Truths You Can Use

President Obama lands today in Israel. It is his first visit as President.

His relationship with Israelis has had its ups and downs. He intrigued and inspired many Israelis during the 2008 campaign. One merchant interviewed recently in the New York Times recalled selling thousands of kaepas (small skullcaps worn by religiously observant Jews) inscribed in Hebrew with the Obama campaign slogan, “change you can believe in.”

obama israel trip

How The Relationship Waned

Criticism grew quickly, however, following the President’s March 2009 trip to the Middle East. While he visited Israel’s neighbor Egypt, and delivered an important speech there, the President did not visit Israel.

The message and focus of his speech also alienated many Israelis. It seemed to link the purpose of the founding of the state of Israel with Jewish sufferering during the Holocaust.

It did not note the connection between the Jewish state and the land of Israel dating back to the Bible, and seemed to bypass the two thousand years of Jewish longing for return to Israel.

The Love Affair With Bill Clinton

Israelis’ coolness toward Obama differs significantly from their love of former President Bill Clinton. Moshe Halbertal, a scholar and astute observor of Israeli society, said recently if he were eligible to run, Clinton could be elected Prime Minister of Israel.

Even through President Obama’s policies toward Israel do not differ materially from those of President Clinton, their perception does. In relating to Israelis, President Clinton displayed his knowledge of the potent observation by Poet Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

During this visit, President Obama has the opportunity to change the way Israelis feel. Here’s what we can do:

1. Proclaim proudly the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel: Few countries need to justify their right to exist as often and as vociferously as Israel. President Obama can show he gets their plight and identifies with them by saying Israel has been part of the Jewish heart and soul since the time of the Bible. This statement is neither unimportant nor controversial.

2. Acknowledge that Israelis have tried and struggled for peace with their neighbors: After the War of Independence in 1948, Israel sought peace with its neighbors. After the Six-Day War in 1967, it offered a return of conquered territories for a concrete peace treaty with Arab Neighbors. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel sought sought another peace agreement. All were rejected.

Israel is also the only country to have ever created a plan for Palestinians to live in and govern their own state. When Jordan and Egyptian occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank, they did not attempt to create a Palestinian state. Israel has tried.

And the President can acknowledge that.

This acknowledgement would also have pragmatic effects. Israelis are committed to peace, and if the President acknowledgements they have struggled for it before, he can help inspire them to struggle for it again.

3. Condemn terrorism unequivocally: Israel has been the miner’s canary for the spread of terrorism. It was Israeli school and airplanes that became the first targets of radical terrorists in the 1970s. Dozens of suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians over the last two decades. 

The threat of terrorism is what makes Israelis fearful of a Palestinian state. As several recent polls indicated, 70 percent of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet, when asked whether two states living side by side would bring peace, 80 percent of Israelis say no.

If Israelis feel the President understands their concern about terrorism, they will feel both more secure in taking risks for peace and confident in America’s ability to help forge it. May it be so. 

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