Zephaniah’s Cry: Don’t Rely on America!

Zephaniah’s Cry: Don’t Rely on America!

As a synagogue rabbi, I was fascinated by the power and influence that certain wealthy congregants held over the synagogue and the rest of the community. CEOs and owners of companies, these wealthy people employed several members of the community. And of course, the synagogue depended on their large contributions to pay its bills. 

Their generosity, of course, was admirable. But it was also a double edged sword. Due to their largesse, these congregants wielded enormous influence in ways that could be quite destructive to the very community they so generously supported. The synagogue made questionable decisions intended to please these donors, who also held sway over their social circles. Money brings influence, in more ways than one. There is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Ever since Hamas invaded Israel on October 7, murdering, torturing and raping over 1,200 innocent Jews, Israel’s complex relationship with the United States has impeded the course of its righteous war against Hamas. It’s true that America supplies Israel with the weapons and ammunition it needs to eradicate Hamas. But this largesse, like that of wealthy congregants, comes at a very steep cost. 

Though the US gives over $3.3 billion in foreign aid to Israel each year, the long term impact of this support are deeply damaging to the nation it is meant to help. It has a suffocating effect on the development of domestic Israeli defense companies, because the terms of the aid package require Israel to purchase the great majority of its arms and ammunition from American companies. The result is that Israel has ceded its arms manufacturing to the United States, placing all of its eggs in the American basket. Given the tenuousness of America’s support for Israel over the years, this approach has left Israel vulnerable to American pressure, in more ways than one.

Israel’s dependence on America is not merely bad policy. As the prophet Zephanaiah teaches, it is a national sin and a spiritual brokenness that is preventing the people of Israel from fulfilling its Godly mission on this Earth.

The “USS Carney” guided missile destroyer shot down 14 Houthi drones fired at vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Journalist Seaman Apprentice Charles A. Ordoqui/U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.
(source: JNS)

A Reckoning for Gaza

Like many other prophets, Zephaniah describes the events that will occur at the end of days, and the upheavals and suffering that will overtake the world. “The great day of the Lord is near; it is near and hastens greatly, the sound of the day of the Lord, wherein the mighty man cries bitterly. That day is a day of wrath; a day of trouble and distress; a day of ruin (shoah) and desolation (m’shoah); a day of darkness and gloom; a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Zephaniah 1:14-15).

Tellingly, Zephaniah is one of the very few prophets to speak of “shoah,” a Hebrew word for ruin and desolation which would later be used in modern times to refer to the Holocaust. When using this painful word, it’s possible he was also referring to events of our own generation – to the horrors of October 7, when more Jews were murdered in a single day than on any day since the Holocaust. 

For these sins, the terrorists of Gaza will pay. “For Gaza shall be deserted… At noon they shall drive her out, and Ekron shall be uprooted. Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast, the nation of Cherethites! The word of the Lord is against you, Canaan land of the Philistines, and I will destroy you so that there shall not be an inhabitant” (Zephaniah 2:4-5). As Israel systematically uproots Hamas from Gaza, whole swaths of that strip of land lie empty and deserted, just as Zephaniah prophesied. 

Israeli soldiers walking next to destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Oz, Nov. 21, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
(source: JNS)

In these verses, the people of Gaza are referred to as the “nation of Cherethites.” There is no nation, in the BIble or throughout history, called the Cherethites. The word derives from the Hebrew word “kareit,” meaning “to be cut off.” In biblical law, one who is punished by God with kareit has no future; his soul is cut off from God. This, ultimately, will be the fate of the people of Gaza, who overwhelmingly support the murder of innocent Jews.

“And it shall be a lot for the remnant of the house of Judah” (Zephaniah 2:7). Gaza will one day – hopefully sooner than later – become a destination for Jews returning from exile. “For the lands of the Philistines [i.e. Gaza] are among the lands that fell within the portion of the tribe of Judah during the conquest of Joshua the son of Nun, and it will once again be a Jewish land, where Jewish shepherds shall bring their flocks to graze and where they will sleep soundly at night” (Malbim).

But Zephaniah does not merely predict the events of our time. Like the other prophets who speak of the end times, he makes a unique contribution to our understanding of these tumultuous events.

