Who Is Aharon Lichtenstein?

Introducing the extraordinary rabbi who next week will receive Israel’s highest honor.
Who Is Aharon Lichtenstein?
 
Observation
Elli Fischer
April 30 2014 4:00PM

Among this year’s recipients of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, is the eminent thinker and educator Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. To those many Jews in Israel and elsewhere who are acquainted with or have been touched by his life and work, this award, to be conferred on May 6, Independence Day, will signify one of those rare instances when government committees get things right.

In America, where he was raised and educated, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s name is bound to resonate much more faintly. Within the Orthodox community, it may be familiarly known that he is the leading sage of “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy; that he holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard; that he is clean-shaven; and that he is the son-in-law of Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the towering figure widely regarded as the founder of modern Orthodoxy. In other Jewish circles, most will have never even heard of him. In mentioning his name a few years ago, the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg cited “Orthodox informants” to the effect that the rabbi was “quite the genius of Jewish law” and a “great dude of halakhah.”

With this in mind, my goal here is less to summarize his achievement, a daunting and ultimately futile task, than to offer a portrait of the man sufficient to motivate readers to learn more. (A place to begin might be the online bibliography of his myriad published essays, books, and lectures.)

 

Aharon Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933. Eight years later, his family fled Vichy France to the United States on visas arranged by the courageous American diplomat Hiram Bingham, Jr. After brief stops in Baltimore, where the young boy was already recognized as a prodigy of traditional learning, and then Chicago, they settled in New York in 1945. There he entered a yeshiva before his bar mitzvah and subsequently went on to undergraduate studies and rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University (YU). The following years, spent studying English literature at Harvard, were crucial to the development of his particular strain of religious humanism; Boston also afforded the opportunity to study closely with his future father-in-law.

Upon returning to YU in a teaching capacity, Rabbi Lichtenstein oversaw the rabbinical school’s program for its most advanced students. Then, in 1971, he accepted an offer to join with Rabbi Yehuda Amital in heading a new yeshiva south of Jerusalem in the Etzion Bloc (in Hebrew, Gush Etzion, with Gush pronounced goosh as in “push”). He has been there ever since. Formally known as Yeshivat Har Etzion but universally called “the Gush,” the school represents his (and Rabbi Amital’s) vision for the role of the yeshiva as a unique educational institution within Jewish society; it is perhaps his greatest legacy.

Increasing in stature and influence over the decades, the Gush and its satellite initiatives are famous for providing an open, intellectually curious, and non-dogmatic alternative to other Israeli yeshivas. This is no accident; having spent virtually his entire adult life within the yeshiva world, Rabbi Lichtenstein believes that, properly conceived and managed, these schools can be places not only for single-minded devotion to talmudic excellence but also for the development of moral character and leadership. In his holistic vision, the moral goal is not self-mastery or ascetic self-discipline (as in some yeshivas of old) but, to the contrary, well-roundedness and other-directedness.

The same moral vision explains Rabbi Lichtenstein’s readiness to cite sources outside the Jewish tradition that, even as they complement and support the uniquely Jewish system of values and virtues, are reminders that immersion in Torah must not come at the expense of universal responsibilities. The thinkers to whom he regularly returns—Matthew Arnold, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and F. H. Bradley, to name only a few—are precisely those who best articulate how to combine a life of devotion with fruitful engagement in the outside world, an alien and sometimes problematic reality.

Of course, this is not to say that moral and religious development takes priority in his mind over his students’ intellectual growth and erudition. For one thing, he views the two spheres not as distinct but as interrelated. For another and more important thing, Rabbi Lichtenstein is staunchly within the Lithuanian rabbinic tradition that views Talmud study as the ultimate religious act, a merging of the minds of God and man.

As a talmudist, Rabbi Lichtenstein is a proponent of the “Brisker” method, for which his wife’s family is renowned. In this pedagogical approach, legal disputes or contradictions within the Talmud may be understood by analyzing the logical or “conceptual” underpinnings that account for the divergent rabbinic rulings under examination. In Rabbi Lichtenstein’s hands, the method has been further abstracted so that it can be employed at the very outset of any exercise in talmudic analysis.

Brisker-type interrogations thus become hermeneutical keys, to be tested in a variety of settings. Does a given rule require the attainment of a particular result, or does it mandate a specific act? Is a particular rabbinic enactment an expansion of a biblical law, or a separate institution? Does a speech-act hinge on the technical or the commonsense meaning of the words uttered? Taking the metaphor of “key” questions still further, Rabbi Lichtenstein has spoken of developing a “key ring”: the more keys on a student’s ring, the more talmudic “locks” can be opened, and the larger and more complex become the conceptual structures within which one assimilates talmudic data.

This mode of discourse can be discerned in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s non-legal thinking as well. His treatment of “The Universal Duties of Mankind,” for example, begins with Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it (l’ovdah) and to guard it (l’shomrah).” He then abstracts these two verbal charges as fundamental yet distinct and often competing categories of mankind’s duties toward the world, to which the remainder of the essay is devoted:

Here we have two distinct tasks. One, “l’shomrah,” is largely conservative, aimed at preserving nature. It means to guard the world, to watch it—and watching is essentially a static occupation, seeing to it that things do not change, that they remain as they are. This is what Adam was expected to do, and part of our task in the world is indeed to guard that which we have been given: our natural environment, our social setting, our religious heritage. . . .

At the same time, there is the task of “l’ovdah” (to cultivate it), which is essentially creative: to develop, to work, to innovate.

I think that we would not be stretching things too far if we were to understand that this mandate applies far beyond that particular little corner of the Garden where Adam and Eve were placed. What we have here is a definition of how man is to be perceived in general.

This example also typifies another salient feature of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s oeuvre: a frank acknowledgment of the tension and equivocation between competing claims. Numerous demands are made on one devoted to the path of Torah, demands that must be ordered within a hierarchy of values and then implemented in life. Neglect of even a trivial demand can denote failure to maintain proper balance, a flaw in one’s discharge of his duties. In an essay in this vein, Rabbi Lichtenstein articulates the desired ordering of study of Torah with the duty to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

 

Clearly, the resulting approach to life is itself very demanding. But it can also be characterized as both moderate and balanced: moderate not because it shuns extremes, but because it embraces competing extremes; balanced not because it stands on many legs at once but because it seeks a subtle equilibrium that will allow one to remain upright amid the swirl of external forces.

