Though the Lincoln-Douglas debates are rightly considered the apex of competitive political discourse in American if not world history, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are all but non-existent, still I find parallels with the elegant yet forceful antebellum rhetoric of The Great Emancipator and The Little Giant, and the bold if futile recent actions of Palestinian President Mahmoud “Abu Mazen” Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.
On Monday, October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, nearly four years before Abraham Lincoln would traverse the state in a series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the future President rose from the audience of a Douglas address to invite the crowd to return after their supper, at which time he would deliver a prepared response (Douglas and Lincoln had arranged the dual appearance ahead of time, and Douglas had negotiated a one-hour rebuttal following Lincoln’s remarks).
“The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the propriety of its restoration, constitute the subject of what I am about to say,” Lincoln began. The Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the western territories north of the parallel 36° 30’ north and cut through present-day California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Oklahoma panhandle, had been in effect since 1820. The actual compromise was that Missouri would be admitted as a slave state even though it was above the line, and Maine would be admitted as a free state.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, designed by Douglas and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30 of that year, effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and replaced its imaginary line with the concept of “popular sovereignty,” in which settlers of a territory would decide for themselves whether to establish it as a free or slave-holding state. The act resulted in political chaos, with the new Republican party eventually rising from the ashes of the fractured Whigs.
Passion – and empathy
But in 1854, all that was on Lincoln’s mind was that slavery was no longer on the road to extinction – he had hoped to starve out the institution by confining it to the lower south, where cotton would eventually destroy the soil in which it grew. Minus that crop, he was certain, the need for slaves would disappear.
Impassioned as Lincoln was about the repeal of the Missouri Compromise – in a short campaign biography he wrote in late 1859, Lincoln noted that after several years working in his successful law practice, “I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again” – he took the platform that night armed with logic rather than vitriol, even saying at one point:
“Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.”
Lincoln and Douglas were both speaking about self-government and self-determination that day. For Douglas, those terms meant that the free white settlers of a territory could decide for themselves the nature of their society. For Lincoln, they meant that all people living within the boundaries of this nation have a voice and the right to rise to the level of their ambition and ability without government-imposed impediments.
The U.N. General Assembly: What’s good for the goose…
On May 14, 1948, ninety years after the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel – Israel’s “declaration of independence” – was announced to the family of nations. It reads, in part:
“On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [“land of Israel”]; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”
Israel and its citizens have been defending this right with their blood for 63 years.
On Friday, September 23, 2011, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood before the United Nations General Assembly and asked that Palestine be granted independent statehood. Members of the Israeli delegation left the hall as Abbas rose to speak. His proposal is unlikely to get far in the U.N. Security Council since the United States holds veto power there, but his stake, now planted, will not easily be removed.
So now let’s see how language from one era has resonance on another.
“…[M]asters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” Jews understand what it means to be strangers in a strange land. They know of longing, of the sweet taste of freedom, of the unceasing desire for self-determination. Lincoln understood that this was all that slaves desired, to be masters of their own fate. But would a racist country – racist both North and South (it’s worth noting that Abolitionists were a fringe group and largely anarchic; though history has been kind to them, they were far from pragmatic) – let them be free on the same land in which they were enslaved? Lincoln eventually thought not, as he conceived an ill-designed plan to ship freed slaves to Liberia.
“They are just what we would be in their situation.” Lincoln’s empathy is acknowledged to be nearly superhuman, particularly in the context of his time. This simple acknowledgement of his, though, is not well understood by many Jews and by the Israeli government in particular. Benjamin Netanyahu possesses neither the empathy nor the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. He seeks to claim disputed lands by building settlements on them in violation (so say the U.N. Security Council and the International Committee of the Red Cross) of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Netanyahu, needless to say, does not concur).
While Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature”, which he knew existed among his friends and his enemies both, Netanyahu effectively thumbs his nose at his friends (the U.S., to the tune of $3 billion a year) and gives the finger to his enemies. He is provocative, obstinate, and arrogant, which plays well to the hawks at home but which has cost Israel as much good will over the last few years as George W. Bush did for America following 9/11. On the international stage, Israel is now seen as the aggressor, the tyrant. It can’t be surprised that Abbas brought his case to the U.N. given that he and Netanyahu cannot come to terms even on the conditions that would only bring them to the negotiating table.
The fiery trial: then and now
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve,” Lincoln told Congress on December 1, 1862. After years of bloodshed, countless deaths of innocent civilians, instability that strengthens the resolve of terrorists, it has to be clear to all parties that the only way to assure the long-term security of Israel is to enable the establishment of an independent, autonomous, and internationally recognized Palestine.
In that same address to Congress, Lincoln noted, “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” If Benjamin Netanyahu wants to be remembered, nothing will assure his place in history more than in assuming the mantel of peacemaker.
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel closes with the following: “WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
Sixty-three years later, it’s time to make good on this promise.