Speaking for Israel—and America

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Three moments stood out for me as I watched Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday from the gallery of the House of Representatives.

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 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 then, for the prime minister of Israel 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 creation, survival, and flourishing of the state of Israel. The Zionist song “Hatikvah,” now the Israeli national anthem, closes by expressing The hope of two thousand years, / To be a free nation in our land, / The land of Zion and Jerusalem. And here was the prime minister of that free nation, in its historic land, being warmly greeted by the elected representatives of a great and free nation both a century and a half older than, and millennia younger than, Israel.

Second, 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 as a nation that can defend itself—that was the Zionist hope. The prime minister of Israel proclaimed the hope reality, and the audience was moved by the proclamation and even more by the fact.

Finally, it was moving when Netanyahu quoted the Bible (Deuteronomy 31:6) in Hebrew. 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.

One also couldn’t help noticing that Netanyahu quoted only the first part of Deuteronomy 31:6. He left unsaid the remainder of the verse: “For the Lord your God Himself marches with you; He will not fail you or forsake you.” Jews and Christians trust that this is the case—just as Americans profess, “In God We Trust.” But in neither Israel nor America do we simply trust in divine providence. In both, “we the people” have to act, as best we can and on behalf of what is right “as God gives us to see the right.” Here too one was reminded of the deep kinship between the two nations, the United States and Israel.

At the end of the speech, as I joined in the sustained standing ovation for Netanyahu, I thought of a 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, that, whatever other challenges await, in this task political Zionism has been successful. One also looked forward to the day when the United States would once again stand unswervingly and unstintingly in the ranks of those fighting for human freedom and dignity.

 

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