Last week, on a wet and windy night in Manhattan, hundreds flocked into the beautiful main sanctuary of Kehillat Jeshurun to hear Nobel-laureate economist and Israeli citizen Robert (Yisrael) Aumann preach the word.
Unpretentiously, sporting an open shirt and a very long white flowing beard, Professor Aumann stood on the bimah (synagogue platform) and addressed us in perfect English. Here was a man who fled Nazi Germany when he was a teenager, found refuge and an education in America, then moved to Israel fifty years ago. Now he was back in New York to deliver a sobering message under the rubric of the Bella and Harry Wexner Distinguished Speakers Series on the occasion of Mrs. Wexner’s fifth yahrzeit.
Dr. Aumann is a plain-talker, slow, deliberate, occasionally funny, but easy to understand. He is also profound. While the audience was respectful, and very attentive, their applause was reserved. The hour was late, and many were in their 60’s, 70’s, even 80’s. Jews also have a long history of not wanting to listen to hard, prophetic truths. We love life, hate war, and want to live our lives in peace. We always hope things will get better, but we also know that they can be – and have sometimes been – a lot worse. We don’t always want to plan ahead.
For example, in 1980 I participated in a United Nations international conference in Copenhagen where Israel was demonized in unprecedented ways. The conference, which was supposed to have been about women, had been hijacked by a Soviet- and Arab-orchestrated campaign against Israel.
Afterward, I flew to Israel and was interviewed in all the major media about an emerging anti-Semitism. I returned home and met with many American-Jewish organizations. I proposed that they consider working on programs to combat the anti-Israel propaganda that would eventually overwhelm us. Everyone gave me a very polite, even warm, hearing, but it did not lead to anyone tackling the project.
Now here we are many years later, after Oslo, a second intifada, Gaza and Lebanon. Professor Aumann made no false promises, did not enumerate “ten easy steps to an immediate and lasting peace” that many Jews insist on hearing. What he did suggest was bracing, stoic, measured, challenging, useful – and therefore perhaps even hopeful.
Dr. Aumann got right to the point, saying what needed to be said with gravity and clarity. Although these last six years of the intifada have been very hard both for Israelis and for all who love Israel, this great man told them that our children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren will still be fighting for peace in the Middle East. Yes, peace will come – but not for a long time.
Dr. Aumann pointed out that “war is always with us, it’s a phenomenon, not a specific event.” He suggested that we study war as a “general phenomenon,” not war as it occurs in one place or another. He asked: “Can war be rational? His answer: “Yes. It is a mistake to say that war is irrational.”
In his view, “our Arab cousins and enemies” and their “shahids” are very “rational.” They know what they want and they are patient – they have all the time in the world. They are also “highly idealistic.” Treating them as “irrational madmen” is wrong.
Our enemies are motivated – we motivate them. “They want the Jews out. They believe they can accomplish this through violence and the cultivation of patience.” Dr. Aumann said that the expulsion of Jews, by Jews, from Gaza came about because of the anxious Jewish need for “peace now,” but that in his view, such anxiety and impatience led directly to the recent war in Lebanon, a war he believes Israel lost.
He is convinced there is no room for equivocation: The only way to bring about peace “is to convince our Arab cousins that we are not the Crusaders. We are here to stay. They must be convinced that we will not move, that we also have time. And even if we want peace in 10-20 years we have to change our policy now. Our people, not just our government, were all responsible for the expulsion and for each and every act of capitulation.’