As Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress on Tuesday ended, cameras panned around the chamber and focused on a few important senators who were giving the Israeli prime minister a standing ovation. For a few seconds they landed on Rand Paul.
Perhaps the outrage is understandable. Bibi's supporters believe that the president of the United States is undermining Israel's long-term security in its negotiations with Iran over that nation's nuclear capability. The Jewish diaspora feels especially fragile now. Since Israel's founding, Jews have been chased out of most countries in the Middle East. Jewish emigration from Europe is ticking upward. And Israel's only friend on the international stage is the U.S., a point that was driven home to me while listening to the scabrous international coverage of last's years conflict in Gaza.
But none of that justifies the creepiness of judging an American legislator on such a fine grading system. Sen. Paul, who is known for standing outside the hawkish mainstream of the Republican Party, was not making gagging gestures, or cough-snarking "bullsh-t" at Netanyahu's speech.
Monitoring the relative enthusiasm of applause has an ugly history, mostly in dictatorships. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn records a political rally in the Soviet Union where, after a tribute to Comrade Stalin, everyone stood up and gave "stormy applause" that stretched on for several minutes as Soviet secret police watched. Eleven minutes into this strenuous and stressful exercise in demonstrating loyalty, the director of a local paper factory, likely exhausted, stopped and sat down. Everyone else soon followed him. Solzhenitsyn writes:
That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:
"Don't ever be the first to stop applauding." [The Gulag Archipelago]
In the nightmare prison-state of North Korea, Kim Jong Un's own uncle (and the rest of his uncle's family) were executed by the state for "thrice-cursed acts of treachery." Listed among the traitorous deeds: "half-heartedly clapping."
Foreign policy hawks don't have the power to jail Rand Paul, but they should at least have the good sense to disagree with him like a normal human being.
Everyone knows that Paul's presence in the GOP Senate conference and possibly on the 2016 campaign trail means that the Republican Party may soon have a fight about foreign policy. Paul's father was a relentless — and sometimes wild — critic of American foreign policy; Paul the son is trying to chart a course that combines his father's preference for caution with a more mature sense of realism.
Rand Paul's rise came during an era when the GOP was still paying a political price for America's misadventures in Iraq. But as the 2016 presidential campaign stutters into gear, ISIS is committing new video-taped outrage every week. Nevertheless, Paul advocates for (and modifies) his position openly, in statements and speeches. His clapping does not contain morse-coded messages of warm wishes to Usuli Twelver Shī‘ah clerics.
Obviously, questions of sincerity may still seem important to supporters of Israel. That's why you have to ask politicians tough questions when you get the chance. Paul has seemingly modified his positions as they relate to Israel before. That's fair game.
But The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin speculated that the Real Rand Paul had been revealed by his slow clap. "OOps… almost like he has been faking his support for Israel until now," she twittered.
And I understand the suspicion. If I ever exerted myself so frantically on behalf of a cause, if lobbying for it required investing so many millions of dollars, and if maintaining party discipline on it required "brutal" ad drops on congressional obscurities, I would worry that some of the response I sought was perfunctory and insincere. The sonnets you receive don't sound as sweet. The applause seems forced. Almost like they are faking it.