The Middle East Clock: Eleven Minutes Past and Present

June 6, 2009

The history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, like the history of other peoples and nations, is comprised of events and eras, moments and memories. And even though it is counted in lunar years, Israeli and Jewish time exists in the same world of minutes and hours that the rest of the world operates. While the names of months may differ, the day’s events are catalogued in the same twenty-four hour increments.

But for Jews and Israelis, time is not only a continuum of history; it is a chronology of survival. Their history, though filled with experiences of hardships and the implications of evil, is nevertheless a timeline that marks a people’s irrepressible desire to create and survive. This survival instinct was shared by generations of Jewish leaders who endured through history, only to – as Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Los Angeles describes it – “reenter history” upon the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. A reentry into history that may have been short-lived had President Harry Truman not recognized the nascent state a mere eleven minutes after it was declared by David Ben Gurion.

Eleven minutes – a brief moment in the history of the world, a pivotal window of time in the survival of the Jewish people.

And now sixty-one years later, it is hard not to feel that the Jewish people are once again in a time where minutes matter. With that in mind, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington D.C. was both a timely visit and a visit about being timely.  Notwithstanding the various perspectives of the politicians and pragmatists, there is an overwhelming unanimity on one matter – the clock is ticking and nobody wants it to get to midnight. The threat of a nuclear Iran, and the instability that it would further foment in the Middle East, are the most substantial existential threats to Israel have has existed since those first fateful minutes in 1948. But the similarities do not stop there.

Once again the United States is in a position where its actions, and the timing of those actions, are critical to the future of the Jewish state. In a world where the deligitimization of Israel has become far too common and where the gathering threats have become even more foreboding, Israel is once again looking to its first and oldest ally to recognize the meaning of minutes. The difference is that in 1948 it was the act of creation of the State of Israel that precipitated action by the United States, now there is a risk that inaction by the United States might allow the threat of an act of destruction of Israel to become unbearably real. Eleven minutes mattered then, eleven minutes matters now.

Like 1948, policymakers in Washington are debating matters relating to the existence of a Jewish state. In 1948, there was substantial turmoil in the Truman White House just days before the declaration of the state of Israel, with George Marshall and Clark Clifford locked in a debate that had great bearing on the future of the Jewish people. Now, in 2009, another great debate is occurring in a different White House as to the manner and timeline in which the Iranian challenge to the United States and Israel will be dealt with. This debate is not just in the White House, but in the halls of Congress as well. And like 1948, there are those who see the threatening clouds in the Middle East as one that requires restraint rather than action. There are the modern-day Marshalls and Cliffords and their debate is no less significant to the fate of Israel as they were then.  Even with the passage of those sixty-one years, we once again find the world in another window of time that feels like it is matter of minutes until the future of Israel is secured or destroyed. With a hateful leader of a resourceful nation racing to build a nuclear weapon that could hasten his desire to see Israel erased from the map of nations and vanished from the annals of history, once again the United States is at a moment where its pronouncements matter, where its intentions are being closely observed.

A few weeks prior to those fateful eleven minutes in May, 1948, Dr. Chaim Weizmann sent President Truman a letter that stated in part: “The choice for our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermination. History and providence have placed this issue in your hands, and I am confident that you will yet decide it in the spirit of moral law.” Now, as Israel finds herself in another time where minutes matter, where the choice for Israel is between statehood and extermination, her supporters in Washington D.C. and capitals across the world must once again stand in the face of history and providence and make decisions in the spirit of moral law. Will the United States and its fellow members of the community of nations let this people who have reentered history face the threat of its nation being banished from history again?

We may only have eleven minutes to find out.


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