As many of you know, I came to the position of ambassador after many years of writing history. As an historian, I always said, my main job was making decisions.
How is that possible, you might ask—historians are decision-makers? What are they, prime ministers? No, an historian is not the prime minister, though some of them seem to think they’d do a better job. Historians are decision-makers because they are confronted with masses of information and from those masses must select the most relevant and compelling passages.
Take for example, the events of May 13, 1948, the day before Israel declared its independence. The Zionist leadership had less than 24 hours to prepare for the ceremony, and a budget of less than $500. There was a fear that the British, who were still technically ruling the country, would arrest the declaration’s signatories, and a fear that the signing, set for Friday afternoon, would continue through sunset, violating the Sabbath. There was no agreed text for the declaration; delegates debated whether it should mention the borders of the Jewish state or even the name of G-d. There was no parchment or even a scribe. Worse, there was no agreement on the new state’s name. Many delegates thought it should be Zion, though others disagreed, noting that Zion meant that the country would vote last in the UN General Assembly.
Now all of this is going on while foreign diplomats were laboring furiously to delay Jewish statehood indefinitely. Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors were languishing in displaced persons camps. And six Arab armies, lavishly armed with hundreds of tanks, planes, and artillery pieces prepared to descend on a population half the size of today’s Washington, D.C., defended by little more than handguns.
All this went on while the Zionist leadership, fearing the massacre of every last Jew in Eretz Yisrael, debated extensively, painfully, whether even to declare independence.
Now imagine being an historian and having to choose between all those facts—which are crucial to your narrative and which extraneous? Which of them best tells the story of Israel’s creation?
Historians have to make some tough decisions, but ambassadors much less so.
I know that this might also surprise some of you, but most of Israel’s decisions are made by the Government of Israel in Jerusalem. No, as ambassador, my job is much less about making decisions than it is about answering questions.
Government ministers, for example, might ask me how Israel can help America cope with the Mexican Gulf oil spill?
A journalist might ask is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad serious in his declared desire for peace?
Some of the hardest questions come from anti-Israel activists on campus. Typically, they ask me why I, an American-born Jew, can move freely to Israel while an American-born Palestinian cannot.
And just as an historian I made the tough decisions, so, too, as ambassador do I give straight answers.
To the government ministers, I reply that, yes, Israel can help address the Gulf crisis by supplying oil-eating algae cultivated in Israel. We can make available Israel’s advanced solar and electric car technology, reducing America’s dependence on oil.
I answer the journalist by saying that Israel will believe the Syrian president’s declarations of peace once he stops sending tens of thousands of rockets to Hezbollah, closes the Hamas headquarters in Damascus, and severs his ties with Iran.
To the anti-Israel activist I respond that while there are twenty-two Arab states, there is only one small Jewish state in the world and that the right of every Jew in the world to return to our homeland comes as a corrective to two thousand years of homelessness, of inquisitions, expulsions, and massacres. Our right of return is our affirmative action, righting a monumental historical wrong.
And, I add, the Palestinians will have the right to settle in their own independent state once they negotiate a permanent peace with us.
But as ambassador, there is one question I have great difficulty answering. It is a question about a decision. “Why did you decide to move to Israel?”
Where do I begin to answer? With my youth, growing up under the shadow of the Holocaust, witnessing the extreme tension and ultimate miracle of the 1967 Six-Day War? Should I mention volunteering on kibbutz and participating in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry? Or do I try to explain the extraordinary fortune of growing up at a time in Jewish history when an independent, proud, and vibrant Jewish state exists—that I have the schut, the privilege, of taking responsibility for that state—for its shortcomings as well as its successes.
Rarely a week or even a day goes by when I’m not asked that question, by non-Jews and Jews alike, and I confess it leaves me nonplussed. Therefore, it is with great relief and immense honor that I address the graduating class of Yeshiva University. For here, among you, I know I will never be asked that question. Here, I know that you know the answer—intrinsically, intellectually, and spiritually.
You have always known the answer.
Religious Zionism has always been at the forefront of the epic effort to recreate Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. More than a hundred years ago, religious Zionists were among the pioneering vanguard that forged the first modern Jewish settlements and cities; they fought in the ranks of the Jewish Legion during World War I, in the Hebrew Brigade of the Second World War, and in the Hagannah, LEHI, and ETZEL.
Bridging the worlds of Torah and secular studies, religious Zionists created internationally renowned centers of spiritual and scientific learning, from Merkaz Harav to Bar-Ilan University.
Religious Zionists were there, on May 13, 1948, urging that Israel’s independence be declared, and, over the next sixty-two years, religious Zionists helped guide Israel through successive wars and crises.
Throughout, religious Zionism has been committed to the belief in the Jewish state as reshit tzmichat geulatenu—the first flourishing of our redemption—and dedicated to Israel as a modern democracy in which a wide array of ideas and interests must be reconciled.
