A lesson from Kennedy to the Jews: Fight fear, not the Palestinians

Ha’aretz 16/01/12

The late U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address has been a source of inspiration for people across the globe. At a time when the world’s great powers were squaring off against each other, his speech empowered Americans to look toward a brighter future. One of the ideas encapsulated in the speech holds a special meaning for the Jewish people today:

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Intra-Jewish dialogue often breaks down when people wish to discuss the security situation within Israel. Whether internally within a Diaspora community or between those who are living in Israel and those who are not, the topic fractures the Jewish family.

It is very easy to see why; the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. To those living in Israel, all security decisions carry serious costs that they have to live with – it is their children who serve, their homes that are in range of the rockets, their economic future.

For those of us abroad, it is almost impossible to stay silent when we disagree with the decisions of the Israeli government. Due to the nature of Israel’s role in our Jewish identity, whether we are to the right or the left of the political spectrum, we feel an essential need to speak about their opinions. The concept of muzzling oneself is anathema to what it means to be a Jew.

Going back to Kennedy’s careful words I feel that there is a lesson for us as a people as we move forward. Kennedy was speaking at a time when many people feared for their future. His basic message was clear: fear can never be a motivator for negotiations, but neither can it be a barrier.

I have lost count of the number of times that we as a people have appealed to fear in order to justify our political position. Whether fear of demography, fear of changing tides within the Middle East, fear of isolationism or fear of a second holocaust, these fears are used as rhetorical engines to try and move people to support one political position or another.

As a people who have lived in exile for millennia it makes sense that fear is a motivator. We have been, for so much of our history, subject to the whims of others. Always a minority relaying on the protection of others, our fate was never truly of our own making. Fear was a major contributor of our decision-making.

Yet part of making the transition between an exiled people and a nation state is the realization of control. We no longer are passive in the face of events; we have the ability to change the world around us on a national scale, not just a personal one.

As a people with a rich history, a deep respect for learning and a religious moral code that either instructs or guides us (depending on where you fall on the religious spectrum), we have many tools to help us make important choices. As we make decisions that can affect our fate, we cannot allow fear to be the guiding factor.

As well as stiff-necked and argumentative, we have always been a learned people. As we examine from within Israel or from abroad, we need to stop trying to convince each other by appealing to fear of success or failure. Our achievement of national sovereignty should make Jewish fear as rationale for all actions a thing of the past.

With the abandonment of fear as the prime motivator for our discussions, we will create the necessary space to have a true dialogue based on values. Our rich tradition contains many lessons and principles that can help us make the hard decisions about our future in a way that is quintessentially Jewish.

Kennedy’s call was to a world at war with itself. Our interests and values matter more than the uncertainty of the future. His call was as true of the Cold War of the 1960’s as it is of the Middle East conflict of today.

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