Israel: The Danger of Idolatry

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s deal with Speaker Boehner to have him speak before Congress to attack President Obama's foreign policy (without even letting the President know about the invitation in advance) has become a flash point in  Israeli, American Jewish, and general American thought about relationships between  Israel and the US.

 In a way, that’s healthy – because it requires us to think more deeply, rather than with knee-jerk responses, about what that relationship is and should be.

After looking at the specific question of the Netanyahu Speech, I will look more deeply into the distinction between seeing the State of Israel as an achievement to be celebrated and criticized, or as an idol to  be worshipped.

I have on three separate public occasions, including two national TV debates/ discussions on Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now,” opposed the moment for BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanction] because it is an attack on all of Israeli society, not on a destructive and self-destructive government.

Now P. M. Netanyahu has elevated self-destruction to a fine art. Like the ancient Pharaoh, he has become addicted to his own power even when it is damaging his country, and even when his own allies implore him to stop – just as the ancient Pharaoh’s own advisers warned him that he was bringing ruin on his own country.

So – Last week, I urged us all to urge our  Congressmembers to join Vice-President Biden, Rep. John Lewis, & Senator Pat Leahy (are they anti-Israel??) among many others in refusing to attend P.M. Netanyahu’s speech. Being “absent” is actually being very present.  It means refusing to be roped into a power play by both Netanyahu and the Tea Party-dominated Speaker of the House, in a binational right-wing alliance that is trying to insult and degrade President Obama.

Just as I strongly felt during the Vietnam war, “America Yes, Johnson&Nixon No”  & during the Iraq War, “America yes, Bush-Cheney No,”  so I feel now, “Israel yes, Netanyahu No.”   

 Kal v’chomer  -- all the more -- when he joins with the US right wing to attack, demean, and denigrate a reasonably decent President and -- even much more important, a matter of life or death --  when he is trying to force an end to the President’s steady diplomatic process to prevent Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons.

That diplomacy has already for the first time brought about Iran’s moving away from, instead of toward, the possible development of nuclear weapons.  It is continuing, as the negotiators balance Iran’s insistence on its national prosperity, identity, and pride with others’ insistence on life-protecting security for the whole Middle East.*

* Iran has agreed to intrusive inspection of its nuclear-energy facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA reports that Iran has halted enrichment of uranium to 20% (close to weapons grade) neutralizing nearly all of its stockpile of 20% uranium to about 3%, and halting work on the Arak Heavy Water Reactor. These steps make it much harder for Iran to construct a nuclear weapon. (Iran denies it intends to build a bomb, and its Supreme Religious Authority has issued a fatwa [religious decree] that doing so would violate Islam.)

Demands by right-wing members of Congress and the right-wing Netanyahu government for even harsher US sanctions against Iran are almost certain to prevent further diplomacy, incite Iran to seek nuclear weaponry, and greatly increase the risk of a war that will be destructive to the American, Israeli, and Iranian peoples and will incite still more murderous terrorism against Jews, Americans, and Westerners.

Netanyahu is denigrating our President in hopes that a “tough” line against the US and against Iran will win votes in a close election at home. But a broad array of Israelis, including many of his own previous allies and most of the retired leaders of the Israeli military/ security system, have denounced his behavior.

Friends [of Israel] don’t let friends drive drunk. Even when they vote to put a drunk behind the steering wheel.

 Now: The deeper question:--

 The Talmud tells the tale of a Jew who came to one of the ancient rabbis: “I have bought a Roman house with a beautiful pool and waterfall. At one end of the pool is a beautiful statue –perhaps the goddess Venus. Must I destroy it as an idol?”
“It depends,” answered the rabbi. “If the pool was put there to adorn and celebrate the statue, it is an idol. Destroy it. If the statue was sculpted to adorn and beautify the pool, then it is art. Enjoy it.”

 What is idolatry? It is turning a pleasing and partial aspect of the universe, a single limited aspect of the Holy, into the Ultimate.  It is falling on our faces and closing our eyes before it, blinding ourselves to its flaws,  as if it were the Interbreathing of all life, the Majestic Order of all existence.

The Talmud also tells the story that the ancient rabbis hunted for the yetzer hara, the evil impulse, of idolatry. They thought that if they could find it, they could kill it – and end idolatry. They did finally find it – hidden in the Holy of Holies, at the sacred center of the Holy Temple.

 It is easier to make an idol of something greatly valuable than of something trivial. We face a choice between celebrating Israel when it is a worthy instrument for justice, peace, and Jewish culture  -- or worshipping it as an idol no matter how it acts.

 Idolators do not criticize their godlets. Torah sees idolatry as the worst of sins, for it leads to all the others. Greed.  Lies. Slander. Robbery. Murder.

 God forbid that we turn the State of Israel into a Jewish idol. Its people needs our clear-eyed celebration and our clear-eyed criticism.


All the following references, links, and occasional quotations are to articles from the Forward, the most knowledgable and independent-minded among American Jewish newspapers.

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