It is also an approach that countless students have found inspiring and life-changing. And that is because Rabbi Lichtenstein, in addition to being its master exponent, is also its greatest role model. Far from flamboyant or charismatic, he is shy and unpretentious to the point of sometimes seeming aloof. But that impression is deceptive: a video produced in honor of his 80th birthday includes footage in which he is pictured doing the dishes, in a rowboat, playing with his children and grandchildren. The canonical stories about him do not recount his genius or erudition but his humility: answering the yeshiva’s public phone with a simple “Aaron speaking,” or, after students in an army classroom have all fallen asleep, continuing an involved talmudic lecture so as to allow them to get some much-needed rest.

Such stories abound. They may help to explain why, in the end, his many disciples can only describe him by speaking personally of what he has meant to them. And so I will now proceed to do.

In recent years, the Orthodox spirit in Israel and the U.S. has suffered shock after shock. Leading and respected rabbis have been exposed as frauds, bigots, or manipulators entangled in political jockeying for plum appointments. Other renowned figures have been revealed as racists, plagiarists, protectors of sexual predators, abusers of power. Intellectual and moral lightweights have promoted themselves as Orthodoxy’s exponents and arbiters, influencers and opinion-makers.

All this has had a traumatic effect. Every saint who turns out to be a sinner further erodes the bulwarks of religious commitment. Was it, we wonder, only ever thus? Were our revered rabbis and sages always so petty, self-absorbed, and power-hungry?

On May 10, 2013, among the 1,500-some students who gathered to celebrate Rabbi Lichtenstein’s 80th birthday with him, I experienced a powerful restorative of my faith in God and in the Torah transmitted to us through the generations. To adapt a Shakespearean tag favored by Rabbi Lichtenstein (though never to describe himself), I was reminded that one figure doth bestride this phalanx of fallen saints and discredited chief rabbis like a colossus, his erudition fully matched by his humility and humanity, and by the harmonious balance and wholesomeness of his life. Such multifaceted greatness is wholly unattainable by me, but acquaintance with it helps me believe that such paragons of service to the Almighty have existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future.

This may seem a strange basis for faith. Can one’s faith in God and in the halakhic tradition really be rooted in love and reverence for a human being? Is it appropriate for a fellow human to be treated as an object of reverence in the first place?

According to the Talmud (Pesahim 22b), the answer is yes: reverence for Torah scholars is indeed an extension of reverence for God, their greatness being a reflection and refraction of His. The same idea is developed in a 1996 article by Rabbi Lichtenstein himself.

The article is about his mentors, and he begins by quoting the first line of Matthew Arnold’s sonnet “To a Friend”: “Who prop, thou ask’st in these bad days, my mind?” About this formulation of Arnold’s he comments that, “In my case, at least, the critical factor is indeed ‘who’ rather than ‘what,’” and he proceeds to describe how three men—Rabbis Aharon Soloveichik, Yitzhak Hutner, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik—constitute, in part, the source and grounding of his faith in God and the Jewish tradition.

As for my own feelings of gratitude toward Rabbi Lichtenstein, they are well expressed in another passage in Arnold’s poem:

But be his/ My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul/ . . . saw life steadily, and saw it whole.

The same feelings are expressed, most beautifully, in words of the Psalms (84:6) that in the original are clearly addressed to God. In singing them, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students are altogether right to have in mind, as well, their peerless guide and mentor:

Ashrei adam oz lo bakh

Fortunate the person who finds strength through you. 

______________________

Elli Fischer lives in Israel. A writer and translator, he can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.  From 1998 20 2002, he studied for rabbinical ordination in Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s institutions. 

More about: Aharon Lichtenstein, Har Etzion, Israel Prize, Rabbi, Yeshiva University

 

The Most Complicated Character in the Bible

It isn’t Moses, despite the four books devoted to his adventures—it’s Abraham. Why?

The Most Complicated Character in the Bible
From Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan, 1850, by the Hungarian artist József Molnár. Wikiart.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Oct. 31 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Abraham’s journey over the course of his life, the rises and falls, trials and errors, loves and losses, is the single most complex relationship with the Almighty charted in the Pentateuch. Surely—I hear you say—Moses has a whole four books devoted to his adventures! Well, yes and no. Moses is not really the hero of those adventures. After the exodus, his story is more about the prolonged exercise of trying to pound Torah into the easily distracted heads of the Jews than about himself and his relationship with God.

What is the central theme of Abraham’s story? I would argue that it is his learning not to be afraid, and learning to love God. And learning isn’t easy.

And God said to Avram, Go your own way,
from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house
to the land that I will show you: and I will make you a great nation
and bless you and magnify your name and you will be a blessing:
but I will bless your blessers and curse your cursers
and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.

The promises sound nice, but—as we read in this week’s portion of Lekh Lekha—Abraham must uproot his family. When he arrives in Canaan, he is but a migrant; it is his descendants, not he, who will inherit the land. Then things get worse: there is a famine, and Abraham must leave Canaan for Egypt. Afraid that his wife’s beauty will cause him problems in a hostile country, he has her identify herself as his sister. The plan backfires: Pharaoh has her taken to his house, and woos her by giving Abraham lavish gifts of livestock. Fortunately, God retaliates by striking Pharaoh and his household with a plague; the truth about Abraham and Sarah’s relationship is revealed; and the two leave Egypt. They’re even able to bring the livestock with them.

A little later on in this week’s reading, God appears to Abraham again, this time with a warning:

After these things the speech of God to Avram was in a vision to say,
Do not fear, Avram, I will protect you, your reward will be very great.
But Avram said, Lord God, what shall You give me
as I make my way childless
and Eliezer of Damascus runs my household;
for Avram thought, Look, to me You have given no descendant
and now my only household member shall inherit me.
But now the word of God to him was to say, This one shall not inherit you; rather, who comes from your loins shall inherit you.
And He took him out and said, Please look at the sky
and count the stars if you can count them,
and He told him, Your descendants will be like them,
and he believed in God and thought Him just.
But he said to him, I am God who brought you out of the Chaldean furnace
to give you this land to inherit.
And he said, my Lord God, how shall I tell that I’ll inherit it?