Whenever difficult decisions had to be made and intrepid answers rendered, religious Zionists were ready. And in America, no institution better represents this readiness, the commitment to combining Jewish and secular scholarship, the dedication to preserving Israel and defending its essential relations with the United States, than this remarkable university.
That legacy was personified by an expansive list of outstanding graduates.
One such alumnus was Baruch Rabinowitz, a native of New Jersey, who traveled to Jerusalem in 1932 to study under Harav Kook but who also became active in the Revisionist Zionist movement, protesting the Nazi’s oppression of Jews—he famously tore down the Nazi flag from atop the German consulate. Later, Rabinowitz returned to the United States to earn his smicha from Yeshiva University, but he also raised funds for the Zionist underground. But it was during World War II that Rabbi Rabinowitz made his greatest contribution to Zionism, joining with a group of young Jews led by Harav Kook’s nephew, Hillel. Together, they worked to arouse American Jews to the horrors of the Holocaust and to rally them to the cause of Jewish statehood.
Against unspeakable odds and at time when such activities were utterly revolutionary, Rabbi Rabinowitz and his colleagues organized Congressional petitions and took out full-page ads. They even produced a Zionist show starring Bob Hope, Zero Mostel, and Ethel Merman—with music by Count Basie and the Andrew Sisters—and staged it in Madison Square Garden.
The heroism and creativity displayed by Rabbi Rabinowitz proved pivotal in making America the first nation to recognize the recreated Jewish state.
Rabbi Rabinowitz’s example has been replicated by other Yeshiva graduates, such as a Rabbi Joshua Fass, founder of Nefesh b’Nefesh, the ingenious organization that brings thousands of new immigrants to Israel, and Dr. Arthur Eidelman, professor at Ben-Gurion and Hebrew Universities and a pioneer in the field of neonatal care. And, of course, there is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a source of personal inspiration for me and countless other Israelis, who has so deeply enriched our society with his scholarship and unflagging efforts for tolerance.
Indeed, examine any facet of Israeli life—in governance, finance, academia, defense—and you will find Yeshiva graduates. And little wonder. Every year, six hundred of you study in Israel under Yeshiva’s auspices, and fifteen percent of all of you receiving degrees today will make aliya, enriching and strengthening our State. Others will remain in the United States and further enhance the thriving Modern Orthodox community, a bastion of principled support and unflagging love for Israel.
Whether in Israel or here, in America, you, Yeshiva graduates, will make the decisions and provide the answers. Israel today faces decisions and questions every bit as daunting as those it confronted on May 13, 1948.
We face the threat of the global and limitlessly financed campaigns to deny Israel the right to defend itself and even the right to exist.
We face the mortal danger of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons—an Iran that threatens to wipe Israel off the map with the many long-range missiles it possesses, an Iran that could convey military nuclear capabilities to Hamas and Hezbollah, and an Iran that will ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, transforming into a tinderbox.
Finally, but perhaps no less perilously, Israel faces the challenges of peace. Peace is, of course, a vision that we all cherish, the vision of Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side in a situation of permanent and legitimate peace. But an inadequately negotiated peace agreement could result in thousands of missiles raining down on our cities, farms, and ports, much as they did after Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. An inadequately negotiated peace could permit the Palestinians to persist in claiming territories from Israel and denying it recognition as the Jewish state.
Israel is rising to all of these challenges. We are asserting our right to defend ourselves, affirming our right to exist. We are resisting Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weaponry, cooperating with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, all the while keeping all options on the table. And we are pursuing peace, insisting on the effective demilitarization of the Palestinian state and on the need for any such state to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
We are rising to the challenges but we are not doing it alone. We have never done it alone but always with you. With you, we made that historic decision on May 13, 1948 to declare our statehood and, the following day when we did, with you we fought off those invading armies. With you, we built one of the world’s most resilient democracies and a thriving Hebrew culture. With you, we absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, reforested our landscape, and became a global leader in science and technology. And with you we made Israel into a flourishing center of Jewish learning, a wellspring of spiritual effervescence.
Be with us today, too, in reaching out as you’ve always done to other branches of Judaism, reconciling religious and secular studies, and strengthening our commitment to klal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, and to Hibat Zion, the love of the Jewish homeland.
Be with us as we grapple with the complex questions of peacemaking. Be with us if the Israeli government decides to make excruciating sacrifices for peace or if it decides that the arrangement offered does not justify such sacrifices.
Be with us for, as Rav Soloveichik declared back in 1967, the decisions that affect the safety and wellbeing of millions of Israelis can only be made by Israel’s elected leaders.
Members of the Class of 2010, this is no easy time to graduate. There is much uncertainty out there, I know. But, as you set out toward your future, the State of Israel will remain a constant in your lives, a source of pride and inspiration and, we hope someday, your home. You, now, are the decision-makers—not just studying history but making it. And you are the ambassadors. The answers, from this day forward, are yours.