Posts Tagged ‘Netanyahu and Mandela’

As the book of Genesis winds down, Jacob dies.  Joseph and all of his brothers take Jacob back to Canaan to bury him in the family’s burial plots Abraham had purchased 2 generations earlier at Machpelah.  The burial of Jacob rekindles a fear in Joseph’s brothers.  Now that their father is gone, will Joseph finally take vengeance for their selling him into slavery so many years earlier?  That fear compels them to approach Joseph, telling him their father urged them to be sure to ask Joseph’s forgiveness for their offenses after Jacob had died.

Why were they so fearful of revenge after living in Egypt for many years under Joseph’s protection?  Malbim raises two interesting possibilities.  First, while Jacob was alive the presence of their father encouraged mutual brotherly affection and served as a physical reminder of their connection to each other.  Jacob’s death removed that tie.  Second, Malbim states that the most poignant kind of revenge on someone is to mercifully provide their needs.  Then, every crust of bread, every little thing provided serves to remind the perpetrator of the wrong they did.  The constant multiplying and carrying around of that guilt creates the internal tension of waiting for the former victim to exact his revenge.  So it was with Joseph’s brothers.

Ba’al Haturim, however, gives a simpler reason for the brother’s sudden fear of revenge.  On the way back from the burial of Jacob, the procession finds itself at the pit into which Joseph’s brother’s cast him before selling him into slavery in Egypt.  There the brothers hear Joseph recite this blessing, “Blessed is the One who performed a miracle for me in this place.”  The brothers, seemingly incapable of understanding that Joseph could eschew revenge, take his blessing to mean that the matter still weighed on his mind.  So they are shocked when he responds to their plea for forgiveness with the words, “hatachat Elohim ani?” “Am I in place of God?”

Joseph explains to them that God intended their actions for a better, larger purpose.  He was placed in a position to save not only his family, but many people.  Malbim explains that Joseph’s response is not just a simple accepting of fatalism, but an understanding that he dare not exact a revenge under the guise that he is doing God’s will – i.e. that the result will turn out for good not evil as his brothers’ actions did.  Joseph does not presume to understand what God will do in the future.  He is content to know that his current situation is the way God intended and all turned out well.  He has enough strength of faith to not try to be the controlling agent, to accept what has already passed.  Joseph is truly interested in healing, not in revenge.  Rashi adds a more practical reason for Joseph’s refusal to take revenge on his brothers.  They were living proof to the Egyptian people that he was indeed born a free man and not born a slave.  This was important in maintaining his stature as vizier of Egypt.

Malbim and Rashi’s explanations are not mutually exclusive.  Instead, they give us a holistic picture of a leader who blends high minded attitude along with practical considerations for his positions and actions.

Events of this past week show us examples of two men who stand as polar opposites.  One exemplifies Joseph’s combination of the ethical blended with the practical, while the other exemplifies wallowing in pettiness and meanness.  I am referring to the late Nelson Mandela and Bibi Netanyahu.  They are now tied together by Netanyahu’s canceling his attendance at Mandela’s funeral using the expenses of the trip for his excuse.

Mandela’s history has been well reviewed by many sources over the past week.  The overarching story of his life is of a man unjustly imprisoned for 27 years, who refuses to take vengeance upon his release.  Just as Joseph recites a blessing upon visiting the pit of his prison, Mandela invites his former jailers to attend his inauguration as President of South Africa in 1994.  He turns the curese of his imprisonment into blessing.  Mandela’s approach to politics epitomizes the combination of high minded ideals with pragmatism.  He knew that the prosperity of his country took precedence over the emotionalism coming from the end of apartheid.  He did many things to show white South Africa he intended to work for everyone’s best interest.  One example of this is depicted in the movie “Invictus” which tells the story of his garnering support for South Africa’s rugby team – a team that symbolized former white oppression of blacks.

It was the Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz that broke the story of Netanyahu’s cancellation of his attending the funeral.  It was very interesting to note comments on the article posted on the CCAR Facebook page as this was discussed.  Most telling were those who argued that Netanyahu was justified in not attending the funeral as Mandela had ties with Arafat, was critical of Israeli policy regarding the West Bank and the building of settlements there.  Indeed, a 2001 letter penned to American columnist Thomas Friedman bearing Mandela’s name issues criticism of Israel in the harshest of terms, calling the separation of Israelis and Palestinians “apartheid.”  The language is confrontational, saying that if Friedman is not truly supportive of justice for the Palestinians, including the right of return, that he would “oppose” him.  This letter makes anyone who supports Israel cringe.  This letter is often used to characterize Mandela’s relationship with Israel, especially considering Israel was one of the last countries to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with apartheid South Africa.

However, there is one problem with this letter.  It is a total fake.  It was written by a Palestinian who claimed to be able to speak for Mandela.

What was Mandela’s relationship with Israel and moreover with Jews?  Remember that Jews were economically very successful and very supportive of the white regime in South Africa.  I know this from personal anecdote.  All of my mother’s family is from Germany.  Her father, my grandfather, had 4 brothers.  He was the only one to come to America in the 1930’s.  The rest went to South Africa, becoming quite successful.  When I was 11 years old, some of them were visiting our family in America.  This was at a time when the US had experienced a number of summers filled with race riots in major cities.  I remember very clearly these relatives sitting in our living room telling my parents that Americans did not know how to handle their “coloreds.”  Even at 11 I knew something was wrong about that statement, mostly because our rabbi had been relating to us his experiences marching with Dr. King in various freedom marches.  My point of all this is that would have been understandable if Mandela harbored resentment against Jews and Israel.

Yet he did not.  Indeed, he formed very good relations with the Jewish community in South Africa, appreciating their history of suffering in Europe as well as their economic contributions to the country.  He supported Israel’s right to exist even stating that the Arab countries could not expect Israel to make concessions without recognition and guarantees of security.  He met with former Soviet Jewish refuseniks, swapping prison stories with them.  While he certainly had criticisms of Israeli policies, he understood and sympathized with the history of the Jewish people.  This is attested to by Abraham Foxman of the ADL among other Jewish leaders.

And Netanyahu?  He has a history of obstruction, of torpedoing peace deals even boasting of his ability to kill the original Oslo accords the beginning of his first term as Prime Minister (for complete description of Netanyahu as obstructionist see Michael Hirsh’s article of November 27 in “The National Journal”).  Netanyahu is a leader with little vision and who demonstrates little ability to do anything other than fight to preserve Israel’s status quo.  Unlike Yitzchak Rabin or Ariel Sharon, former military leaders and hawks who evolved to a place of being willing to take risks for peace, Netanyahu has proven to be at best a petty care taker, who uses his background of being raised in America and fluency in English to maintain popularity here.  Even though Israel ended up sending Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and a group of Knesset members as a delegation, this episode only serves to contrast Netanyahu’s small mindedness with Mandela’s expansive thinking.

Whether in America, Israel or anyplace in this world, we need leaders who demonstrate Mandela’s combination of high minded ideals with practicality – which results in the ability to compromise and build consensus.  We do not need the pettiness and rigidity that marks so many politicians attempts to do nothing but cling to their positions.  I think we need for all of us to adopt Joseph’s attitude when he responds, “Am I in place of God?’  Perhaps then we can begin to replace hubris with humility.

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