To Abraham’s repeated doubts, God responds by having him bring a sacrifice, a kind of ritual handshake to ratify the covenant, and then delivers another prophecy:

And as the sun was about to set a trance fell over Avram
and here was the terror of a great eclipse falling over him.
And He told Avram, Know beyond all knowing
that your descendants shall be migrants in someone else’s country
and they’ll belabor and torment them four hundred years.

Which is suddenly a rather different proposition from the open-ended promises of boundless progeny. The promise of your children being enslaved for four centuries before you acquire the title deeds? Why the price tag? There is not a word in justification, though Abraham’s terror is palpable and the vision of the furnace and the torch suggest a much more binding arrangement than any of his previous conversations with the Almighty.

Then Sarah, who has not been privy to all these promises, takes matters in hand and gives him her Egyptian maid, Hagar, hoping to “perhaps be established by her.” The plan, however, is too successful:

And he came unto Hagar and she conceived
and she saw she had conceived
and her mistress appeared cursed in her eyes:
and Sarai told Avram, I’ve been robbed by you,
I myself put my maid in your arms
and she saw she had conceived and I’m cursed in her eyes.
Let the Lord judge between me and you.
But Avram said to Sarai, Here’s your maid
in the palm of your hand, do with her as you see fit.
And Sarai tormented her and she fled from before her.
But the angel of the Lord came upon her by the desert water spring. . .
And the angel of the Lord told her: Go back to your lady
and be tormented under her thumb.
And the angel of the Lord told her,
I will manifoldly multiply your descendants
And they will be beyond count.
And the angel of the Lord told her,
You are with child and will bear a son
and you will call him Ishmael
because the Lord listened to your torment.
But he will be a desert man
with a hand against everyone and everyone’s hand out for him.

The reading ends with another encounter between Abraham and the Almighty, in which God announces that the mark of His contract will be on Abraham’s flesh and the flesh of all his descendants, so Abraham and Ishmael and all of Abraham’s household are circumcised. He also tells him that Sarah will bear him a son and that this son alone will actually inherit. But Abraham just laughs and asks Him to look out for Ishmael.

 

If you stopped reading here, you’d find the flight of Hagar to the desert upsetting—but you’d get over it, and there is more to come. But has Abraham learned anything? He keeps on asking for proof; he wants to know how he will inherit the land, he doesn’t believe Sarah will bear him a son. There was no miracle involved in Hagar’s bearing him a child—she’s a young woman. In essence, Abraham still doesn’t quite believe the Lord controls every part of his reality.

His education is completed in next week’s reading, Vayera, where Abraham migrates through the Negev and settles in the kingdom of Grar. He tells King Avimelekh that Sarah is his sister—with predictable results: Sarah is kidnapped. God scares Avimelekh off, but unlike Pharoah, Avimelekh is indignant. Abraham’s lie has almost made him an unwitting adulterer:

And Avimelekh called Abraham and said, “What have you done to us?
And how have I sinned against you that you brought
on me and on my kingdom this great sin?
Things which are not done you’ve done to me.
And Avimelekh said to Abraham, What have you seen that you did this thing?
And Abraham said, Only because I said, There is no fear of God in this place
and they will kill me over the matter of my wife. . . .
And Abraham prayed to God and God healed Avimelekh.

If you fell asleep in synagogue, you could be forgiven for waking up suddenly in the middle of Vayera and thinking, “What week is this? Didn’t Abraham do this last week?” Yes, here we are again: another trip, another worry, another powerful man taking Sarah away. Did Abraham learn anything? Well, no.

What finally changes this time is that Abraham is called out on his fear and has to justify it. And how does he justify it? “There is no fear of God in this place”—this alone was enough to make him feel unprotected, abandoned. He is alone there in fearing God.

But he is not alone; God is with him. And it is only when two things change in Abraham that his relationship with the world is transformed as well. The first change is that he stops fearing. The second is that he turns outward, and prays for Avimelekh in order to restore the wrong that he has inadvertently caused him. Earlier, he didn’t pray for Pharaoh’s wounds to be healed; he just got up and got out, pronto. But now he is willing to be connected, even to people not under his control.

Abraham has finally absorbed the fact that, whatever things may look like, he is not alone. And when he finally sees that and no longer lives in fear of the world, his embrace of Sarah, whose beauty he both loves and fears, ceases to be guarded. When Abraham is connected to the world and not afraid of it, God’s promise of a child through Sarah, a child through whom the blessing will be transmitted, can be fulfilled. In the next chapter, Sarah gives birth to the promised son.

 

Meanwhile, what about Ishmael? He still presents a problem:

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian
that she bore for Abraham making fun.

Once again, you can get a feeling of déjà vu. Sarah throws Hagar out—this time, with Ishmael—Hagar finds herself in a wilderness, and an angel appears to her with a prophecy about her son.

Sarah’s demands after Isaac is born and weaned and she wants his rival removed are legitimate, but the medieval commentators struggle nonetheless to justify her actions. Some, giving up, find in them the cause for the prophecy of 400 years of slavery. Nahmanides in the 13th century pins it squarely on Sarah’s torment of Hagar: “Our matriarch Sarah sinned by this torment, and so did Abraham by letting her do so, and the Lord heard her torment and gave her a son who would be a wild man to torment Abraham’s descendants and Sarah with all sorts of torments.”

David Kimhi (1160-1235) puts it in a larger moral context:

Sarah did not act in this with either the quality of virtue or the quality of kindness. Not virtuously—since for all that Abraham waived his dignity and told her, ‘Do with her as you see fit,’ she should have stayed hand out of courtesy to him and not tormented her. And not in the quality of kindness and a good soul—because it isn’t fitting for one to do all in his power with what’s under his control. As the wise man said, how gracious is forgiveness at a time of power! And what Sarah did was not good in the eyes of the Lord, just as the angel told Hagar, “the Lord heard your torment” and recompensed her with a blessing in lieu of her torment.

