As I walked out of the Knesset following Vice President
Monday afternoon address, an Israeli cameraman turned to me with a jovial expression. Speaking in Hebrew, he asked me about the man whose speech he had just heard: “Was that the messiah, or the vice president of the United States?” He was, perhaps, referring to the rapturous reception Mr. Pence had received from the Knesset members and the hundreds of spectators in the gallery. Yet the cameraman was also probably struck by how religious, and biblically based, the speech was. Mr. Pence threaded his remarks with references to Scripture, a rhetorical technique Knesset audiences have rarely heard from a political leader since Menachem Begin resigned as prime minister in 1983.
Mr. Pence’s address was one of the most Zionist speeches ever given by a non-Jew in the Knesset. The vice president is a devout evangelical Christian, and he said that in the birth of the modern state of Israel, we see nothing less than a fulfillment of the biblical promises of God. The speech was a milestone in American-Israeli relations, and a window into the heart of many American Christians who, like Mr. Pence, observe Israel’s emergence with wonder and reverence.
Drawing on the Book of Deuteronomy, Mr. Pence described how through “conquests and expulsions, inquisitions and pogroms,” and a Holocaust “that transformed the small faces of children into smoke under a silent sky,” the Jewish people nevertheless “held fast to a promise through all the ages, written so long ago, that ‘even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens,’ from there He would gather and bring you back to the land which your fathers possessed.”
Citing Isaiah, Mr. Pence suggested that in Israel’s 1948 founding “the Jewish people answered that ancient question: Can a country be born in a day, can a nation be born in a moment?” For Mr. Pence, the birth of modern Israel also reaffirmed the Jews’ covenantal bond to both the Holy Land and Jerusalem, where “Abraham offered his son Isaac, and was credited with righteousness for his faith in God,” and where “King David consecrated the capital of the Kingdom of Israel.” In the emergence of the modern Jewish state, Mr. Pence concluded, we see the hand of God: “The miracle of Israel is an inspiration to the world.”
These are powerful words, and many Jews in attendance felt the vice president’s description of the Jewish state as a miracle comported with their own view. Yet it is worth noting one wondrous occurrence Mr. Pence didn’t mention. For many centuries the Jewish people received little love and much hate from the nations of the world. Today tens of millions of non-Jewish Americans share Mr. Pence’s sincere affection for Israel.
As the vice president noted, certain predictions in Hebrew scripture about the Holy Land have actually come true in the past 70 years: The Jews have returned, their state has been re-formed, and the desert is blooming. Yet Isaiah also predicts that one day multitudes of non-Jews will be moved by devotion to the God who dwells in Jerusalem to shower love upon the people whose capital it has always been. Anti-Semitism is still rampant, of course, and Israel remains surrounded by states seeking its destruction. But the existence of multitudes of gentiles who are also Zionists has no precedent in the Jews’ millennia-long history.
Mr. Pence received a sustained and resounding standing ovation when he spoke in Hebrew. Many visiting statesmen have tried out a Hebrew phrase or two in the Knesset, but the vice president went further than previous American leaders. Noting that April marks the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, Mr. Pence reflected on this historic milestone: “I say, along with the good people of Israel, here and around the world: shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’z’man ha’zeh.”
Strikingly, Mr. Pence didn’t translate or explain. The American reporters travelling with the vice president may not have understood what he’d said. But most Jews in attendance recognized his words as an expression of gratitude to God, “who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.” The blessing has been recited by Jews for thousands of years. We speak it when we receive joyous tidings and when we commemorate historical miracles. Many in the audience felt like saying the blessing themselves, not only for the miracle that is Israel, but also for the blessing that is the millions of Americans who, like Mike Pence, love the Jewish state.
It’s a blessing that many Israelis, and many Jews around the world, will not soon forget.
Rabbi Soloveichik is minister of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought of Yeshiva University.
Appeared in the January 24, 2018, print edition.