The two chief rabbis of Israel—one Ashkenazi, the other Sephardi—plus both their theological underlings and detractors can't stay out of the nation's politics. They also won't keep their clammy hands (forgive the non-kosher metaphor) off its exchequer. But they should be able to stay out of the American relationship to the Jewish state. In fact, they endanger it and at no time more than now.
It's not exactly about high matters of state. It's actually a piece of rabbinical shulpolitik. Yona Metzger, Israel's short-on-learning high priest of the European tradition in Judaism, took the occasion of Shabbat Hagadol, the great sabbath before Passover, to deliver to President Obama not exactly a piece of political advice, but a political threat.
Here's how Ha'aretz reported it:
...Metzger told congregants in a Sabbath sermon that if U.S. President Barack Obama seeks reelection, he must release Jonathan Pollard, Israel Radio reported on Sunday.
In the sermon delivered at Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem on Saturday, Metzger said there was a feeling that many American Jews that had supported Obama in the last election were disappointed in him, in no small part because of Obama's indifference to Pollard...
'If Obama wishes to dictate Israeli policy, he must show that he has mutual interests with Israel,' Israel Radio quoted Metzger as saying. The rabbi reportedly added that these 'mutual interests' should be shown through releasing Pollard.
I have written at least twice about the Pollard case in the last year. The only interest that would be served by the president releasing Pollard would be to pacify (and only temporarily) a noxious minority of blackcoated religious fanatics in Israel who cannot be brought to reason on other issues except through cash. That is, they can be bought to reason. So this short-time relief might be useful for the present government of Israel. The line-up of friends and enemies in international politics is not especially auspicious for the Jewish state. If it can get one matter on the domestic agenda laid to rest, it will be a plus.
But, especially as Rabbi Metzger puts it, it is an insult and offense to the United States. The chief rabbi seems to think that there is nothing wrong with Israel spying on America. To be sure, Prime Minister Netanyahu has written the president that, if Pollard were to be released, "Israel will continue to abide by its commitment that such wrongful actions will never be repeated." I would hope so. I would expect so.
In any event, the rabbi is wrong. If five percent of American Jews vote against the president in 2012 because he fails to free Pollard, that would be a lot. Anyway, most of them (maybe all of them) already voted against Obama in 2008.
Israel has serious disputes with the Obama administration. I deeply believe that Israel is absolutely correct, and mostly from the American perspective, on these matters. Obama and Mrs. Clinton still have their eyes glazed about Syria and the remarkably bloody Assad dictatorship. Their blindness to this casts a long shadow over the human rights commitments of the administration. But what else is new?
Similarly, the administration's obsession with the Palestinian problem, and its old bag of remedies, especially in this long moment of unprecedented Arab unrest and distress, reveals how inapt and inept the administration is. It is true that some and even many American Jews will not vote to re-elect the president. His palpable disdain for Israel—and it is palpable—will be one reason. There are others, some related, some not. American Jews are certainly unaccustomed to a president who is committed to no one outside the United States: not Africa, not South America, not Asia, and certainly not our democratic allies in Europe. Yes, he is in some vague way committed to Muslim states. But, alas, only in some gauche and shallow way.
Still, let not we Zionists be too casual about the Republican friends of Israel, or at least those Tea Partiers. The Tea Party is a gathering of isolationists. Both papa Ron Paul and son Rand Paul do not think Israel an ally or even a friend. The GOP shows signs of (re)turning to isolationism. More or less like the liberal Democrats.
An apology to Isabel Kershner. It's a bit hard for me to apologize to Isabel Kershner, because I believe that this New York Times reporter has an axe to grind against Israel. And she does grind it. But I wronged her on January 10, and I wronged her in a specific way. You may recall the case of Jawaher Abu Rahmah, a Jenin woman who died after a demonstration in the city. Kershner had written a story on January 1, titled "Tear Gas Kills a Palestinian Protester." The Israeli military apparantly obfuscated the story with a report that she had died from an overdose of cancer medecine or some other mistreatment at the hospital. The military has now released a report of the death that says nothing like this. I get this in a written message through an intermediary whom I trust, and I suppose so does Kershner. She seems a bit put out that the ministry of defense suggests that she get a report from the hospital. In any case, I regret writing that she had leapt to conclusions about the accident and attributing this to her biases. As of this writing, we know exactly nothing about how the lady died.
Walt and Mearsheimer and Helen Thomas. There's going to be a big jamboree in Washington from May 21-24. It's called "Move Over AIPAC." Helen Thomas, the decades-long senescent doyenne of the White House press corps, is its most deserving sponsor. She has hated the Jews and Israel so long that the hatred is written in her face. The two headlined main speakers are the authors of The Israel Lobby: Stephen Walt, certified by Harvard as a great scholar of international relations, and John Mearsheimer, certified by the University of Chicago as ditto. There are other headliners who will address the audience: Ralph Nader for one. (Think of all those silly Jews who voted for him in Florida in 2000.) Alice Walker. A rabbi without a congregation. A Jewish woman identified only as a "Holocaust survivor." Naomi Klein. Former Senator John Aboureszk. Then there are dozens of organizations including some you've heard of: American Friends Service Committee (yes, that's the Quakers), the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. And, I almost forgot, CODEPINK, the Beverly Hills sorority. If you want to get a more textured sense of who and what are aspiring to replace AIPAC take a good look at this.
Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.