Rashi, the most universally quoted of medieval commentators, parses the word innui, torment, as meaning that Sarah had herself enslaved Hagar. But whether or not this was indeed the cause of the Egyptian slavery (the Almighty never explains), this is the point in Jewish history where all the slavery begins. When Abraham’s great-grandchild is sold into slavery in Egypt, it will be through the agency of Abraham’s descendants the Ishmaelites. That same great-grandson, Joseph, will in turn teach Pharaoh to enslave all of Egypt, before Pharaoh finally enslaves the Jews.

Incidentally, one thing you do come away with from these stories is the power of female prophecy, the force of a mother’s influence—quite independent of the mission promoted by God through the (largely male) prophets. Hagar, lost in the desert with her son, receives a second prophecy of her own:

And she went and she got lost in the desert of Beer Sheva
and the water ran out in the wine sack
and she lay the boy under one of the shrubs
and she went and sat herself down opposite
about two bow flights away
for she said, I can’t bear to watch the boy die,
and she sat opposite and raised her voice and wept.
But God heard the voice of the lad
and God’s angel called Hagar from the heavens
and said to her, What ails you Hagar?
Have no fear for God listened to the lad
wherever he may be. Get up, carry the boy
and hold him by the hand for I’ll make a great nation out of him.
And God opened her eyes and she saw
a water well and she went and filled the wine-sack
and she gave the lad something to drink.
And God was with the lad and he grew up and settled in the desert
and became a master archer.

The story of Hagar’s terrible exile in the desert is read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah as a model of crying out to God and being heard; but it is a dark model. Hagar goes into the desert, driven out by Sarah’s divinely sanctioned imperative that Isaac will be the true Abrahamic heir. Hagar doubts the Lord’s promise to her and despairs. But even in her despair, when she walks two arrow flights away, her prophecy shapes her son’s life: an archer is what he becomes. The son she lets go of spends his life firing arrows to fill the space she opened up between them.

 

So what did Abraham learn, and did he learn it too late?

God gave Abraham several prophecies: that he would make him a great nation, that his descendants would be too numerous to count, and that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. You could say the birth of Ishmael was a mistake, due to Sarah’s lack of faith, but God doesn’t make mistakes. When Abraham partially accepts God’s promise, his promised blessing partially arrives in the form of Ishmael, whom God does make into a great nation.

It is only when Abraham learns to give up fear that he becomes a true force in the world, a force both in his intimate space and in the desert he roams and tries fruitlessly to control. Only when he renounces fear does his spiritual legacy go out beyond him, into Sarah and from Sarah into Isaac. And from Isaac, after many more travails, the blessing goes out to cast light in the world.

But it is hard going. And if it was a hard lesson to teach Abraham, the most God-fearing of men, it becomes only harder as the Lord tries, over the length of four more books, to teach it to Abraham’s divinely-touched but fearful and always skeptical progeny.

More about: Abraham, Hagar, Lekh Lekha, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

What Does the Future Hold for Ukraine's Jews?

A first-hand report on the refugees from the war-torn towns of eastern Ukraine.

What Does the Future Hold for Ukraine's Jews?
Jewish WWII veteran Solomon Flaks, 87, tells his story at the Menorah Jewish Center in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine on March 14, 2014. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.
 
Observation
Oct. 28 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Dovid Margolin writes on international affairs for Chabad.org and is the director of Hebrew literacy at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute in New York.


The light-haired customs official in Kiev inspected my American passport. As I quickly presented myself as a Russian-speaker, he looked up and asked where my Russian came from.

“My parents are from Moscow,” I replied, realizing as I said it that my father’s birthplace was now the capital of Ukraine’s enemy.

“Why are you speaking Russian here?” the agent retorted. “This is Ukraine.”

My father was born in Moscow and my mother in Leningrad, but my grandparents are mostly from Ukraine; my grandfather was born and raised in Uman, western Ukraine. As war rages in eastern Ukraine, creating the greatest Jewish refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and as the Ukrainian economy continues to falter, drying up desperately needed sources of income for Jewish communities that have thrived since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I wanted to see for myself how its Jews were faring.

For the last months I’ve been covering Ukrainian Jewry for Chabad.org, the website of the worldwide hasidic movement. Since the fall of Communism, Chabad-Lubavitch has devoted substantial resources to bringing its message to the Jews of the former Soviet Union and establishing Jewish institutions there. Unlike in the U.S., where Chabad operates alongside mainstream denominations, in Ukraine it frequently occupies the center of organized Jewish life. Often a Chabad emissary is a city’s only rabbi. Thus, many Jews active in communal life have some affiliation with Chabad, even if they themselves are not members of the movement.

Since February, when 100 protesters were killed at Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, Russia has invaded and annexed Crimea, violence has rocked major Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv and Odessa, and Russian-backed separatists have taken control of a large swath of eastern Ukraine, leading to war. Meanwhile, pro-Russian separatists—or Russian soldiers—used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down an airliner, killing 300.

In short, instead of getting better, as everyone had expected, the situation in Ukraine has gotten worse. My task as a journalist went from writing about the Jewish community during a time of general unrest to reporting on the deaths of a young Jewish woman and her mother in Luhansk, felled by a mortar round as they went out to buy some groceries, leaving behind a four-year-old boy.

 

Back in April, I had spoken with Rabbi Pinhas Vishedski, the Chabad emissary in embattled Donetsk, just after masked men handed out fliers in the synagogue demanding that Jews register at a central office. At the time, he was optimistic, denouncing the pamphlets and stating that the Jewish community would remain until the situation calmed down. (It turned out that the fliers were the work of an anti-Russian group aiming to make the separatists look bad.) But when I arrived in mid-September, his outlook had changed. The Vishedskis and their community were now refugees in Kiev, planning a Rosh Hashanah-in-exile with the help of 40 pounds of gefilte fish that I’d brought at the request of the rabbi’s wife.

