Last week the world lost one of it s most effective agents for change. Nelson Mandela’s passing marks a major epoch, the ending of Apartheid. His contributions to South African development were legendary. No one questions why so many world leaders gathered for his memorial and funeral. (Despite his protestations about high cost, one must wonder why Israel was not represented. That, however, is at best tangential to this essay.) His passing marks the end of an era, and the world took notice.
Among leaders there who represented opposing approaches to government and economic management were Barak Obama and Cuba’s Raoul Castro. Obama leads an economy based in Capitalism. Castro’s Cuba remains true to the Communism established there by older brother, Fidel Castro. The government of Cuba today is still a totalitarian dictatorship, and the United States is a republican democracy. Despite deep differences, as Obama prepared to deliver his message Raoul Castro stood to shake his hand.
Judging by pundits, this act deserved more attention than due. Ex-patriot, Cuban-American community members including Senator Marco Rubio seem chagrined that this handshake happened. At the very least, they capitalize on this short moment to falsely criticize a very human act by the president of the United States.
Might the handshake signal easing of attitudes toward Cuba by the American administration? Might it mark Castro’s preparedness to become friendlier with the big country to its northwest? Sino-American relations improved drastically in Nixon’s administration following a simple ping pong tournament. Might a similar shift be illustrated by this clasping of hands? Who really knows? Who cares?
Why are so many so hell bent on ascribing political meaning to a simple act of kindness, menschlichkeit and propriety? Both men arrived in Johannesburg to lament Mandela’s passing. Similarly afflicted, even if they do not see eye to eye on many issues, could they not forget their differences for a few minutes and be bound by their common humanity?
In the Ethics of the Fathers Shammai teaches us to greet one another with a cheerful countenance. Shammai was a great, learned, erudite sage whose rulings on Jewish law were nearly always set aside as the community favored Hillel’s approach. Still, despite their differences, when he and Hillel debated, which happened often, his view is recorded for posterity along with Hillel’s. There is no debate about cheerful greetings. The scholarly community put great store in this teaching of proper etiquette.
The Roman legions were in the final stages of destroying Jerusalem in 70 CE when the conquering general Vespasian was visited by Yochanan ben Zakkai. Ben Zakkai predicted Vespasian’s rise to leadership of Rome and was rewarded with the establishment of a Jewish scholarly community. No one today denigrates or castigates ben Zakkai for meeting with the general. We applaud his temerity. Without it Judaism may have gone the way of so many historical practices that no longer flourish.
Ben Zakai was certainly not the last leader to meet face to face with an arch enemy for positive results. Kennedy met Khrushchev. Nixon met Brezhnev. Reagan sat with Gorbachev. Begin met Arafat. Rabin … Sadat. Roosevelt and Churchill allied with Stalin to confront the Axis. Summit meetings and politics have long been news fare.
Why is this handshake between Castro and Obama so controversial? Who knows? Could a handshake just be a handshake?