Miracles are Realistic

Despite their many failures, Israel’s leaders care deeply about the safety and well-being of its people. Many Israeli leaders served bravely as IDF soldiers, putting their lives on the line to protect God’s people. Yet Israeli leaders of almost all political parties, both left and right, suffer from the same devastating flaw. As they grapple with the great challenges of our time and manage Israel’s complex relations with allied and enemy nations, they ignore the most influential “superpower” of all: God Himself.

“And it shall come to pass on that day, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and I will visit upon the men who are settled on their lees, who say in their heart, ‘The Lord shall do neither good nor harm’” (Zephaniah 1:12).

One who believes that God “does neither good nor harm,” that God does not have a central role to play in the events of our time, denies the foundational doctrine of Divine Providence. A true believer in the Bible does not merely believe in the God of Genesis, the God who created the world. A person of genuine faith must also believe in the God of Exodus, the God who is involved in the world He created and rewards and punishes mankind, measure for measure. 

Divine Providence guides events at all times and in all places. But God’s providence is particularly evident regarding the people and land of Israel, for God clearly laid out His plan for Israel throughout the Bible. God made clear that the destiny of the people of Israel will be different from that of normal nations. In verse after verse, God lays out what will happen to Israel during these final days. The dry bones of Israel will come to life, and against all odds, the scattered exiles of Israel will return home. And as Zephaniah, Zechariah, Amos and others prophesied, the people of Israel will return to Gaza and once again take possession of all of its land.

Israeli leaders, however, only see the hard facts on the ground. They know that there are close to two million Arabs living in Gaza that no other country wishes to accept, and they know that Israel’s most important ally, the United States, is adamantly opposed to Jews resettling the Gaza Strip. And so it is no surprise that Prime Minister Netanyahu said “I don’t believe it is a realistic goal for Israel to return to Gush Katif,” the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip that were uprooted and destroyed in 2005. He’s right, of course; returning to Gaza does not seem to be “realistic.” But Netanayahu would do well to remember the words of Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who said that “any Jew that does not believe in miracles is not realistic.” Though not a religiously observant Jew, Ben Gurion understood what Netanyahu does not: that the normal rules of geopolitics do not apply to Israel! 

To believe that God’s promises are “unrealistic,” after so many of God’s other “unrealistic” prophecies have been miraculously fulfilled, is a failure of leadership. A little more than 100 years ago, the land of Israel was a largely desolate collection of barren deserts and swampland, with a tiny Jewish population of a few thousand Jewish pioneers. Today, the land is astoundingly beautiful and fertile, and over seven million Jews live in Israel, with many more returning home each year. In 1947, 1956, 1967 and 1973, Israel was attacked by multiple large Arab nations that sought to destroy the Jewish state and push its people into the Mediterranean Sea. Not only didn’t they succeed, but Israel turned the tables on its enemies and reclaimed its ancient lands, including Judea, Samaria, the Golan Heights and Gaza. The rebirth of the land, the ingathering of Israel, and Israel’s military victories – were any of these “realistic”? Clearly, when it comes to the people of Israel, we must redefine the meaning of the term!

Israel will only fulfill its divine mission when its leaders give God His proper seat at the head of the table. Until then, Israel will remain captive to the whims of earthly superpowers like the United States.

Soldiers forcibly remove residents from the Israeli Gush Katif community Kfar Darom. (Photo: IDF)

Don’t Rely on America

In the final chapter of the Book of Zephaniah, the prophet describes a fundamental change that will take place in Israel at the end of days – a shift that must occur for Israel to achieve its mission.

“On that day you shall not be ashamed of all your deeds [with] which you rebelled against Me… And I will leave over in your midst a humble and poor people, and they shall take shelter in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel shall neither commit injustice nor speak lies; neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth, for they shall graze and lie down, with no one to cause them to shudder” (Zephaniah 3: 11-13).

Zephaniah tells us that Israel will learn true humility, and because of that, they will no longer have to be afraid. No one will “cause them to shudder” any longer. But how, exactly, will this change come about?

Rabbi Meir Wisser (1809-1879) explains: “In earlier times… Israel established alliances with other powerful nations, asking them for military assistance. And because they relied on these powerful nations, they learned from their evil ways. But at the end of days, when all of the nations recognize God and serve Him, Israel will no longer sin, because ‘no one will cause them to shudder,’ and they will no longer learn from those nations’ [false] ideologies and [evil] deeds.” 

What is the root of Israel’s rebellion against God? According to Rabbi Wisser, Zephaniah ascribes Israel’s spiritual and moral failures to its dependence on powerful nations like the United States. By placing its trust in the United States, Israel has been physically and spiritually damaged in several ways that are not immediately apparent.

