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Redefining Progress


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent passionate address to the United Nations was very powerful and long overdue. Netanyahu’s words came the day after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s most recent senseless anti-Semitic rant, in which he once again dusted off the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to accuse the Jews of holding the international community within its nefarious clutches, while also recalling the infamous 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism.

[The Jews as a] small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks, and establish a new form of slavery, and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the U.S., to attain its racist ambitions.

Ahmadinejad’s UN diatribe took place just days after he again publicly denied the Holocaust, telling an anti-Israel rally in Tehran that “The Holocaust is a false claim, a fairy tale, used as a pretext for crimes against humanity.”

Netanyahu wasted little time getting right after Ahmadinejad. He challenged the Iranian president’s earlier Holocaust claim, and provided the General Assembly with one piece of evidence after another (including minutes from the 1942 Wannsee Conference and the original construction plans for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp), leaving the assembled delegates with little doubt of the atrocity that was the Holocaust.

I applaud Netanyahu for speaking so firmly on the issue. As a grandchild of survivors, whose grandmother’s left arm was permanently scarred by the infamous numerical tattoo that Netanyahu referenced, I can only begin to imagine the pain that Holocaust deniers bring to the Nazis’ victims.

That these survivors had to endure such unimaginable trauma is bad enough. That they have to hear others flippantly dismiss their life-shattering experiences as “a lie and a mythical claim” is almost too painful to bear. I thank Netanyahu for staring down the terrorist bully and calling his obscene bluff.

I also commend Netanyahu for calling out those delegates who gave Ahmadinejad an audience to spew his convoluted venom. (In addition to Israel and Canada, which had boycotted the speech entirely, only the delegations from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Argentina, Hungary, Costa Rica and Denmark left the hall during Ahmadinejad’s remarks. All others remained.)

More significantly, he challenged the very essence of the United Nations, a political entity that has failed miserably in its stated mission of fostering peace, respect and understanding among nations.

Netanyahu correctly declared that the jury was “still out” in that regard, that the UN has been far too passive in tolerating a “systematic assault on the truth,” with some members having time and again chastised victims of terror “rather than condemning the terrorists and their Iranian patrons.”

Despite the many positives Netanyahu generated with his speech at the United Nations, there were some aspects of his talk that troubled me deeply.

In his eagerness to frame the current Iranian regime as savage and backward, Netanyahu contrasted 21st century “civilization” (i.e., “those who sanctify life”) with 9th century “barbarism” (“those who glorify death”). He extolled the “exponential growth” of 21st century “progress,” with its inherent freedoms and technological advances, and declared that “the past [as represented by Iran] cannot triumph over the future.”

While I share Netanyahu’s optimism about the benefits of continued social and technological advancement, I strongly question his assumed connection between this form of “progress” and the civility that it automatically engenders.

One need not look any further than the aforementioned Holocaust and its Nazi perpetrators to see the potential outgrowth of misused “advancement.”

During the early part of the 20th century there was no country in the world more culturally advanced than Germany. Germany was a world leader in the arts and sciences; German universities and centers of learning were world renowned. Nevertheless, the nation collectively bought into Hitler’s hateful message and began down a path of terror and destruction never before known to man.

Of course, death, destruction and heinous behavior during the 20th century were far from the exclusive domain of the Nazis. Never before had humanity witnessed such a bloody era. Despite achieving its greatest strides in the areas of education, technology and scientific knowhow, humanity managed to inflict more damage on itself than ever before.

Rather than “sanctifying life,” world leaders caused the unnecessary deaths of tens of millions because they failed to combine the potential of their progress with a sincere concern for humanity.

More disturbing yet were Netanyahu’s generally secular views about life and human history.

Perhaps by using secular barometers to measure how we value and enhance life, Netanyahu was simply trying to establish a common ground with the other delegates, to impress them with Israeli accomplishments they could perceive and appreciate. Certainly, the long list of Israel’s achievements in the scientific and technological domains (“leading innovations in science and technology, medicine and biology, agriculture and water, energy and the environment”) is quite impressive.

But one might hope that as the leader of the Jewish state, Netanyahu would embrace a truer and more complete understanding of how we perceive the world and our significant, divinely mandated role within it.

Maybe it is asking too much from an irreligious head of state to expect him to acknowledge there is more to life than the humanistic aspirations he expressed. Perhaps he really does believe the Jews are just another nation, willing and able to make their fair contribution to the inexorable march of history. We, however, certainly cannot support that component of his address.

Rashi’s first commentary on the Torah (Bereishis 1:1) focuses on this very point. He states that the Torah began with the account of creation for one simple reason: “So that if the nations of the world were to say to Israel, ‘you are thieves, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations,’ [Israel) will say to them, ‘The whole earth belongs to God. He created it, and He gave it to the one that he found to be proper in His eyes.’ ”

We understand that we were given our precious land for a purpose. It is not simply to serve as a place of refuge for Jews fleeing persecution or even a homeland like all others. If that were the case, there would have been no need for us to conquer a land that was already occupied by other nations.

Instead, we were given the land of Israel because God intended for us to do something special with it, to develop it into a spiritual center from which to elevate all of humanity.

Hopefully, this more elevated view will soon be shared by all Israel, from the political leadership down, so that we can proudly and collectively embark on our true mission: to bring about the final redemption and with it the long-awaited fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”

And with that, we will finally be able to put the political farce that is the United Nations, as well as Ahmadinejad and his odious ilk, out of their collective misery.

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About the Author: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting (ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at info@impactfulcoaching.com.


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