Though my job does have its challenges, it also has some perks. My wife, Sally, and I have the privilege to host extraordinary people at the Ambassador’s Residence in Washington. Recently, we honored Dr. Stanley Fisher, the Governor of the Bank of Israel.
Today, Israel has one of the world’s leading economies, with a growth rate of 4% and 5.5% unemployment. All of that in a country with large traditional Jewish and Arab populations, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and a mammoth defense budget. Israel is an economic miracle and along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is strong economic leader, Stanley Fischer is an architect of that miracle.
And there he was at my dining room table, surrounded by some of America’s leading economists, some of whom were formerly Fischer’s students at M.I.T. The topic of the conversation was uncertainty. One of those American economists said that the uncertainty was the greatest challenge facing the United States. American businesses, he explained, were uncertain about the future and thus reluctant to spend, invest, and create jobs. How, the economist wanted to know, did Israel deal so well with uncertainty?
I’ll never forget Prof. Fischer’s answer. Smiling impishly he said, “uncertainty? Uncertainty? Ever since its creation, Israel has known only uncertainty. The only certainty in Israel is uncertainty.
Indeed, the Jewish people have always been experts at uncertainty. Wandering in the desert for forty years, building Temples, losing Temples, exiled and repatriated and exiled again, then subjected to a succession of banishments, inquisitions, and massacres—for four thousand years, being Jewish meant grappling with uncertainty.
Uncertainty is embedded in our liturgy and on no day more than Yom Kippur. Who by water, the Mahzur asks, who by fire? Who by sword? Who will be enriched and who impoverished? Talk about uncertainty.
These questions resonate not only on Yom Kippur, but also throughout these uncertain times, especially in the Middle East. Who would have imagined a year ago today that the Middle East of Muammar Qaddafi, Husni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad would have been swiftly and profoundly transformed? Who could have conceived that peoples long denied democracy would have risen up and demanded it?
In the eye of this whirlwind lies the State of Israel. We look around us and see a region rapidly in flux and exceedingly flammable. We see the danger that disorganized democratic movements in the Arab world will be hijacked by more organized radical factions. We saw it happen already in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iran. We see that Turkey, once a valued ally, has turned away from us, severing diplomatic relations with us and ceasing all security cooperation. We see a Palestinian leadership in the West Bank that has ignored Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated invitations to negotiate toward a lasting two-state solution. Instead, the Palestinians have made a pact with the terrorist organization Hamas and sought to declare their state without giving Israel peace.
We hope for stability but we must prepare for the possibility of sudden and violent change. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is aiming 50,000 rockets at our neighborhoods—larger, more accurate missiles, capable of hitting any city in Israel from Kiryat Shmonah to Eilat. Another 10,000 rockets are in the hands of Hamas in Gaza, putting Tel Aviv within range. Most ominously, Iran continues its illegal enrichment of uranium, to assemble the components of nuclear weapons, and to deploy the missiles capable of carrying them.
Talk about uncertainty.
And, yes, sometimes we have to ask ourselves the same question posed by that American economist to Stanley Fischer: How do we do it? How to we wrestle with such staggering, crushing uncertainty?
As Jews, we know the answer. The answer lies in the certainty of our faith. That is the faith that sustained us throughout our wanderings, throughout our dispossessions and despair. That is the faith that strengthens us to rise up from the ashes of the Holocaust and proclaim to the world “never again.”Tt is the faith that fortifies us to face each new year with its myriad uncertainties. “Who by fire? Who by sword?” Without faith, could we even dare to ask such questions?
We have faith in ourselves as the People of Israel—a people linked to our God through a land, the Land of Israel. How, without that faith, could we have created the State of Israel on that land in 1948, a mere three years after the Holocaust? Without faith, how else could we have repulsed repeated attempts to destroy our state and cast it into the sea? Without faith in ourselves, could we have built the Middle East’s only functioning democracy—one of a handful of countries in the world that has never known a second of non-democratic rule? How could we have established six of the world’s leading universities, published more scientific papers and won more Nobel prizes than any other country per capita, and become a global pioneer in medicine, water reclamation, and the search for alternative energy? How could we nourish a flourishing Hebrew literature and Jewish scholarship, a succession of Oscar-nominated films, and outstanding rock music? How—and this is truly a triumph of faith—could we today be exporting award-winning wines to France?
The sheer force of our faith has galvanized Jews from dozens of distant lands into a proud and sovereign nation. We are a nation of soldiers and scientists, rabbis and rockers, high-brow philosophers and high-tech innovators.
Yes, the Middle East is changing, but change brings not only risks but also opportunities. We see opportunity in the emergence of genuine Arab democracies, for we know that democracies are far better at keeping peace treaties than autocracies or dictatorships. True, Turkey has turned away from and the Palestinians have turned their backs on talks. But we continue to cherish our historic friendship with the Turkish people. We remain willing to negotiate with the Palestinians, today, in Jerusalem or Ramallah, to forge an historic peace based on two states living side-by-side in security, mutual-recognition, and respect. Indeed, we face tens of thousands of rockets, but Israel is developing the world’s most advanced anti-missile system. That system recently became the first in history to succeed in real combat, intercepting salvos of Hamas rockets fired at Ashkelon and Beersheva. Meanwhile, the Israeli government will follow President Obama’s leadership in imposing punishing sanctions on Iran, and in upholding his policy of ‘all options on the table.’
For four thousand years, our faith in ourselves as the Jewish people has preserved us. And for the last sixty-three years, since Israel’s creation, our faith has been energized by the American people. As President Obama has said, “America has no better friend in the world than Israel.” And Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, “Israel has no better friend than America.” I will tell you, without reservation, that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the deepest and most multi-faceted alliance that this country, America, has had with any foreign nation in the post-World War II period.
We are here in synagogue today because we are Jews, because we are a people. And Because we are here as a people, the State of Israel is strong. Though we may have our differences—and, yes, we do have a few—we are bonded by our common heritage, our ideals, and our commitment to peoplehood.
Who by sword? Who by fire? We, mere humans, cannot know. But what we do know is that faith can sustain us. Faith can unite in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and to define itself as the Jewish state. Faith can fortify us to help protect Israel from those who threaten us and faith can inspire us to celebrate Israel’s astonishing accomplishments. Faith can empower us to overcome all and every uncertainty. And in our world of constant changes, nothing could be more certain.