According to the UN, the war in eastern Ukraine has displaced at least one million people, with Ukraine absorbing about 300,000, of whom 18,000 are thought to be Jews. (Overall Ukrainian Jewish population figures are difficult to pin down, with estimates ranging from 70,000 to more than a quarter-million.) These numbers do not include the untold thousands who have not registered as internally displaced persons. Refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk with whom I spoke told me they saw little purpose in registering.

“I can go fill out government forms that we’re refugees, but what’s that going to help?” asked Galia from Donetsk, thirty-four, as we sat together with her older sister Marina in their tiny apartment on Kiev’s left bank. Eight people live in the apartment’s two rooms, and children ran in and out of the sun-filled kitchen. “It’s a lot of effort for basically nothing in return.”

Galia’s son attends a Jewish school, but otherwise she and her sister receive no support from government or civic organizations. In fact, none of the refugees I met with has received any government help. With landlords suspicious of penniless exiles from the east, many try to hide their status. When refugees flooded the southern port city of Mariupol, rents tripled overnight.

I met Shaul Melamed, thirty-six, in the small basement café of Kiev’s Brodsky synagogue. A programmer from Donetsk who works for an American company, Melamed led his family out of Donetsk in mid-June, thinking, like many of his neighbors, that they would return before summer was over. Now he plans to stay in Kiev indefinitely, but he still hopes he won’t have to abandon his home—an apartment he had just purchased in the center of Donetsk—for good.

“If a government of bandits stays, then we won’t return,” Melamed told me, referring to the self-proclaimed, pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). “I need to work, and I need to live in a place with a normal government and working banks, I can’t live behind an iron curtain. I never gave assistance to Ukrainian forces, but I didn’t hide my views in support of Ukraine, either. If I returned they could easily arrest me.”

Melamed does not fear Ukrainian anti-Semitism, despite the presence of far-right political parties in the central government. Instead, he told me stories of anti-Semitism among the leaders of today’s DPR. In 2004, when they first appeared on the scene as opponents of the Orange Revolution, “they had all sorts of anti-Semitic slogans. When this is done, I’m sure they’ll all come back.”

 

In Kiev, there is little sign that a war is raging a few hundred miles to the east. People go to work, sit in cafes, stroll along the city’s wide and twisting boulevards. The ubiquitous yellow-and-blue patriotic signs are the only visible hint that momentous events are afoot. Yet economic instability is felt everywhere; in the last year, the Ukrainian currency has lost almost 40 percent of its value.

As a result, Jewish communities that had long supported themselves independently are now, in exile, being forced to scrounge for money. Several rabbis told me that they are struggling to meet their financial obligations.

“Until the current situation we always stood on our own feet,” said Donetsk’s Vishedski. “We have a board that has supported us for years. Unfortunately not all the board’s members are able to give now, although others have stepped forward and increased their gifts.” For a community that has experienced months of exploding rockets and constant shelling at home, and whose members have fled for their lives often with little more than the clothes on their back, the paucity of outside help is shocking.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has worked assiduously on behalf of Ukraine’s Jews, funding Chabad-run refugee camps and paying for food packages and stipends to be distributed throughout the affected areas. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has also set up its own camps. But, while local Jewish federations in the United States are collecting money for the JDC, the sums so far are nowhere near what’s required, and much is not even reaching the synagogues, schools, and social-service organizations of the Jewish communities themselves. “The situation is desperate,” Vishedski told me. “We needed money not today but yesterday.”

 

What’s true of Kiev is also true of the other two cities I visited on this trip, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. In the former I met a forty-nine-year-old woman, Irina, who had fled Luhansk with her husband after a Grad rocket fell near their home for the second time, destroying four neighboring houses. She had received assistance from the JDC and from the Fellowship, for which she was very grateful, but now she was staying in someone’s vacation home on the outskirts of Kharkiv with no heat or plumbing. Winter is rapidly approaching, and she worries how she will survive.

In Kharkiv, the Jewish community, led by Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, has taken in dozens of families; at least ten are staying at the yeshiva building and another five at the camp grounds outside the city. With a towering dome that is a city landmark, Kharkiv’s Choral Synagogue is often the first stop for refugees, the place where they come to ask for help or to be given a plate of hot food. No one is turned away.

“We currently do not have the money here even to cover our budget,” Moskovitz told me, stressing that they had received no assistance from outside Jewish sources.  Since the crisis began, energy prices in Ukraine have risen dramatically. To make matters worse, the government recently revoked a law exempting religious organizations from paying for gas. Pointing up at the synagogue’s domed ceiling, he wondered aloud whether he will be able to heat the massive space.

I spent the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah in Kharkiv. On Sunday morning Tolik, a thirty-two-year-old regular at the synagogue, drove me the three hours to Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third largest city. We passed roadblocks manned by either highway police or Ukrainian soldiers, one of the only vivid signs of something big going on farther down the road.

Tolik is mostly preoccupied with supporting his family and expanding his taxi business, something he says he was able to do while Viktor Yanukovich was president (2010-2014) and the country was stable. “He could have built himself his own private Monaco for all I cared,” said Tolik, referring to Yanukovich’s lavish mansion that was discovered after he fled the country. “I was making more money and was planning to hire another driver to work for me.”

Tolik does not believe Ukrainian Jews have much of a future. “I know that I’m a Jew and I’m lucky that I can always leave for Israel or somewhere else. If I need to leave I’ll just go there. It would just be better to leave when times are good and not have to flee.”

Across the central bridge over the Dnieper River, Dnipropetrovsk’s skyline came into view. Straight ahead of us rose the seven-tower, 22-story Menorah Center. The building is so tall that aircraft-warning lights flash from its roof. Inside are a Holocaust museum, a concert hall, two hotels, two convention halls, kosher restaurants, and numerous Jewish and non-Jewish offices—testimony, all in all, to a burgeoning Jewish life in Ukraine that stood in stark contrast to Tolik’s dire premonitions.

