Michael Oren's Yom Kippur sermon


By Miriam Shaviv
September 22, 2010
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Jeffrey Goldberg, by far my favourite Jewish blogger, has posted the text of a sermon delivered by Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren to three Washington syngogogues on Yom Kippur. It is an absolute must-read.

Oren starts by explaining the dilemma faced by the biblical Jonah:

If he succeeds in convincing the Ninevehians to atone and no harm befalls them, many will soon question whether that penitence was ever really necessary. Jonah will be labeled an alarmist. But, what if the people of Nineveh ignore the warning and the city meets the same fiery fate as Sodom and Gomorrah? Then Jonah, as a prophet, has failed.

Such is the paradox of prophecy for Jonah, a lose-lose situation. No wonder he runs away. He flees to the sea, only to be swallowed by a gigantic fish, and then to the desert, cowering under a gourd. But, in the end, the fish coughs him up and the gourd withers. The moral is: there is no avoiding Jonah's paradox. Once elected by God, whatever the risks, he must act.

It is exactly the same, he says, for many modern politicians:

Take, for example, the case of Winston Churchill. During the 1930s, he warned the world of the dangers of the rapidly rearming German Reich. The British people ignored Churchill- worse they scorned him, only to learn later that he was all along prescient and wise. But what if Churchill had become Britain's Prime Minister five years earlier and had ordered a pre-emptive strike against Germany? Those same people might have concluded that the Nazis never posed a real threat and that their prime minister was merely a warmonger.

Oren goes through a series of similar examples, and then finally addresses the question of the Israeli prime minister, faced with the dilemma of creating a Palestinian state, which will probably be hostile to Israel; and - most important of all - the question of what to do about Iran's nuclear weapons.

Do you remain passive while Iran provides nuclear weaponry to terrorist groups, targets Tel Aviv with nuclear-tipped missiles, and triggers a nuclear arms race throughout the region? Or do you act, as Israel has now, joining with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, hoping to dissuade its rulers from nuclearizing? And, if that fails, do you keep all options on the table, with the potentially far-reaching risks those options entail?

The issues of terror, the peace process, and Iran evoke strong emotions in this country and around the world, and often spark criticism of Israeli policies. Yet it's crucial to recall that those policies are determined by the leaders elected through one of the world's most robust and resilient democracies. Recall that the people of Israel--not of Europe, not of the United States--bear the fullest consequences for their leaders' decisions.

There is no escaping the responsibility--as Jonah learned thousands of years ago--and that responsibility is borne by our leaders and by the majority of the people they represent. Israel today faces decisions every bit as daunting as those confronting Jonah, but we will not run away. There is no gourd to hide under or fish to swallow us whole. Terror, the peace process, Iran--our Ninevehs--await.

He ends with a plea for unity between Israeli and American Jews, and a request that they "appreciate" the quandries faced by their leaders.

So what is he saying here? Some of those listening, said Goldberg, assumed he was asking American Jewry for support during "difficult times" in the peace process and with Iran. Others thought he was preparing them for the continuation of the settlement freeze and an attack on Iran.  To me, it sounds as if both of those are true. What is interesting is that unlike many shul sermons where support for Israel is taken for granted, Oren is very conscious that his (Washingtonian, probably left-leaning and likely highly influential) audience needs convincing. He is essentially having to make Israel's case to American Jews.

How do you read it?

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