On the day that Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was leaving for the United States to give what the Washington Post called “the most important speech of his life,” my grandchildren were watching Big Hero 6. When I heard the smallest of the animated characters say, “We didn’t set out to be super-heroes, but sometimes life doesn’t go the way you planned,” it sounded like the tagline for Bibi’s launch as hero of the free world.
Can such a hero prevail? Elected leaders of democratic societies can rarely rise to courage or bravery of heroic proportions because of the compromise it takes to get reelected and because critical electorates feel compelled to cut leaders down to their size. In his nine nonsuccessive years heading Israel’s government, Netanyahu has taken as much political firepower as Israel has from its enemies. Nonetheless, like the country he heads, Netanyahu has grown stronger in every round. Despite attacks against him from both sides of the Atlantic, he gave Congress one of the boldest speeches in its great history—a speech its audience knew was as consequential for America as it was for the Jews.
Heroism needs a theater of opportunity to demonstrate its engagement with evil. Alas, the real and present danger is not in dispute. Running for office in 2012, President Barack Obama declared Iran “a threat to our national security” and vowed that it “would not get a nuclear weapon.” The danger has since then dramatically increased as Iran directly and through its terrorist proxies now controls the territory from Iran and Iraq through Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean. Iran threatens America and Israel—the big and little Satan alike—but its boast that Israel will be “a one-bomb state” prompted Netanyahu to differentiate this week between the threats to America’s security and to Israel’s survival.
So it fell to the prime minister of Israel to explain the dangers the Obama administration’s proposed agreement with Iran posed “not only to Israel, but also [to] the peace of the entire world.” No doubt everyone would have preferred Netanyahu’s speech to be given by the commander in chief of the world’s superpower rather than by the leader of the Jewish state, if only because sooner or later American strength will be required to defeat the new super-threats. Even England could not defeat Nazism on its own. But the Talmud teaches, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man,” which Yiddish translates as being a mentsh, a worthy human being. In times of peril this apparently simple task may require heroic capacities. President Obama’s disinclination to identify let alone resist the forces of evil made it imperative for the prime minister of Israel to do so in his stead.
It was to be expected that as the son of a Jewish historian, Netanyahu would relate his appearance on the eve of Purim to events 2,500 years earlier, when a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. They were saved by courageous Queen Esther, who exposed the plot, persuaded the king to reverse Haman’s verdict, and won for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. “Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred . . . of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated—he tweets. You know, in Iran, there isn’t exactly free Internet. But he tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.” Enmity against the Jewish people remains oddly repetitive, and Netanyahu was claiming for the Jews of today the same right that Esther won to defend against their enemies.
A more familiar historical parallel than the one with ancient Persia is the one Netanyahu drew between radical Islam and radical Nazism that likewise targeted the Jews as warmup for the conquest of Europe. Depending on their points of view, commentators
on the current scene invoke Chamberlain at Munich as an augury of appeasement or Churchill before Congress after Pearl Harbor. The parallel is especially painful, not only because Elie Wiesel was sitting in the gallery to remind us of the missing third of the Jewish people but because of the similarities that persist despite Netanyahu’s stated confidence that “Israel will stand!”