A Note from the Gallery

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We'll all be discussing for quite a while the substance, context, and implications of yesterday's speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I thought I might just offer a personal note on what most struck me yesterday, sitting in the gallery of the House of Representatives. 

Three moments stood out for me, as a Jew—but, not, I think, only as a Jew.

Shortly after 11:00 a.m., with the chamber and galleries full and buzzing with anticipation, the doorkeeper announced in his stentorian voice, "Mr. Speaker, the prime minister of Israel." As one then watched Prime Minister Netanyahu enter the chamber, one couldn't help but reflect that those words—"the prime minister of Israel"—had never been uttered, could never have been uttered, prior to 1948. And for that prime minister to be welcomed enthusiastically by legislators of the world's most powerful nation—this was a moment to savor for anyone, Jew or Gentile, who has been moved by, "The hope of two thousand years,/To be a free nation in our land,/The land of Zion and Jerusalem."

And then there was the passage in Netanyahu's speech that prompted perhaps the loudest roars of approval, certainly from the predominantly Jewish spectators in the gallery, but also from Gentiles on the floor of the House: "We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves." Israel as not just a new nation in its ancient land, but a nation that can defend itself—that was the Zionist hope, and the prime minister of Israel proclaimed it as a reality, and the audience was moved by it.

I also found it oddly moving when Netanyahu quoted the Bible (Deuteronomy 31:6) in Hebrew:  חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ, אַל-תִּירְאוּ וְאַל-תַּעַרְצוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם. He then of course translated the passage into English: "Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them." To see an Israeli prime minister, speaking to a world audience, quoting the Bible in the language in which it is written, a language brought back to day-to-day life in modern Israel ... this was a moment that will stay in memory.

At the end, as I joined in the sustained standing ovation, I thought of one sentence in the 1956 letter by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, in which he tried to convince the editors of the recently launched National Review that conservatives should be pro-Israel: "Political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate, are capable." One felt, watching the prime minister of Israel speak, whatever other challenges await, that in this task political Zionism has been successful.

 

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