Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy Jerusalem Day, President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I hope all is well.

Normally, I receive greetings from you in advance of Jewish holidays, but this year I did not notice any message in honor of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. This made me realize that I have been remiss; I should be taking the initiative of sending you greetings in honor of the milestones of my calendar.

I’ll bet that, like me, you watched the trailer for Iron Man 2 a few times. I’ll further bet that, even more than me, you felt vicarious pleasure in seeing Tony Stark stick it to Congress when he declared, “I did you a big favor – I have successfully privatized world peace!” to a round of applause.

I believe that you sincerely think you are doing the world a big favor in your attempt to unilaterally bring about peace in the Middle East by imposing an agreement upon the Jews, Arabs and other inhabitants of the region. After all, think of the lives, the money and the effort expended on solving this problem since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire!

And if the solution to ending this neverending battle requires the internationalization of Jerusalem, then so be it – right? Then there would be a real chance at peace – right?

But to me, Mr. President, the plan to render parts of Jerusalem judenrein, and to take the center of Jerusalem out of Jewish hands, is no favor. It is doomed to fail, and it is a stab in the heart of every Jew who believes in her heritage.

First, the obvious: It is doomed to fail. Terror existed long before Jews were able to live in East Jerusalem; Arab and Muslim animosity toward the West exists independently. Just ask the Chechens, or the bombers in Mumbai or Bali. Or ask Osama bin Laden when you find him – his campaign began not with Jerusalem, but with his hostility toward America-friendly Saudi Arabia.

And to the second point: Jerusalem is the heart of the Jew. To you this seems to be a matter of weighing life and security against a postage stamp-sized piece of land. You have not even bothered to make a trip to Israel to explain this to Jews there; you take it as obvious, apparently.

But that’s not what this issue means to me, and to millions of others.

Judaism teaches of two mountains: Mount Sinai where the Jews received their religious identity from Gd, and Mount Moriah where the Jews built their Temple to Gd. Mount Sinai had a one-time moment in the sun, and was never venerated by Jews thereafter. No Jews made pilgrimages to Mount Sinai. No Jews longed to see that place. But Mount Moriah remained sanctified for all time, in the hearts and writings of Jews of every generation for three thousand years.

From the sages of the Talmud in the Roman period, to Rabbi Saadia Gaon in 10th century Iraq, to Maimonides in Spain and Egypt in the 12th century, to Jews murdered by the Catholic Inquisition, to Rabbi Moshe Sofer of 18th century Hungary, Jews sang and prayed and lived the longing for Jerusalem. I'm sure you know that Jerusalem is a specific subject of prayer three times each day, and is also the subject of the blessing Jews recite after every meal. It has been so for thousands of years. It's a matter of basic identity.

I’m sure your advisors have told you about all this, and all of it has been outweighed by the desire to do us a favor - to privatize world peace and save lives, including my own.

But some things are more important to every human being than our own lives: Our children. Our spouses. Our identity. Our responsibility to other human beings, and to humanity in general. And our dignity, perhaps. Think of the soldier who jumps on a grenade, or the parent who slaves eighteen hours a day so that his children will get out of the slums, or the pauper who refuses to take a handout. We often sacrifice our lives for ideals.

My people has a long history of being slaughtered in the name of ideals, and this idealism is not a Jewish trait, it’s a human trait, and it should be comprehensible to all. Our heart means more than just the ability to live and breathe and eat and raise a family; our heart also means the ability to do all of those things as ourselves, true to our identities.

I woul never want to see anyone die for Jerusalem. I would never want to see any child, Jew or Arab, suffer the effects of war, when she could grow up in a healthy environment. I long to see the world promised by Isaiah, in which swords are rendered defunct.

In a sense, I, too, am Iron Man. As Tony Stark said, “The suit and I are one.” To follow the plot further, you may be right: The heart of the suit may be poisoning me. But don’t ask me to give up my heart and identity; I expect to keep both.

Happy Yom Yerushalayim, Mr. President. May we celebrate many more.