Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iranian nuclear threat

Can We Pray About Iran on Yom Kippur?

At sundown tonight, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day of fasting and prayer as the ten Days of Awe, during which Jews account for their actions in the previous year and atone for their sins, come to a close. The point is to think seriously about our own behavior toward others and to our relationship with our Creator. Though it is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur’s significance is not just theological. As it is the religious service that more Jews attend than any other, it has also come to be a day of communal gathering. As such it is the day when synagogues appeal for funds to maintain themselves and the community. But it is also fitting that amid the traditional liturgy and prayers, attention should be paid to the dire threats that hang over Israel and the Jewish people.

It is in that spirit that the Orthodox Union and that movement’s Rabbinical Council of America issued a call for prayer on Yom Kippur for an end to threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. This seems to me to be an utterly unexceptionable request. Why wouldn’t Jews, be they members of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or even those who style themselves Secular Humanists and don’t even believe in God, not wish to devote a moment to calling for removing the threat of extermination from the State of Israel? Jews may disagree on every conceivable political question but surely there is nothing wrong with asking the Almighty to either soften the hearts of the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran or to strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them? But, believe it or not, some people don’t think such a prayer is a good idea. Peter Beinart, the author and blogger who fancies himself the conscience of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, thinks the rabbis are “disturbing his Yom Kippur” by injecting what he considers a political appeal onto a day that the OU says should be apolitical. Is he right?

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At sundown tonight, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day of fasting and prayer as the ten Days of Awe, during which Jews account for their actions in the previous year and atone for their sins, come to a close. The point is to think seriously about our own behavior toward others and to our relationship with our Creator. Though it is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur’s significance is not just theological. As it is the religious service that more Jews attend than any other, it has also come to be a day of communal gathering. As such it is the day when synagogues appeal for funds to maintain themselves and the community. But it is also fitting that amid the traditional liturgy and prayers, attention should be paid to the dire threats that hang over Israel and the Jewish people.

It is in that spirit that the Orthodox Union and that movement’s Rabbinical Council of America issued a call for prayer on Yom Kippur for an end to threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. This seems to me to be an utterly unexceptionable request. Why wouldn’t Jews, be they members of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or even those who style themselves Secular Humanists and don’t even believe in God, not wish to devote a moment to calling for removing the threat of extermination from the State of Israel? Jews may disagree on every conceivable political question but surely there is nothing wrong with asking the Almighty to either soften the hearts of the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran or to strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them? But, believe it or not, some people don’t think such a prayer is a good idea. Peter Beinart, the author and blogger who fancies himself the conscience of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, thinks the rabbis are “disturbing his Yom Kippur” by injecting what he considers a political appeal onto a day that the OU says should be apolitical. Is he right?

Beinart has a point when he notes that liberal denominations have undermined their credibility by attempting to portray their secular political agenda as Jewish causes, to their detriment of purely religious pursuits. Rabbis, like clerics in other faiths, have often used their sermons to foist their personal political agendas on their captive congregations. But is removing the Iranian threat really a partisan issue?

Beinart thinks it is because of the dispute between the government of Israel and the Obama administration over the latter’s refusal to enunciate red lines that would trigger action against Iran rather than more empty rhetorical promises that only serve to help kick the can down the road until the point where it may be too late to do anything about the problem.

Reasonable persons may disagree about what should be done about Iran. But does that quarrel mean that any concern about Iran should be off limits in the synagogue. Beinart thinks so. While he doesn’t want us to think he doesn’t care about Iran, he does seem to mock the special concern about it by asking why this year rather than previous years and why the OU is not calling for prayer to solve other serious problems or potential calamities.

What he fears is that if Jews spend too much time worrying or praying about the possibility that a vicious, anti-Semitic regime will get a nuclear weapon they might not think poorly about Netanyahu’s insistence on action. They may also not regard the president’s stance with complacence. Thus, by definition it seems, prayer about the Iranian threat ought to be off limits.

In stating such a position, he seems to be telling us that he does not take President Obama at his word about his promise about refusing to “contain” Iran rather than preventing it from obtaining nuclear capability. But Jews and other people of good faith need not interpret the call for prayer about Iran as a partisan appeal. Indeed, Democrats may take it as an impetus to press the president to make good on his promises.

But parsing the words of the prayer isn’t the point. Contrary to Beinart’s point of view, there are some issues that transcend partisanship, politics and even religious issues. Preventing a nuclear attack on Israel from a regime that has vowed to eliminate it is one such topic. That Beinart wishes to treat it as being morally equivalent to a liberal appeal for more social welfare spending or conservative calls for support for their issues tells us more about him and his very public angst about Israel and Jewish peoplehood than it does about what is or is not an appropriate prayer on Yom Kippur.

We at COMMENTARY wish all of our readers who will observe Yom Kippur an easy fast. But we also ask them and other readers to read the OU prayer and to add their own amens to its appeal to our own. We’ll be back after the holiday.

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Jews worldwide spend the day in fasting, prayer and repentance. Yom Kippur is not a day for politics.

But Yom Kippur 5773 is different.