The man behind Dnipropetrovsk’s Jewish revival is Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki. Coming to the city in 1990 as a Chabad emissary, he has benefited greatly from its two billionaire Jewish oligarchs: Gennady Bogolyubov, who also serves as president of the Jewish community, and Igor Kolomoyski, now the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region; the two jointly funded the $100-million Menorah Center, completed in 2012. Dnipropetrovsk is unique in that all of the Jewish organizations, and there are dozens of them, work under Kaminezki’s umbrella. The JDC, the Israeli consulate, and an Israeli cultural organization are also housed in the gleaming Menorah Center.

Like Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk is awash in patriotic signs and slogans. Sitting in his office on the 18th floor of the Menorah Center, Kaminezki assures me that “there is no local support here for separatism.” Lenin’s statue in the center of the city is gone, and everyone from taxi drivers to businessmen sings the praises of Kolomovsky, the region’s strongly pro-Ukrainian governor. As for the future of the refugee Jewish communities now in town, Kaminezki and others are less sure. Two Jewish leaders told me privately that they don’t believe Luhansk’s 7,000 Jews will ever return to their destroyed city. Donetsk, however, being a larger city with a more robust economy, may be more likely to draw some of its former residents back.

 

Vladimir Putin and his supporters have been eager to paint the Ukrainian national movement as fascist and anti-Semitic. The movement does in fact contain some anti-Semites and even some neo-Nazis, but they are in the minority. Putin apologists also point to a long history of entanglement between Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Semitism. No small number of Ukrainian national heroes, from Bogdan Khmelnitsky in the 1640s to Stepan Bandera 300 years later, perpetrated horrifying massacres of Jews.

But most of those I spoke with feared Russian despotism far more than Ukrainian anti-Semitism. Indeed, as the veteran Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert has written recently, East European Jews in general may be better off in “a democratic independent state . . . steeped in nationalist ideology” than under a triumphant “Russian imperialism, even if it is tempered by a demonstrated opposition to anti-Semitism.”

Natan Khazin is a man who does not fit well into Moscow’s storyline. An Orthodox Jew who has associated himself with some of the most nationalistic elements of Ukraine’s pro-Western movements, he actively took part in armed standoffs with Yanukovich’s forces at Maidan. He now commands the Ukrainian military’s first drone unit and will soon deploy to the front lines near Mariupol.

“I tell my Ukrainian friends that I am fighting here so that the Ukrainians don’t make the same mistakes that we Jews made in Gaza,” Khazin tells me over the phone. “What is at stake here is not just the future of Ukraine but the future of Europe, maybe even the world.” Confident that Russia’s game, as he calls it, is coming to an end, he believes Ukrainian Jews will enjoy a long and prosperous future, not just as residents but as active citizens in Ukrainian society. “Eventually, peace will come to this land, and Jews will be a part of that.”

Time will tell.

More about: Eastern Europe, European Jewry, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin

 

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS

What does the upheaval in the Middle East mean for Israel’s territorial needs?

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS
An excerpt of a map showing threats to Israeli population centers from the West Bank. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
 
Observation
Oct. 22 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, is a former ambassador of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999) and the author of, among other books , Hatred’s Kingdom, The Fight for Jerusalem, and The Rise of Nuclear Iran.


How has the tumult in the Middle East affected the debate over Israel’s territorial requirements? For an answer, Mosaic approached Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who has long promoted the concept of defensible borders primarily as a means of meeting Israel’s security needs in the West Bank. Our exchange was conducted by email. 

Q. Before we get to the idea of “defensible borders” itself, can you begin by telling us about your involvement in it?  

A: I became immersed in this issue when I was serving as foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in the late 1990s. I was tasked with converting the IDF’s “Interests Map” for the West Bank into a form that could be presented to President Bill Clinton; I joined the prime minister for that presentation in the White House Map Room. Four years later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked me to condense the work for his meeting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush.

This formed the nucleus of what, starting in 2005, would become a series of monographs on the subject published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Copiously illustrated with maps and photographs, they featured essays by such prominent authors as Moshe Yaalon, now Israel’s defense minister, Yaakov Amidror, until recently Israel’s national security adviser, and Major General (ret.) Uzi Dayan. The latest edition in the series was released this year, by coincidence just prior to the Gaza war. [Mosaic linked to a number of chapters here Eds.]

Q. What was the original idea, and has it changed at all in light of regional developments over the years?

A: The idea was first put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon after the Six-Day War of 1967. As commander of the pre-state Palmah, Allon was one of the architects of Israel’s national-security doctrine, and had also been a mentor of Yitzhak Rabin. His essential point was, and is, simple enough: Israel must retain certain territories on the West Bank for its security.

Q: What about the Palestinians? That land, after all, is increasingly referred to as occupied Palestinian territory.

A: Let’s back up a bit. At present, no one has sovereignty over the West Bank. The last sovereign power there was the Ottoman Empire, which formally renounced its claim after World War I. The West Bank then became a part of British Mandatory Palestine, which was designated to become the Jewish national home. The 1948 Arab war to annihilate the newly established state of Israel ended with the West Bank in Jordanian hands, and there it remained until 1967. In June of that year, Jordan joined an Arab war coalition, led by Egypt, that was aimed explicitly at finishing the job begun in 1948. That war ended with Israel in control of territory on several fronts, one of which was the West Bank.

Because Israel had acted in self-defense in 1967, noted scholars of international law, including Stephen Schwebel, who later served as president of the International Court of Justice, and Eugene Rostow, a former dean of Yale Law School and Under Secretary of State in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, recognized its claims as stronger than those of any other party. Indeed, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the June 1967 war, affirmed that Israel was not required to withdraw fully from the West Bank or return to the pre-1967 lines, but rather was entitled to “secure and recognized boundaries” that were still to be determined through negotiation.

In short, the West Bank remains disputed territory to which both Israel and the Palestinians have claims. The West Bank is not “Palestinian” territory; there was no Palestinian state there prior to 1967, and the Palestinians never had sovereignty there. For its part, Israel has legal rights that need to be acknowledged, and security concerns that must be incorporated into any understanding of where the final borders will lie. One thing that Israeli prime ministers from Golda Meir to Benjamin Netanyahu have made clear is that Israel cannot withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines, which were a permanent invitation to attack—in a word, indefensible.

A: Are there Israeli experts who disagree with you? And have recent events, including in Gaza, strengthened their position or yours?

