As I watched part of President Obama's speech in Israel to an audience of young people and students, I reflected back on the 2012 presidential election campaign in the United States.
Had Governor Mitt Romney won, could I envision him delivering a similar speech?
I also remembered the consistent pre-election criticism of president Obama from my several friends active in AIPAC.
They were consistently critical of Obama for not being "pro-Israel" enough, for allegedly not understanding the existential threat a nuclear Iran poses for Israel, and of suggesting a "moral equivalency" between Israel's security need against terrorism with the Palestinian demand for an end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Yet, Obama was re-elected with almost 70 percent of the so-called Jewish vote.
In conversations, in lectures or classes, that I teach I often characterize the times in which we live as a contest between a fact evidence-based universe and a parallel alternative "reality" universe based on opinion only. I often cite, ad nausem, former New York Senator Patrick Moynihan, who reportedly said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own set of facts."
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is sometimes discussed by well-meaning people who speak or write about the issue as if they are living in an alternate reality in which the world is still flat, in spite of evidence to the contrary. How else to explain the failure to acknowledge that the continued occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands and the failure by the Palestinians to recognize Israel as "a Jewish state" are THE principal obstacles to a negotiated two-state solution to the dispute.
It is against this background, then, that Obama's recent trip Israel must be viewed.
In his speech in Cairo in 2009, presumably addressing the Muslim world, newly elected President Obama said in referring to the then construction of "Jewish settlements" that such "construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
In his public remarks during this trip to Israel he never used the word "settlements." At a news conference, when questioned by a Palestinian reporter about Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, Obama described them as "inappropriate."
In a recent AP article, "Obama Mideast Visit: President Will Find Disillusioned Palestinian Public When He Visits Region," Mohammed Draghmeh wrote:
"More than 500,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians say the ever-growing settlements are a sign of bad faith and make it increasingly difficult to partition the land between two peoples."
In may be that today, those of us who are watching and reading about Obama's trip to Israel are too close, in real time, to fully appreciate the magnitude and significance of his recent trip and the words of his speeches there. In the past, I have been one who has written critically about my perception of his failure to assert presidential leadership about this or that domestic or foreign policy issue. Additionally, I have commended him when he has exercised, what I perceived, as needed leadership.
Such is the case with Obama's trip to Israel. It was a remarkable and courageous exercise of needed presidential leadership. Notwithstanding, his failure to publicly challenge the legitimacy of continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and repeating a call to halt settlements during his first term as president, his remarks in Israel on these issues were nothing less than historic and remarkable.President Obama spoke eloquently to the conscience and soul of a democratic Israel during his speech to an audience of Israeli students. It was similar to his inaugural speech for his second term when he said, in referring to the of rights of gay people:
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall," Obama said, mentioning landmarks of the women's, black and gay rights movements... "It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began."
He equated gay rights to the earlier struggles of women and civil rights in our country.To the Israeli students, President Obama reminded them:
"As we draw strength from the story of God's will and his gift of freedom expressed in Passover, we also know that here on earth we must bear our responsibilities in an imperfect world ... That means accepting our measure of sacrifice and struggle, just like previous generations ... I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future."
"Peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine ... Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation."
"It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own -- living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people, but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It not right when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It's not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands... or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation or expulsion is the answer."
A New York Times editorial commenting on the president's speech, said:
"Mr. Obama invoked values and dreams shared by Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, including the idea that "people deserve to be free in a land of their own." He also spoke bluntly about what's at stake if the status quo persists, given that the Palestinian population on the West Bank and international frustration with Israel are both growing and the Arab world is in turmoil."
In speaking about the politics and political risks of leadership, the president said, "Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks." Invoking the wisdom of Gandhi he told the Israeli students that they must become and create the change they want to see. He could have also told them that Gandhi said, "in matters of conscience the law of the majority has not place."
One of Obama's acts in Israel that brought tears to my eyes was when he laid a stone from the grounds of the Washington memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated by a Jewish extremist enraged by his efforts to make peace with Palestinians.
How can those of us who were active in and remember the civil rights movement ever forget that the cornerstone of our success in transforming the United States on the issue of racial segregation under Dr. King's leadership was the coalition of participation and support we received from Jewish communities across our nation.
How I wish we could reconstitute that coalition as we face one of the most serious current internal threats to our nation, such as the continued 24/7 gun violence occurring in so many of our communities. A tidal wave of such a national coalition is NOW needed URGENTLY to halt the continued deaths from the irresponsible use of guns in our country!
President Obama's trip to Israel and to the office of the Palestinian Authority clearly earns him the mantle of the preeminent 21st century leader of the "Joshua generation."
Can I have an Amen, somebody?