From the beginning, the United States has made it clear that its support for Israel comes “with strings attached.” The United States can, at any moment, withhold its military aid from Israel, leaving Israel in a dangerously vulnerable position. Israel’s reliance on American largesse makes it extremely difficult for Israel to withstand American pressure, even when that pressure puts Israeli lives at risk. 

Since October 7, the United States has pressured Israel to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. Though this sounds like a reasonable and even moral request, it is in fact immoral and deeply damaging to Israel’s war effort, as this “humanitarian aid” is immediately commandeered by Hamas and used to resupply its army of terrorists. This has prolonged the war, for the only way to force Hamas terrorists out of their terror tunnels is to cut off their supply chain.

In the name of protecting non-combatants, the US also pressures Israel into fighting dangerous battles in the streets of Gaza, instead of simply destroying these targets from the air. Tragically, this leads to the unnecessary deaths of many Israeli soldiers – husbands, fathers and sons who will never come home to their loved ones. 

American pressure not only increases the costs of Israel’s victory, but also places that victory in doubt. How can Israel possibly destroy Hamas in the southern Gaza strip, where two million Arabs are stuck, if America demands that Israel prevent harm to every last non-combatant? No military – the US military included – can achieve victory under such restraints!

U.S. President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli President Isaac Herzog (center) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Oct. 18, 2023. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli President’s Spokesperson’s Unit.
(source: JNS)

The Biden administration’s criticism of Israel over civilian casualties in Gaza is reminiscent of President Reagan’s criticism of Israel’s bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad in 1981. In the aftermath of that attack, the United States chose to punish Israel, refusing to deliver military aircraft that were promised to Israel, among other diplomatic reprimands. After months of this treatment, Prime Minister Menachem Begin called in the US Ambassador, Samuel W. Lewis, and delivered an epic message: “You don’t have the right, from a moral perspective, to preach to us regarding civilian loss of life. We have read the history of World War II, and we know what happened to civilians when you took action against the enemy. We have also read the history of the Vietnam War, and your concept of ‘’body counts.’’ We always make efforts to prevent casualties among civilians, but sometimes this is unavoidable…Nevertheless, you punished us, and you suspended the delivery of F-15’s… What kind of talk is this, ”punishing Israel?” Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic? Are we 14-year-olds who, if we misbehave, we get our wrists slapped?… The people of Israel have lived 3,700 years without a memorandum of understanding with America and will continue to live without it another 3,700 years. In our eyes, it is a cancellation of the memorandum (New York TImes, December 21, 1981).

The Biden administration is now pressuring Israel to finish the war against Hamas as quickly as possible and to reinstate the corrupt Palestinian Authority as the governing body in Gaza. This despite the Palestinian Authority’s well deserved reputation for widespread corruption, its complete lack of standing among the Arabs of Judea and Samaria, and its long term goal of wiping Israel off the map. At the same time, the Biden administration inexplicably granted Iran $10 billion in sanctions relief after Iran’s proxy Hamas committed horrific atrocities against Israel on October 7. In other words, the administration has helped Israel with one hand while supporting Israel’s enemies with the other. It’s fair to wonder whether Israel would be better off if America stayed out of the Middle East altogether.

Foreign aid has badly damaged Israel’s own defense industry, for the terms of the aid agreement require Israel to buy its weapons from US manufacturers. Yoram Ettinger, one of Israel’s top security experts, argues that in the long term, it is essential that Israel wean itself from American foreign aid, which will boost Israel’s local defense industry and strengthen Israel’s standing with America and the rest of the world. 

Israeli troops operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Dec. 31, 2023. Credit: IDF.
(source: JNS)

American aid is harmful in other ways as well. The Israeli security establishment was lulled into a false sense of security, believing that the alliance with America would protect Israel from harm. Too many of Israel’s leaders place irrational trust in America, as if America cares more for the safety of the Jewish people than Israel’s own leadership. All of these illusions were tragically dispelled on October 7, when Israel’s alliance with America did nothing to prevent the wholesale slaughter of 1,200 innocent Israelis. It was ordinary courageous Israelis – not American firepower – who bravely ran to battle with nothing more than their personal handguns and prevented Hamas from penetrating further into Israel. 

