It is a clarion call that paradoxically commands both solidarity and irony. Despite the international community uniting behind this phrase more than half a century ago after the horrors of the holocaust—vowing to “Never Again” stand idly by—genocide persisted well into the 20th century and anti-Semitism is making a frightening comeback. Is “Never Again” just another failed promise? Or is it still a call to action? For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is undoubtedly the latter.
In a press release following Netanyahu’s joint meeting address to the United States Congress, House Speaker John Boehner highlighted the fact that Netanyahu joins Winston Churchill as “the only other [foreign] leader to address the U.S. Congress on three different occasions.” However, despite the historical significance of Netanyahu’s third visit, the Prime Minister’s acceptance of Boehner’s invitation sparked an unprecedented amount of political controversy. Specifically, Netanyahu’s address was made two weeks prior to the Israeli general election and solicited without the White House’s consent. Moreover, the speech directly criticized the ongoing Iranian nuclear deal—a diplomatic priority that the Obama administration has been working toward for the past six years.
The White House and congressional Democrats argue that the speech was insulting, politically motivated, and ultimately detrimental to ongoing efforts to keep Iran at the bargaining table. Even in his own country, many saw Netanyahu’s speech as potentially counterproductive because it threatened to turn a bipartisan issue—support for Israel—into a partisan one. Either way, the Israeli people remain divided over the speech. The question circulating now is whether Netanyahu’s congressional address was worth the diplomatic risk. At this stage it is difficult to say, but if nothing else, the speech successfully reignited the debate over the possible implications of an Iranian nuclear deal.
Historically, it is an understatement to say that the Jewish people have suffered. It is foretold even in their own religious texts that the Jewish people would be expatriated, enslaved, persecuted, and murdered by various aggressors. Although Netanyahu had many examples to draw from, he settled on the story of Queen Esther—fitting for both timing and circumstance.
This was a clever parallel since the antagonist in the Book of Esther is Haman, a Persian vizier seeking the destruction of the Jewish people during the reign of King Ahasuerus. Despite his best efforts, Haman’s nefarious plot to destroy the Jews is eventually exposed by Esther. As an antagonist, Haman parallels well with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the absolute ruler of modern day Persia. Like Haman, Ali Khamenei is not exactly friendly towards the Jewish people. Just last year, the Supreme Leader tweeted out a 9-point plan of how to destroy the state of Israel, and the subsequent justifications for doing so.
In the story, Esther realizes that she herself must confront her husband, King Ahasuerus, in order to save her people from wholesale slaughter. This was not a simple situation. Approaching the King of Persia outside of protocol in those days ensured one’s execution. Esther knew this, lamenting that, “all the King's officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned…that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives...” (Esther 4:11). Queen Esther eventually takes the risk and places the importance of her people above her own fear, declaring, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16).
Like Queen Esther, Netanyahu sees himself as the deliverer of his people from another Persian plot. Granted, approaching the U.S. Congress outside the protocol of a White House invitation did not endanger his life—nor did he need to hold a golden scepter during his speech (entertaining as that may have been)—but he did accept political and diplomatic risks that would deter most foreign leaders.
Admittedly, Netanyahu probably saw not only political risk, but political reward as well in giving a televised address to, as he declared during his speech, “the most important legislative body in the world.” Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s maximalist position on Iran is nothing new, nor is Iran’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. Netanyahu used the opportunity to speak before congress to thwart what he sees as a bad deal. Whether it proves to be a political risk or a political reward is negligible to Netanyahu. What is important is ensuring that Iran remains well out of reach of nuclear weapon capability.
If it means perishing (politically), then so be it.