I was still fasting for Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the month of Av) when the excitement began to travel around the office. It was July 27th, 2004 and a speech had been made. I didn’t know the content of the speech, and I’d never heard of the speaker – but I could recognize from the mood that history had been made. And it worried me. When history is made on the night after Tisha B’Av, it rarely turns out well. The speaker was Barack Obama. Roughly four years later, he was to be President. And seven years after that, during the Three Weeks, he signed a deal for peace in our time with the Islamic Republic.
From the destruction of the First Temple to the Declaration of Crusades to the beginning of the First World War and from the Deportations to the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto, Tisha B’Av has marked almost every national catastrophe suffered by the Jewish people. While Tisha B’av 2004 may be added to the list, we must recognize that the vast majority of Tisha B’Avs have passed without triggering catastrophe. Perhaps Obama’s entry into global politics will prove to be only a hiccup and not a prelude to another round of massive Jewish destruction and loss.
Nonetheless, these Three Weeks, I find myself fundamentally fearing for my people and for my family. In my lifetime, the future has never been so frightening and uncertain. The most basic of decisions, like where to live and why, have never seemed so fraught with danger and uncertainty. From nuclear weapons to a massively enriched and active terrorist state, we face fundamental risks. Our people will survive, they always have. But not all of our people survive, and that is the core of our fear.
And so we must ask, what do we do next? As individuals, and as families and as a nation, what do we do next? Do we carry on with our lives and simply hope for the best? Do we adopt the eerie calmness that predated the Holocaust? Do we continue to pray to the United States and its power for protection? Do we seek some magic offering of retreat that will satisfy this fickle god? Do we fast and tear our clothes, begging the Almighty for a pass from the evil that is engulfing our region and threatening the world? Do we pray that Obama somehow has it right and that untold billions of dollars will weaken a regime religiously dedicated to a program of destruction? Or do we flee our home and our land and leave those who can’t to die?
We can pray, and we should. Not to the United States – which demonstrated it is a empty power, but to G-d. But it is not and never has been enough. I am not a Rabbi, but I believe we should have a national fast – in addition to Tisha B’Av – in light of this agreement. But it will not be enough. We need to defend ourselves on every level. We need to do more than shout, we need plans of action that can actually help. And I believe we still have options. Before we get to them, let’s rule out a few ideas.
First, we should not flee Israel. In days of old, you spaced out your aircraft on an airfield so mortars or other attacks would not knock out too many at once. Now, that calculus has been reversed. You bring the aircraft close together so your anti-projectile technologies can protect them. In a very strange twist of fate, technologies Israel has developed have inverted the power of size. Small territories are in many ways easier to defend than larger ones. Israel has some missile defense – but the United States and Europe have only a concept of defense. Israel is more prepared for a major war than any other country on earth.
Second, we should not pretend we have a divine shield. There are those who see our existence in Israel as a sign of our predicted final return. I see it as more of a challenge. As with our Exodus from Egypt, the establishment of the State of Israel was a miraculous occurrence granted to a people at their very weakest. It was an opportunity to recognize the power of G-d in contrast to our own helplessness. But it was no guarantee. If we fail to grasp the opportunity G-d has provided, if we fail in our national mission, there is no promise of protection. Instead, the land will once again vomit us out.
Third, we should not attack. A military program has an extremely high likelihood of failure. Iran is strong and growing stronger. If we make enemies of its people, and not just its regime, we will create a much larger and more dangerous foe.
Fourth, we should not care too much about the United States. John Kerry actually said: “[Netanyahu] doesn’t even know what the concessions are that we have not engaged in.” It is as if he saw a plate in the shuk for $500, paid $50 and congratulated himself in front of others – not realizing the thing actually cost $5. Pretending that initial Iranian demands have any bearing on the quality of the negotiated outcome betrays fundamental stupidity. There is no solution to this stupidity – just hope that the next crew will be a little less idiotic.
So what should we do?