A: In the internal Israeli debate, some have argued that the whole concept of defensible borders has become outdated. In 1967, they remind us, the threat to Israel along its eastern front came from the combined strength of the armored and infantry formations of Syria and Jordan, plus an expeditionary force from Iraq. The IDF at the time was built around a small standing army that only gained full strength after the mobilization of reserves–which is why, if Israel were again to face a surprise attack, strategic depth was critical. It was in this environment that Yigal Allon put forward his plan.

And today? Israel remains a small country with a limited population base—certainly in comparison with its much larger neighbors—and there also remain real and persistent constraints on its ability to disperse its military capabilities. Critics of defensible borders like to point out that the constellation of hostile forces has changed markedly. The Syrian army has been badly degraded, the Iraqi army has been battered by war and domestic chaos, and Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel. Thus, they conclude, the danger of attack by large conventional armies is no longer. Of course there is terrorism, but that’s a different matter, and besides, the critics say, it’s not on the same scale as the previous threats faced by Israel.

My response is that, for at least the short term, the terrorist threat to Israel from the east is unlike anything we have seen before in terms of scale and character. Terror used to be conducted by small squads of three to five men who penetrated Israel’s borders in order to seize hostages or place explosive devices under vehicles or in public places. Today, organizations like the Islamic State (IS), in possession of robust weaponry that includes sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, have defeated whole divisions of the Iraqi army and confiscated vast amounts of equipment and money.

This year, operating with battalion-size formations, IS and its ideological cousin the al-Nusra Front have defeated Syrian armored forces and made deep inroads into the heart of Iraq. Despite recent setbacks thanks to American-led airstrikes, this is no mere tactical nuisance.

As for the longer term, no one can speak with any certainty. It’s true that, for the moment, a conventional assault by an existing state is unlikely. But the Middle East region is changing so dramatically before our eyes that Israel needs to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Q: Even without an army like IS’s, Hamas was able to smuggle weapons into Gaza and tunnel its way into Israel itself. Doesn’t that call into question the idea of defensible borders on the West Bank?

A: To the contrary. The war this summer disclosed the sheer size of the arsenal that Hamas had managed to build up over the years. But how did most of those weapons arrive? In withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel gave up a strip of land on the perimeter, called the Philadelphi Route, which had served to separate Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai. Thereafter, the number of tunnels under this route mushroomed, as did the quantity and quality of the weapons passing through them to Hamas and other groups.

On the West Bank, our outer perimeter is the Jordan Valley, which Israel controls. If Israel were to withdraw from the valley, weapons would flow to areas adjacent to Israeli cities.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Shoulder-fired missiles that can take down aircraft were found among the items smuggled into Gaza. No such weapons have been brought into the West Bank—yet. If they did get in, the security of Ben-Gurion airport would be placed at severe risk. To guarantee a demilitarized West Bank, then, Israel must retain the Jordan Valley, the functional equivalent of Gaza’s Philadelphi Route.

Q: Many commentators insist that, since Israel has such a strong army, it can afford to be more forthcoming with concessions and take greater risks for peace. 

A: We’ve just gone through the third Gaza war. The first time we withdrew from Gaza, it was said reassuringly that if Hamas failed to keep the peace, we could just re-invade and resume our control of the territory; what’s more, if attacked by even a single rocket, we would have international legitimacy to retaliate with the full power of the IDF.

We learned, painfully, that this was not the case. Israeli towns came under attack by Hamas rockets that were embedded in Palestinian civilian areas, making the effective use of Israel’s superior power much more difficult. Not only that, but after finally taking action in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel was pilloried by the Goldstone Report and faced international condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council. The same thing is happening now, in a diplomatic atmosphere that if anything is more hostile, and more solidly stacked against Israel, than before.

My conclusion: it’s far better for Israel not to put itself in a position in which its vulnerabilities invite aggression but it is unable to respond with power. Once again, strategic depth makes a difference.

Q: A final question. You argue that the Jordan Valley must be kept under Israeli control. Why can’t Israel agree to international peacekeeping teams instead of the IDF, as is often proposed?

A: Israel has always been reluctant to base its defense on international forces, and when it’s agreed to them it has suffered. Under challenge, such forces invariably back down or collapse. During the lead-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, President Nasser of Egypt demanded that the UN withdraw its peacekeeping force in Sinai. UN Secretary-General U Thant agreed to Nasser’s demand, thereby removing the lone buffer between Israel’s southern border and 90,000 massed Egyptian troops.

It used to be said that no one would ever dare attack international peacekeepers; the thought was just too outrageous to be entertained. That illusion has likewise been put to rest over the years. Overt acts of aggression can force UN peacekeepers to leave, while the mere threat of aggression has demonstrably compromised their neutrality or led to their being co-opted by enemy forces like Hizballah. Only the other week, on Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria, the al-Nusra front captured a contingent of Fijian soldiers from the UN Disengagement Observer Force and successfully held them for ransom. For all of these reasons, Israel’s position has always been that it cannot leave itself exposed, and must defend itself by itself.

As for the Jordan Valley, it’s worth remembering that, a month before his assassination in November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin declared in the Knesset that the future security border of Israel would be in the Jordan Valley, in the widest sense of that geographical term.

This is what’s meant by defensible borders. Until the lion lies down with the lamb, there is simply no alternative to them, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact.

More about: Dore Gold, interview, Israel, West Bank

 

The Silent Partnership

How the president has exploited the international campaign against IS in order to accommodate Iran.

The Silent Partnership
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with foreign defense ministers. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.
 
Michael Doran
Observation
Oct. 15 2014 5:00AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations on September 29, he had a number of concerns on his mind, but one stood out above the rest. He feared that President Obama was downgrading the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program. “To defeat [the Islamic State] and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power,” Netanyahu said in the most quotable line of his speech, “is to win the battle and lose the war.”

