President Obama delivered a fabulous speech yesterday in Jerusalem to the young people of Israel. It was a hopeful, optimistic speech, which stressed both his love for Israel and the Jewish People, and the need for Israel to halt the settlement enterprise, end the occupation and to seriously work toward peace. It was genuine criticism out of love and respect and concern for the people of Israel and the people of Palestine.
The speech was enthusiastically received by the more than 1,000 students in attendance at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, who want peace for their future. It is unlikely that the speech would have been so well received in the Knesset, which was one of the reasons it was decided not to deliver it there.
The speech also received much positive feedback on all three major Israel television stations. All of the commentators liked the president's approach of reaching out to the people of Israel, rather than only speaking to the politicians. The pundits applauded his call for the cessation of settlements and for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a just two-state solution.
When President Obama speaks, he sounds very much like a liberal/Reform rabbi. Indeed, at the state dinner at the home of President Shimon Peres, later the same day, he quoted both Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who saw the teachings of the Hebrew prophets as a call for social action and worked tirelessly for civil rights for American blacks) and Rabbi Joachim Prinz (who served in New Jersey for many years, and as President of the American Jewish Congress, helped organize the March on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King). In addition, President Obama tells good jokes, with a warm and friendly smile, and talks seriously about tikkun olam, a concept which he says that he learned from his Jewish friends. Moreover, he uses appropriate Hebrew phrases at the right time (and pronounces them well!) and he has a real vision of peaceful coexistence for both the Jewish People and the Palestinian People.
If only we in Israel could elect such a liberal and passionate spokesman for justice and peace, as the American people have done!
Obama spoke about the importance of being "open and honest with one another." He said, "I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future." I am a fan of President Obama, and therefore I too want to be open and honest. I believe that even though the speech was historic and uplifting, there were some major problems with it -- and with the president's entire visit in Israel and Palestine, during the past few days.
President Obama asked the young people of Israel to imagine how they would feel if they were Palestinians:
Put yourself in their shoes -- look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished... Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
Did President Obama seriously and comprehensively look at the world through their eyes? How would you feel if you were a Palestinian and the President of the United States of America came to Israel and Palestine and spent 90 percent of his time in Israel and 10 percent in Palestine? In his many speeches in Israel, he deeply identified with the Jewish Zionist narrative -- which I loved, as did most Jews in Israel and around the world -- and with the Jewish State of Israel. But where was his recitation or identification with even some of the Palestinian narrative? It was hardly mentioned.
There was no real attempt at symmetry on this visit, which is why the Palestinians are offended by the one-sidedness of the United States, and have trouble seeing the U.S. as a neutral broker for a just and lasting peace. It is very clear to the Palestinians that the American president identifies deeply with the Jewish People, and their suffering and their hopes for security and peace. Indeed, as I write these lines, he is on his way to visit Vad Vashem, the Israeli national Holocaust Museum and the graves of Theodore Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin at the military cemetery on the same mountain in Jerusalem.
But if the President of the USA really wants to motivate the Palestinians to enter into genuine negotiations for peace with the Jewish state, he needs to give more than minimal lip service to Palestinian dreams and aspirations.
For me, the most important part of the president's great speech in Jerusalem, was his statement that "Peace is Possible!" I have been saying this for many years in my lectures and writings, and many people have dismissed me as naive and too optimistic. But President Obama reaches more people than I do (!) and I am gratified that he offered some hope to the people of Israel, although it is not clear that he offered the same hope to the Palestinian People.
"Peace is necessary because it is the only path to true security," he said. This is certainly true.
He also said that "Peace must be made among peoples." I couldn't agree more. This was an explicit reference to the importance of the work of peacebuilding among people with which I have been engaged --with many others in Israel -- for the past 22 years (as director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel). Making a peace agreement is essential. But learning to live in peaceful coexistence will be the work of the next generation, the work that will be done by the more than 1,000 young people who heard President Obama give a stirring and inspiring speech yesterday in Jerusalem, which will be remembered and quoted for a long time in Israel and the region.