The regime is undoubtedly strong, but it is also hated. Those who hate it operate under a fundamental sense of despair. I have friends who used to fight – but they lost so many compatriots, and so much hope, that they almost never even talk about resistance anymore. The people of Iran came out into the streets, but it wasn’t enough. Enough of the population supports the regime, and is willing to use incredible violence to defend it, that the masses have no chance. If things continue as they are, there will be war. And these people, by failing to act, will have enabled a genocidal regime to perpetuate its crimes on their behalf.
I believe it was morally appropriate to firebomb German cities. A lesson had to be taught, so civilian populations would not enable people like the Nazis to take and hold power. It was an act of wanton destruction, but it was also a bulwark against a third round of that particular conflict. If Iran attempts, by any means whatsoever, to eliminate Israel it will be our moral obligation to respond against the totality of that country.
So what should we do?
First we should make clear – with no ambiguity whatsoever – that we have distributed nuclear capability and can and will use it to kill every possible man woman and child in Iran should they attempt to exterminate us. And we will use that capability even if they succeed. The Persian people have an obligation to replace their regime before it can perpetuate genocide – and they have an obligation to understand the costs if they don’t.
On the other hand, we must give the people the power to resist. At this point, they cannot resist; my friends are a testament to window having closed long ago. If we can reopen it, we have a moral obligation to do so. Total destruction may end up being justified, but we should do whatever we can to forestall it. How? By airdropping masses of cheap small arms over Tehran. We can arm the people so they can fight the evil that has harnessed them. An analysis of the Basij Militia and its techniques will enable us to determine an appropriate mix of arms to drop. Whatever we drop, when the people mass next – and the men on motorcycles come to intimidate and kill – they will be able to strike back. We have a moral obligation to enable them. If they succeed, it will be a blessing to the world: ISIS is a response to Shiite aggression, Hizbullah is an Iranian party and Yemen’s civil war is underwritten by Iran. Iranian alliances with violent groups and regimes extend far beyond the Middle East. A non-theocratic regime will still support Shiite people outside its borders, but its ambitions, brutality and extremism will be fundamentally curtailed. And its global allies – from the Venezuelan government to FARC in Latin America to North Korea in Asia – will also be weakened.
Third, we should look closely at ourselves and our national mission. The State of Israel does not exist just to protect Jews. The State of Israel is a gift granted to us by G-d. It is an opportunity to fulfill our national mission to symbolize the values of the divine in this world and to build a connection between humankind and the divine. We are meant to be just as Messianic as the Iranians – except instead of representing destruction and submission, we are to represent creation and connection to the divine. While this has implications for tax policy, welfare, healthcare, education and more, it also has impacts on our foreign policy. We can’t simply watch the chaos surrounding us continue to unfold. We must counteract it. I highly recommend my short story Abdul to understand one way in which we can do this. Actions like those described in Abdul will not only help people, they will engender the relationships that are so critical to fulfilling our national mission. While I have listed it third – this is the first action we should take. We should not kick off our change in policy with a promise of extermination.
Finally, we should agitate. I’m not in a position to do any of the above. Chances are, you aren’t either. We are a democracy and – at least for now – so are the most powerful regimes in the world. For an op-ed to have any impact people have to support and share the ideas behind it. While influence-makers and leaders have to be exposed, they rarely act without a constituency that already supports the ideas they are suggesting. Fast, pray and hope. But also, act and share and talk. It is easy – email this article, link to it on Facebook. Write up your own thoughts and share them. For Jews the time for passive waiting has ended. For Christians, Muslims, Secularists and others, the time to act has come. Not to protect the Jewish people, but to counteract the chaos that has begun and the destruction that is just beginning to unfold.
We are at a critical hour. President Obama’s 2004 speech could become another event forever linked to the mourning of Tisha B’Av. But it is still possible that it might be one more thing that just happened to occur on the night after that inauspicious date.
It is still in our power to determine how – or even whether – Tisha B’av 2004 is remembered.