President Obama's three days in Israel were historic in many ways. It is worth emphasizing the full scope of his message, not merely those sound bites and snippets that were conveyed in the media. He reminded us why liberals fell in love with Israel, and why Israel is a liberal cause.
As he stepped off Air Force One the president said: "More than three thousand years ago the Jewish people lived here...The founding of the Jewish State was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history." Later in his visit the President said: "While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea - to be a free people in your own homeland."
In these few sentences, President Obama articulated the Zionist idea better than most people could. He said it not only to Israelis, but to the entire world, including Western intellectuals, some of whom have sadly turned against the very legitimacy of Israel. He emphasized that the modern State of Israel is a liberation movement, perhaps the most successful liberation movement of the 20th century. He visited the Shrine of the Book, and saw the scrolls that provide vivid proof of the Jewish people's enduring presence in Israel, that, in turn, influenced the creation of Christianity and Islam.
In words and gestures President Obama rejected the arguments of those who claim that the Jews are usurpers in Muslim lands. At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, he swatted away the contention that the Jewish state is compensation for European anti-Semitism, and that the local Muslim population is somehow paying the price for the Holocaust. "The State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust," the president said, "but with the survival of a strong Jewish State of Israel, such a holocaust will never happen again."
The liberal President reminded us that liberals were always on the side of those who sought self-determination, including Palestinian self-determination. He visited the grave of the founder of the Zionist idea, Theodore Herzl, who wrote that [the Jewish people] "shall live again at last as free men on our own soil." He placed a stone from the Martin Luther King memorial on the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, thus tying in such symbolic and poignant ways the American civil rights movement to the cause of Jewish self-determination.
King, too, believed in the Zionist cause: "Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy," King said, shortly before he was assassinated.
President Obama emphasized Israel's liberal democratic spirit as if it were a tiny island of liberty in an ocean of anti-Western, anti-democratic and anti-progressive movements. "We stand together because we are democracies," Obama said, while right over the border, 70,000 Syrians have already been massacred; Egyptians appear further away from true democracy than ever; Lebanon is held hostage by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization; Iraqis are still being murdered daily; Iranian civilians live in repression and fear, and the Palestinians, themselves, are divided between those who recognize Israel and those who vow to destroy her.
The President clarified that at its core, the strength of the American/Israel bilateral relationship does not rest upon overlapping geo-political interests, as strong as these may be, but rather, Americans admire Israel; they see in Israelis kindred spirits, a version of themselves. He emphasized Israel's thriving civil society, its noisy free press and its youthful, energetic innovative, out-of-the-box spirit. He pointed out that Israeli technology has changed how people around the world live; that there is Israeli technology even on the Mars Rover.
With respect to the historic Jerusalem speech, it is important to remember that only an American president could have given that speech, filled with testimonials to Israel's success, and generous in its praise of past Israeli peace-making efforts. And as only an American president could have delivered that speech, no other audience in the Middle East could have heard that speech and applauded in agreement, even when the president urged Israelis to continue to pursue peace, despite the rejections of the past.
The president reminded us that as liberals we can never give up on the hope of peace. He spoke movingly of the hardships imposed on the Palestinian population. Even though the security barrier was built as a result of suicide bombers who were sent and encouraged by Palestinian leadership, still, the Palestinian population is enduring hardships. And if there is to be peace, it is undeniable that as the President emphasized, to bridge the differences between people, they must consider the world through the other's eyes.
It was a sober message; one that recognized that we liberals are good at imagining possibilities but less good at recognizing the limitations of possibility; that our dreams of a new reality often overleap the reality of reality.
Despite all this; despite all the failures of the past, try again, the president urged. Despite all of the turmoil in the region, try again. Despite that half of the Palestinian population works towards your destruction, and the other half refuses to even return to the bargaining table, keep trying. Never give up. Never give up on peace. America will be by your side.
It is a message that is worth internalizing during this sacred season. Would that it be so, and it come to pass speedily in our day.