Inspiration

Rabbi Shimon and Garfunkel on the UN Vote

January 11, 2017

Throughout the Talmudic tractate of Shabbos, there is an ongoing debate between Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehuda regarding what’s called a davar sheino miskaven – something unintentional – with Rabbi Shimon considering such actions permissible on Shabbos and Rabbi Yehuda considering them prohibited. The prototypical example is found on page 29b. There is a Biblical prohibition against plowing on Shabbos. The question is, may one drag a bench across the yard even though it will likely make furrows in the dirt? Rabbi Yehuda says no: it’s plowing, even though such is not one’s intent. Rabbi Shimon permits it because, in his view, one’s intentions make all the difference.

Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehuda are consistent in this world view in other areas as well, as is clear from a story that is recounted a few pages later (Shabbos 33b). Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon were once talking. (Rabbi Yosi was there, too.) Rabbi Yehuda praised this Roman Empire for their great deeds, specifically that they established markets, bridges and bathhouses. Rabbi Shimon disagreed, saying that their accomplishments were far from altruistic. The markets were established to facilitate prostitution. The bathhouses were built so the Romans could indulge themselves. The bridges were built so they could collect tolls. In short, Rabbi Yehuda focused on the what and Rabbi Shimon focused on the why. (As an aside, when the Romans got wind of this conversation, Rabbi Yehuda was rewarded and Rabbi Shimon had to flee for his life, hiding in a cave for years. Yes, this Rabbi Shimon is the famous Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.)

Rabbi Shimon teaches us that intentions matter. I can’t help thinking about this when looking at the recent unpleasant developments in US-Israel relations. As everyone reading this is no doubt aware, in the last days of his tenure as president, President Obama surprised Jews worldwide with a staggering reversal of US foreign-policy tradition by refusing to veto an anti-Israel resolution at the UN. (It is now alleged that the US may even have actively motivated the vote; details remain to be seen.) Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech to explain this anomaly, calling the Israeli settlements an impediment to the peace process; the Jewish community found this explanation unsatisfying. If we were confident that this was truly the motivation, we might not like it but perhaps we could agree to disagree. Unfortunately, the intentions are not quite so clear cut.

Some hypothesize that the move reflects President Obama’s personal disdain for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. This goes way back. In 2009, a photo was published showing the president with his feet on the desk while talking to Netanyahu on the phone. Ha’aretz wrote:

A photo released by the White House, which shows Obama talking on the phone with Netanyahu on Monday, speaks volumes: The president is seen with his legs up on the table, his face stern and his fist clenched, as though he were dictating to Netanyahu: “Listen up and write ‘Palestinian state’ a hundred times.” … As an enthusiast of Muslim culture, Obama surely knows there is no greater insult in the Middle East than pointing the soles of one’s shoes at another person. Indeed, photos of other presidential phone calls depict Obama leaning on his desk, with his feet on the floor.

The already-tense relationship between the two world leaders worsened in 2015 when Congress invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to address them regarding the nuclear Iran crisis without President Obama’s consent. It is therefore unsurprising that the Washington Post called the UN vote “a vindictive parting shot by Mr. Obama at Mr. Netanyahu, with whom he has feuded more bitterly than he did with most U.S. adversaries.”

That may not be the only motivation. The Washington Post continues that “The vote could also be seen as an attempt to preempt Mr. Trump, who appears ready to shift U.S. policy to the opposite extreme after naming a militant advocate of the settlements as his ambassador to Israel.”

Yes, after a surprisingly-cordial meeting, President Obama and President-elect Trump appear to have reverted to partisan politics-as-usual. Trump dismisses all of Obama’s ambassadors effective as of his inauguration with no grace period, Obama impedes Trump’s reversal of his foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel. Is that the real motivation? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility but there’s no real way for us to know for sure.

Intentions matter. We’re never going to like that the US abandoned Israel at the UN but we would see things a lot differently if we knew that the act was a sincere (if misguided) attempt at peace and not a rude gesture at Netanyahu or a roadblock set up for Trump.

One question remains: We consider the UN vote to be a trumped-up farce perpetrated by Israel’s enemies. We understand the Arab world’s animosity towards Israel and we expect them to portray Israel as the bad guy. But how can so many observers in the US and Europe witness these proceedings nodding their heads and thinking, “That’s right. Israeli settlements are the source of the problem.” How is it that when truck attacks occur in Germany and Nice, the world cries “Terrorism!” but when they happen in Israel they say “That’s justifiable” and the BBC reports it as “Driver of lorry shot?”

To explain this phenomenon, let us turn to the words of another renowned Jew named Simon, namely Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, in the song The Boxer:

A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

So on one side we have world leaders acting disingenuously, passing skewed resolutions and telling Israel, “It’s for the good of the peace process!” On the other side we have the citizens of the world ignoring inconvenient truths and saying, “Nice resolution. Looks good from here.” In other words, things are currently pretty much the way they’ve always been, from Simon to Simon.