Mitt Romney should stick to Mormonism. Yesterday in Jerusalem, the GOP presumptive nominee offered some thoughts on Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and various other calamities, in Jewish history. Tisha B’Av, he declared, “calls forth clarity and resolve,” because as in the past, today “Israel faces enemies who deny past crimes against the Jewish people and seek to commit new ones.” He then went on to talk about, you guessed it, Iran.
Sorry, but that largely misses the point. Tisha B’Av is less about steeling Jewish resolve against our enemies than fostering self-reflection about the Jewish misdeeds that allowed those enemies to prevail. The Talmud says that God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the First Temple because the Jews committed idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual sins. Similarly, the Romans are bit players in the Talmud’s intricate explanation of the chain of Jewish sins that led to the Second Temple being destroyed. Among those sins—none of which easily lends itself to a GOP stump speech—are “baseless hatred” among Jews and a concern for ritual stringency so obsessive that it trumps concern for human life.
In his Jerusalem speech, Romney went on to insist that “we cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel voice their criticisms. And we certainly should not join in that criticism.” But Tisha B’Av is all about the importance of criticizing Jewish behavior; that’s why, on the Sabbath before it, we read a portion of the Torah in which Moses rebukes the Jewish people before they enter the land of Israel. Obviously, some criticism truly is destructive and unfair. But to use Tisha B’Av to suggest that the country that most clearly wishes Israel well—the United States—should never publicly disagree with Israel’s actions isn’t just bad foreign policy. It’s bad Judaism.
It’s no surprise that Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly urged Romney to come to Israel during Tisha B’Av. Bibi has a history of using Jewish holidays to buttress his apocalyptic worldview. In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, the Israeli prime minister concluded his denunciation of Iran’s nuclear program by referencing the festival of Purim. “Some 2,500 years ago,” he said, “a Persian anti-Semite [hint, hint] tried to annihilate the Jewish people ... His plot was foiled by one courageous woman: Esther. In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people.”
Well, yes, but the Book of Esther also records that after Esther convinced the Persian king to save the Jews from the wicked Haman, he gave those Jews license to take revenge, after which they “smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction.” The message of Purim, in other words, is not merely that Jews need “clarity and resolve” against their enemies. It’s also that in fighting those enemies, Jews can commit abuses of their own.
And while it’s true, as Netanyahu said, that “in every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people,” Jewish tradition urges humility about our capacity to determine who those people are. Legend has it that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, the über-bad guy whose tribe attacked the Jews when they were fleeing Egypt and whom the Jews are commanded to utterly destroy. Netanyahu has roped Amalek into the Iran debate as well. In 2009, when Jeffrey Goldberg asked a Netanyahu adviser how the prime minister feels about the Iranian threat, the adviser replied: “Think Amalek.”
The only problem with that formulation is that according to the Talmud, we can no longer identify the descendants of Amalek, because over time they were dispersed among the nations. To be sure, the Amalekites’ evil attributes—especially their tendency to prey upon the weak—endure. But some Jewish thinkers suggest that there is a little bit of Amalek in all of us, and that while we fight the evil in others, we must also fight the evil in ourselves. Indeed, Amalek himself was a descendant of Esau, Isaac’s mistreated and wayward son. And in that way, too, Jewish tradition reminds us that we are more intimately connected to those we hate and fear than we like to admit.
In Romney’s foray into Judaism, none of that humility or self-criticism appears, which isn’t surprising, since it is absent from his Americanism as well. The U.S. and Israel, he declared in Jerusalem, are “part of the great fellowship of democracies. We speak the same language of freedom and justice ... We both believe in the rule of law, knowing that in its absence, willful men may incline to oppress the weak.”
Yes and no. Israel certainly is a democracy inside the green line, one in which the rule of law does sometimes impressively protect the weak. But in the West Bank, the strong and the weak live under a different law. Jews enjoy due process; Palestinians are tried by military courts. Between 2005 and 2010, according to the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem, 835 Palestinian minors were arrested in the West Bank on charges of stone throwing. One was acquitted.
Does that bother Romney? Evidently not. In the spirit of his backer, Sheldon Adelson, who has called the Palestinians an “invented people,” Romney didn’t utter the word “Palestinian” in his Jerusalem speech. He talked about Hamas and terrorism and “the enemies of civilization,” but he never named the human beings who share the country and the city upon which he lavished praise.
What a strange twist of fate. Seventy-five years ago, some of the most powerful men in the world denied Jewish humanity. Today some of the most powerful men in the world deny Palestinian humanity because they think it will win them Jewish votes. Another reason for sadness and self-reflection on this Tisha B’Av.