By Rabbi Neal Gold
I didn’t get the opportunity to watch President Obama’s important speech in real-time yesterday, but read the full text of it later in the afternoon. I hope you get the chance to read it as well.
A few observations:
First, this speech should lay to rest any question of whether this President is sufficiently Zionist. My biggest criticism of his Middle East policy during his first term was his apparent failure to muster empathy for the Zionist narrative. He spoke important pro-Israel tropes, of course, but it seemed that this most eloquent statesman could not articulate much compassion for Israeli war losses, the specter of living in fear of terrorism, or for the general Jewish historical connection to the Land. But man, did this speech change all of that. He gets it: This was an undeniably Zionist speech that spoke with understanding of Israel’s great successes and genuine fears. Beautiful, too, was the connection of the Passover story to the African-American civil rights struggle. He said: For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.
Further, when he turned to “The Situation” today, he crucially and brilliantly began with Israelis’ real security fears. People who are being terrorized cannot make peace, and that is very much where America comes in. Only by acknowledging with genuine empathy that Israeli fears are rational and real could he establish any authenticity with the Israeli public.
Then he could move on to the daring part. Surely it would have been very easy for him to give a fluff speech; he and his speechwriters know exactly the words that could have made this an easy and safe moment to pander. He did no such thing: In the heart of Jerusalem, he said that the status quo has to change; that the Palestinian narrative has its own merits; that any sort of peaceful vision for our children has to entail two states living side-by-side. He invoked Sharon and Rabin, Begin and Ben Gurion – all of whom came around to a similar perspective in their days. He did his homework and didn’t pander to his Israeli audience. And lest we forget, once we get past the security fears, the large majority of Israelis agree with this message.
And he seems to have read and internalized Start Up Nation – which is a very good thing. It means he recognizes that Israeli society is much more than the day’s headlines about the conflict. Israel is also a thriving, democratic, high-tech economy that is making extraordinary gifts to every nation on earth. The implication – which I completely agree with – is that real peace is as likely to come from the business sector as it is from the political sector.
The pundit Jeffrey Goldberg was similarly impressed: “It is the setting, though, that made it brilliant: Standing ovations from young Israelis for an endorsement of a Palestinian state by an enthusiastically Zionist African-American President whose middle name is Hussein. How, exactly, did he pull that one off?”
A tremendous speech. Kein Yirbu – May it be so, and may it grow and grow.
Rabbi Neal Gold is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA.