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President Biden just made a serious human rights blunder

This will not be the last time that President Biden disappoints us. Because that's what rulers do.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Court, in Riyadh, Monday, January 14, 2019. (Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

(RNS) — The irony and the timing are almost too cruel.

I am referring to the recent implication of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the brutal, gory murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

What do I mean by irony?

This came down on February 26 — precisely as the Jewish world was entering the holiday of Purim.

Purim is the commemoration of the failed attempt of Haman, the adviser of the Persian King Ahasuerus, to destroy the Jewish community of Shushan and all of Persia. We tell the story of how Mordecai and Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia, foiled Haman’s genocidal plans.

It is a raucous holiday, filled with parody, satire, a certain bawdiness — and noisemakers drowning out the name of Haman in the story.

The irony? That on the day that we celebrate the downfall of an attempted murderer in the ancient Middle East, the Biden administration was basically saying that they were going to give MBS — a real murderer — a “get out of jail free” card.

Let’s put it this way.

Haman failed to shed a single drop of blood.

MBS succeeded in shedding many, many drops of blood.

This story proves what we have always known. Despotism is alive and well in the Middle East, and in numerous other places in the world.

And, as Donald Trump once implied, when you’re rich you can get away with murder.

Let us wander more deeply into the cave of irony.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value.” He was absolutely correct, and every human rights organization worthy of its NGO status would echo that, and then some.

So why is the Biden administration, to quote Nicholas Kristof, “letting a Saudi murderer walk?”

It is called realpolitik. We need the Saudis and the Sunnis because of Iran — which, of course, is the modern name of ancient Persia. Realpolitik is just another way of saying that we live in an unredeemed world, in which decisions are rarely neat and never come to us in a box with a ribbon attached.

In the modern Middle East, as in many situations in life, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But, let me flee the particulars of this incident and come to an even more sobering reflection.

For many of us who supported his candidacy, this might be the first time that the Biden administration has disappointed us — on a matter of deep principle. There might have been other times before this, as well.

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It will not be the last time. Our leaders always disappoint us, and they always betray our heartfelt ideals.

This is the biblical assessment of kings (and, sometimes, queens):

Meh.

Take a look at the record. Saul, the first of the Israelite kings, was an utter failure — a broken man. David, his successor, was a corrupt murder and adulterer. Solomon was an egomaniac, whose extensive taxation ultimately led to the division of the kingdom into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea.

The kings of that northern kingdom? Ahab — as in Ahab and Jezebel, with their murderous idolatry and appropriation of the land of Naboth? Some of those kings of Israel were even worse.

As philosopher Moshe Halbertal has written in his assessment of King David:

This obsessional fixation on the means and trappings of power, independent of the greater or lesser purposes it can serve, defines not only the psychic life of many of those who exercise great political power, but also the way in which politics is institutionally structured to sustain and secure the ruler’s privileges and capacities. Whenever retaining hold on high office, rather than realizing an ideological vision or implementing a political program, becomes the dominant aim of politics, sovereign power becomes for its wielder an end in itself, even while being publicly justified as a means for providing collective security.

That’s “Jewish” kings. Foreign kings? Um — Pharaoh? King Ahasuerus, who is the symbol of incompetent royalty?

(Actually, when you look at the Bible, the only “good” rulers just happen to be gentile rulers: King Hiram of Tyre, who helped build the ancient Temple, and Cyrus of Persia, who invited the Jews in his domain to return to the land of Israel and to restore Jewish sovereignty there.)

So, yes — with his non-action on MBS, President Biden has disappointed many of us.

He will continue to do so.

Because that’s what sovereigns do.

That is precisely why the Jewish tradition produced the prophets: Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Elijah, Nathan, etc. They had an almost congenital need to critique kings, priests and commoners.

But, mostly and most profoundly, kings. As Frederick Buechner once said: There is no evidence of a prophet ever being invited back again for dinner.

So, what will Jews and other religious people be doing for the next four years?

Precisely what we did for the last four years — and for the last 2,500 years.

The job description of the religious person is not to be a cheerleader, but to be a thoughtful critic. It is to be maladjusted — to whoever is in power.

When it comes to human rights, there is only one clear stand: to champion the human being, made in the image of God.

Yes, apparently, we “need” the Saudis — just like King Solomon needed all of those diplomatic relations that led him into so many marriages that he probably needed an app just to figure it out.

At the very least, let us not kid ourselves.

And, at the very least, religious organizations must speak out against the trashing of human rights.

Especially if we supported, and support, this president.

Countless human lives are at stake.

And so is our integrity.


RELATED: It’s the happiest of Jewish holidays. But this Purim, many are feeling sad.