to manipulate the American November election in favor of the president’s opponent.
Netanyahu could have made the same arguments about the need for action against Iran privately and through diplomatic channels, with facts rather than arrogance.
The only upside in calling out and angering Obama was for Netanyahu to shore up his support on the Israeli right, which is solidly in his camp anyway.
What’s called for here, in the spirit and liturgy of the High Holy Days season upon us, is a healthy dose of humility.
We come to our Creator recognizing and acknowledging our many flaws, and we ask for guidance and support.
Yet Netanyahu approached the world leader who can help him most as if their roles had been reversed, as if he leads a superpower that can disrupt, if not put an end to, Iran’s nuclear arms race.
The Israeli prime minister, who went on the Sunday talk shows here to make his case directly to the American people, is not the only one who could benefit from a lesson in humility, though. American Jews embarrassed by Netanyahu’s behavior need to better understand and appreciate the stakes at play, with Israel facing the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, aided by its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, and tens of thousands of their rockets aimed at all of Israel.
Maybe we need to be reminded that American presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, have sought to placate Jewish concerns about threats to our people, and it was only Israeli stubbornness, starting in 1948, that has prevailed.
Ronald Reagan and the rest of the world railed against Menachem Begin when he, in the face of strong opposition from his military and security advisers at home as well, successfully knocked out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. It was never revived.
President George W. Bush opposed Israel’s plan to destroy Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert carried it out anyway, fortunately.
Each case is different, of course, and the Iran effort is the most daunting. But history has taught that what came to be known as “the Begin doctrine” — “On no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel,” Begin said in 1981 — still holds as a worthy policy.
Giving an ultimatum to one’s enemy makes sense. Giving one to your closest ally, publicly, as Netanyahu has done, seems self-defeating.
In the meantime, the Iranian nuclear clock is ticking, and every day there is a new lamb.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)