On this Yom Kippur – the world faces an evil regime whose leaders have publicly committed themselves to destroying the State of Israel and to harming Jews worldwide; in addition, the Iranians are a threat to the global community.

On this Yom Kippur – the leader of that evil regime will address the United Nations General Assembly and again preach his hatred;

On this Yom Kippur – the words found in the High Holiday prayer book, “God determines which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace,” prompt us to contemplate with anxiety the fate of the State of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.

The threat is dire and demands our attention on our holiest day. Therefore, we call upon all congregations to dedicate a specific moment during their services on the upcoming holy day of Yom Kippur to pray for an end to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

On Yom Kippur, may Israel and its people be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of life and peace.

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Romney Lays Down a Marker in Jerusalem

It is now customary for American presidential candidates to visit Israel and to express their warm support for the Jewish state. In that sense, Mitt Romney’s visit to Jerusalem may be viewed as just typical smart politics, especially for a Republican seeking to shore up evangelical support as well as hoping to make inroads among Jewish voters. Indeed, there was a good deal of overlap between some of Romney’s speech yesterday to the Jerusalem Foundation and positions that President Obama has taken the past few months, notably about rejecting containment of a nuclear Iran.

But Romney’s speech went further on several points than the standard American political pledge to back Israel. He not only acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he laid down a position on the Iranian nuclear threat that went much further than that of the administration. By saying Iran must not be allowed to enrich nuclear material, by saying stopping it is the highest national security priority of the United States and by explicitly and pointedly endorsing Israel’s duty to defend itself, Romney laid down a marker that signals if he is elected, American policy on the issue will be very different.

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It is now customary for American presidential candidates to visit Israel and to express their warm support for the Jewish state. In that sense, Mitt Romney’s visit to Jerusalem may be viewed as just typical smart politics, especially for a Republican seeking to shore up evangelical support as well as hoping to make inroads among Jewish voters. Indeed, there was a good deal of overlap between some of Romney’s speech yesterday to the Jerusalem Foundation and positions that President Obama has taken the past few months, notably about rejecting containment of a nuclear Iran.

But Romney’s speech went further on several points than the standard American political pledge to back Israel. He not only acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he laid down a position on the Iranian nuclear threat that went much further than that of the administration. By saying Iran must not be allowed to enrich nuclear material, by saying stopping it is the highest national security priority of the United States and by explicitly and pointedly endorsing Israel’s duty to defend itself, Romney laid down a marker that signals if he is elected, American policy on the issue will be very different.

On Jerusalem, cynics are entitled to view Romney’s statement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital as something that will not be translated into policy if he wins in November. For decades, American candidates and parties have pledged to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and always renege. It is not likely that Romney will be any different in that respect. Coming as it did in the days after both the White House and the State Department refused to make the same acknowledgement, Romney’s remark sought to increase their embarrassment and angered the Palestinian Authority.

It should be remembered that in 2008, candidate Barack Obama acknowledged a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel when speaking to a Jewish audience and then quickly backtracked a day later. Though the embassy will probably not be moving in a Romney administration, it is doubtful he will retract his remarks.

On Iran, Romney’s position was much stronger than even the president’s often-tough rhetoric on the issue. Both say they will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and will stop it. But the administration draws the line in a different place. They seem willing to live with an Iran that might have the capability of getting a nuke, which explains the president’s going along with compromise proposals set forth by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that would allow Iran to go on refining uranium. Romney rightly opposes any such measure.

While Romney said, “It is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will” stop Iran, he made it clear that no other option — an obvious reference to the use of force — “should be excluded.” And by explicitly endorsing Israel’s right to self-defense in this same context, he also sent a signal (unlike Obama), that stopping Israel from acting on this issue will not be his priority.

Although the specifics of the speech were enough to present a strong contrast with the positions of the administration, the strength of his remarks was in how he expressed these points. It is not enough for an American leader to merely acknowledge the bonds between the two countries. It is vital they show they understand Israel and care deeply about it, a test President Obama has consistently failed.

Romney didn’t merely say Israel had a right to defend itself. By placing the current crisis in the context of Jewish history and saying Israel’s leaders have, in the words of Menachem Begin, “the responsibility to make sure that never again will our independence be destroyed and never again will the Jew become homeless or defenseless,” he demonstrated he understood that history and its meaning for policymakers.

Just as important, Romney does not harbor the same illusions about Iran and its leaders that hamper the president’s understanding of the issue. Unlike Obama, who wasted most of his years in office on feckless attempts to “engage” Iran and weak diplomatic initiatives, Romney understands the conflict with Tehran is one that is, as he put it, as much a moral test as it is one of policy. He takes the Iranians at their word when they say they wish to destroy Israel and, to his credit, says, “I will not look away; and neither will my country.”

One cannot predict what a candidate will do once elected president. If he does win, Romney may well disappoint many of those who cheered his remarks yesterday. But the one thing he did establish was that he has a fundamental understanding of the moral aspects of Israel’s defense policy and the nature of the Iranian regime that threatens the Jewish state. Veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller wrote last week that President Obama is more like Jimmy Carter and unlike those presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who were “in love with the idea of Israel.” Whatever happens in the coming years, it’s clear Romney “gets” Israel–and Barack Obama does not.

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