Israel needs a presidential friend &mdash not yes-sayers

For us Israelis, the identity of the president of the United States is understood as an issue of existential significance. We have few friends in the world, and our most significant and strategic ally is — and we hope will continue to be — the United States. Without the United States, life for Israelis will be more dangerous and profoundly lonely.

The recent primaries have begun to narrow the field of candidates for president. Around the Jewish world, the debate as to who is better for Israel — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain — is becoming more heated and pressing. However, there is a larger issue that I believe we must put on the table first: What are the criteria for assessing friendship and support for Israel?

Without a doubt, Israel is looking for a president who is its friend, and friends are those who have empathy for each other, who care for each other and, most important, who are capable of seeing the other as the other sees themself. Friends also stand by each other even when it is not always the most politically expedient thing to do.

There is, however, a different standard of friendship that has been making the rounds in the Jewish community, which is a disservice to Israel and to its cause, as well as a threat to its ability to develop and sustain true friendships throughout the world.

Under this standard, a friend is not one who is merely with you through thick and thin, but is one who agrees with you regardless of whether he believes you are right or wrong.

All too often in the Jewish community today, we require our friends to be exclusively “yes-sayers” — individuals who will declare “amen” regardless of what we do. More than that, we Israelis have begun to require that our friends never have an opinion different from ours. Under this argument, friends must always agree, and in our case, our friends must agree with us and follow our lead.

There are two serious flaws in this notion of friendship. The first is that it is antithetical to Judaism’s notion of true friendship, as stated in Leviticus 19:17: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.”

The Jewish tradition teaches us that a sign of true love and friendship is when you care enough about somebody to correct them. You care enough about somebody to tell them you think they are doing something wrong. The perpetual declaration of “amen” is both a symptom and source of indifference.

Under the commandment of tohekhah — the commandment to rebuke somebody who you feel is doing something wrong — Jewish tradition is trying to foster a level of care among friends that has no tolerance for this type of indifference.

I don’t know who will be a better president for Israel. I do know that I would welcome a friend who, if he or she feels so, would come and talk to us and encourage policies they believe are more in our interest and more in accordance with our mission. I do not fear such a dialogue. Quite to the contrary, I welcome it, for I am in search of true friends.

The standard of friendship I am attacking here is flawed for yet another reason. This new standard does not take into account or allow for the vibrant debate and disagreement within us in Israel as to what is our position. It anoints one approach as the approach of Israel, and requires our friends to line up behind it, all the while feigning ignorance to the fact that even Israelis seriously debate the best policy.

If we insist that all of our friends adopt one

position, we are creating a standard of loyalty for friends much narrower than the standard we are applying for ourselves. Such a standard will leave us in the near future with no friends and deeply alone.

The beauty and power of Israel is founded on the vibrancy, vitality and audaciousness of the political debate that abounds every day in Israeli society. If an Israeli can vote for Kadima, Likud or Labor and still be loyal to Israel, we must allow no less from our friends overseas.

As the list of candidates has been whittled down, and we are able to look more carefully into the faces of the next potential president of the United States, I am looking carefully at who I believe will be my friend. Let us create, however, a standard of friendship that is true to our tradition and true to the complexity of the issues we face here in Israel.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem. This piece appears courtesy of the institute (

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