Netanyahu had good reason to sound the alarm. An examination of Obama’s recent moves in the Middle East reveals that he has exploited the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in order to increase cooperation with Iran in matters of regional security. Of course, administration officials dismiss any suggestion that they are “coordinating” with the Iranians militarily. In their next breath, however, they grudgingly concede otherwise—acknowledging, for example, that we provided advance notice to Tehran of the anti-IS coalition’s bombing plans in Syria. They also acknowledge opening “a quiet backchannel” to Tehran in order to “de-conflict” Iranian and American operations in Iraq.

Indeed, “de-conflict” is the favored euphemism of the moment. “No, we’re not going to coordinate,” Secretary of State Kerry said in reference to Iran’s client Bashar Assad and the military campaign against IS. “We will certainly want to de-conflict, . . . but we’re not going to coordinate.”

Too clever by half, this distinction is hardly lost on America’s traditional allies in the region, all of whom regard the Iranian alliance system, which includes Syria and Hizballah, as their primary enemy. Middle East media are replete with stories of backroom deals between Washington and Tehran. Given the enormous gap between what the Americans are claiming in public about Iran and what they are seen to be doing in private, even the false reports carry an air of plausibility.

No less a personage than Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently joked about the hypocrisy. Emerging from a hospital stay for surgery, he said he’d amused himself during his convalescence by keeping track of the lies of American officials who, while disclaiming any appeals for Iranian assistance, were privately begging for help. Even John Kerry, he delighted in adding, had approached the Iranian foreign minister with cap in hand—the very same Kerry who had piously announced “in front of the whole world, ‘We will not request help from Iran.’”

 

According to Khamenei, Iran has rejected all of the American requests. But Tehran has indeed permitted operational coordination—sorry, “de-confliction”—with the United States. In effect, Khamenei has set Iran up as America’s silent partner in the Middle East, and Kerry himself, at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, testified to the value the administration places on this partnership. Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio about glaring deficiencies in the American strategy against IS, Kerry offered a stunning defense. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on [IS],” he lectured Rubio. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”

Iran, in the administration’s view, should thus be seen as a force multiplier for the United States. This line of reasoning has a long history, as one can detect by reading between the lines of Leon Panetta’s new memoir, Worthy Fights. Panetta, who served Obama both as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, recounts how he and his colleagues on the National Security Council (NSC) fought with the president over the American endgame in Iraq. Urged by the NSC to reach an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for American troops to remain in the country, the president refused. Why? Obama, Panetta explained in a recent interview, nursed “the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on” the role of stabilizing Iraq.

Which others? Panetta did not specify, but Obama undoubtedly assumed that Iran, the obvious candidate, would see Iraqi stability as in its own self-interest. It was a severe miscalculation. The precipitous departure of the American forces, Panetta argues in his book, removed the United States as a bulwark against Shiite sectarianism and led ineluctably to the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis—developments that (as Panetta omits to point out) took place under the sheltering umbrella of Iranian power.

Later, when civil war broke out in Syria, Obama’s policy was similarly deferential to Tehran, and with similar consequences. In 2012, he rejected another unanimous recommendation of the NSC: this time, to aid the Syrian rebels. It was the same advice he’d received from America’s allies in the Middle East, who grew ever more insistent as it became clear that Iranian intervention was giving Bashar Assad the upper hand. But Obama held his ground and, in doing so, effectively recognized Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest and hence inviolate.

Of course, Obama has never described his calculus in such terms. But he has hinted at it—by, for example, expressing his opposition to American participation in a Sunni-Shiite “proxy war,” which is nothing if not a synonym for a war against Iran.

 

Impolitic recent statements by Vice President Joseph Biden testify further to the astounding bias in the Obama administration against America’s traditional friends in the Middle East. Discussing the Syrian civil war, Biden developed at length the theme that “our biggest problem is our allies”—even as, on the ground in Syria, coalition military operations against IS are indirectly strengthening those allies’ enemies, starting with Assad. In the words of an American official quoted in the New York Times, “It would be silly for [Assad’s forces] not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes. . . . Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centers.”

In the past, to assuage America’s allies who were angry at the pro-Iranian bias in U.S. policy, Obama pledged to build up the anti-Assad rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But he never really followed through on his pledge. Now he is playing the same tattered card in order to enhance the coalition against IS. But General John Allen, the commander of the coalition, has made the insincerity transparent by stating that training and equipping the FSA “could take years”—in other words, until after Obama has left office.

What would it take for Obama to change course? Here, Turkey has assumed the lead. If the American leader wants Turkey as a full-fledged ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted, then he must agree to oust Syria’s Assad. This demand places Obama in a difficult bind. If he fails to gain Turkey as a true partner, the coalition against IS will be hollow at its core. But he has explicitly dedicated himself to avoiding the kind of large-scale war that Turkey requires of him.

More to the point, meeting Turkey’s demand would also entail scuttling the administration’s silent partnership with Iran in Syria—a move that Tehran, for its part, would not take sitting down and might counter by, for instance, bringing Israel under attack. Indeed, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently revealed, Tehran has directly warned that efforts by the U.S. or its allies to topple Bashar Assad would place Israel at risk. Hizballah’s October 7 attack on Israeli forces, its first declared such operation since 2006, proves the seriousness of the threat.

And Iran has other means of retaliation as well, for instance by adopting an even more recalcitrant position in the current negotiations over its nuclear program. By all accounts, those negotiations are failing. With no agreement expected before November 24, the expiration date of last year’s interim deal, Khamenei can contemplate several possible courses of action. He might, for example, extend the interim deal in return for a reward in the form of further relief from sanctions. That would at least allow Obama to buy time. But what if Khamenei were instead to demand an even more exorbitant reward, or threaten to abandon negotiations altogether?

Either of those choices would deeply complicate Obama’s life, precisely at the moment when the war against IS grows ever more burdensome. Whatever Khamenei chooses, it is he, not Obama, who now holds the initiative.

In brief, our silent partnership with Tehran has simultaneously emboldened Tehran and other enemies and alienated our allies: the very same allies who are vital to subduing IS. In the meantime, that silent partnership not only has done nothing for us, it has considerably weakened our hand—and that of its main proponent, Barack Obama. Yet he shows no sign of considering alternative strategies. No wonder Netanyahu sounded the alarm in New York.

More about: Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Policy, Iran, Islamic State, Nuclear Bomb