These criticisms should not be seen as a condemnation of the United States. Throughout its history, the US has been a nation of extraordinary kindness, rebuilding Europe after World War II and intervening in humanitarian crises overseas. For hundreds of years, it offered a safe haven to persecuted Jews all over the world (though America is sadly less safe for Jews today). The problem is not that Israel considers America its greatest ally, but that the relationship is unbalanced. 

Israel’s unhealthy reliance on America means that it is uniquely vulnerable to damaging cultural influences currently emanating from America. Far too many Israelis place the United States on a pedestal, hungrily absorbing American movies, music and ideologies. America’s role as Israel’s influential “big brother” means that its woke culture and moral confusion have an outsized influence on Israel’s own culture. This past year, during the months leading up to October 7, Israeli society was torn apart due to non-stop protests over the prospect of judicial reform – protests that were encouraged and supported by American leftists. 

Israel is a small nation, and it has never aspired to be a superpower like the US. Israel’s strength is meant to come in another form – as a moral and religious superpower. “I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). In other words, the people of Israel are meant to influence the cultures of the rest of the world – and not vice versa.

In the era just before the destruction of the first Temple, the Assyrian Empire threatened the far smaller kingdoms of Israel and Judah. When Assyria began to conquer the region and swallow up the smaller nations and city states of the Middle East, the kingdom of Judah hoped that Egypt, a regional superpower, would step in to protect them. They would be sorely disappointed. As Assyria conquered the northern tribes of Israel and exiled its people, Egypt did nothing. And ultimately, Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was saved through Divine intervention, not through any help from the Egyptians.

Ezekiel prophecies that the day will come when the people of Israel will finally learn its lesson and no longer place its trust in foreign superpowers like ancient Egypt – or the United States: “And it [Egypt] will no longer be the confidence of the House of Israel, bringing iniquity into remembrance when they turn after them, and they shall know that I am the Lord God” (Ezekiel 29:16). Israel will no longer rely on superpowers or learn from their pagan cultures, turning their hearts instead to the God of Israel.

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop (1882-1951), who personally witnessed the rebirth of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, underscored this point: “We must free ourselves of those chains; we must stand on our own feet in the holy land… Even our master, our first father Abraham, when he traveled to our land, was told: ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.’ Meaning, it is impossible to merit the land of Israel without abandoning the culture of the other lands. So long as you are attached to customs that are foreign to our spirit you will remain, essentially, in exile [even if you are physically in the land of Israel]. For physically leaving the lands of the nations is not enough to achieve freedom and redemption, rather, even more essential is abandoning the worldview of the nations and knowing that God, and God alone, is master over the entire world. ‘For He is your Lord, and prostrate yourself to Him’” (Mei Marom 6:61).

Israel must place its confidence in God, and kick its dangerous habit of trying to please America. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “Fear is one of the forbidden traits, and is the result of [national] depression and exhaustion that we must avoid like poison. We must be armed with courage and the knowledge that our goals are pure, just and a fulfillment of God’s will. We must remove from ourselves the desire to please all people and nations, even the kindest and best among them. Instead, we must place our hope for success in God… and seek to please our Creator, the Creator of all” (Letter #644).

Israeli soldiers fire mortar shells towards terror targets in the Gaza Strip, Jan. 3, 2024. Photo by Flash90.

Though most Americans are not yet conscious of this, America itself desperately needs Israel to be strong and independent. The United States is the most powerful nation on Earth, but it has lost its way. Millions of young people continue to drift away from the religious beliefs of their parents, resulting in a young generation that supports terrorist groups like Hamas and rejects Judeo-Christian values. Younger Americans are lost, aimless and unhappy. Now more than ever, America needs Israel to become a light unto the nations, to help the United States rediscover its Biblical heritage. The fate of the West depends on it.

Redemption for the Entire World

“For then I will convert the peoples to a pure language that all of them call in the name of the Lord, to worship Him of one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).

When Israel finally learns to place its trust in God and no longer relies upon America, God’s people will become the light unto the nations they are destined to be. “From Zion will come forth Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2). The peoples of the world will be drawn to Israel and emulate her ways, which will lead them to abandon their idols and “call in the name of the Lord.”

“And they shall come and they shall see My glory. And I will place a sign upon them, and I will send from them refugees to the nations, Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, the distant islands, who did not hear of My fame and did not see My glory, and they shall recount My glory among the nations” (Isaiah 66:18-19). “And the Lord shall become King over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be one, and His name one” (Zechariah 14:9).

May we soon see that day.

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