Obama’s Speech in Jerusalem 21/03/13
WOW!!! Obama could certainly sell refrigerators to the Innuit. Facing a tough and justly cynical audience of young Israelis, Israelis who serve in the army, postponed their lives and careers, and live in the nastiest neighbourhood in the world in which every calumny possible is thrown against them, Israelis who themselves have increasingly given up hope and persuaded themselves to ignore or even hate Palestinians, he sold them on hope. He sold them on the possibility of peace. He sold them on the idea that it is their task, not just the government’s, to begin the true and the hardest struggle – the struggle to make peace.
How did one speech achieve so much? How is it that this one speech will go down in history as one of the great pieces of oratory? There was no soaring language. There were very few sonorous phrases that would echo and re-echo in your brain. There was none of the historic rhythmic black cadences that Martin Luther King used so brilliantly in his speeches. It was the structure of the speech and its comprehensiveness in a very tight format. It was the direct appeal to the hearts, the minds and, most of all, to the great courage and guts of Israelis – particularly Israeli youth.
I have attached the speech if you have not already read or heard it. When you read it, you want to stand up at certain points and applaud even though you are just reading the speech. It is a speech that gets you up off your ass.
First of all, whether or not it ever had any validity, Barack Obama put to rest, as he had tried to do in the previous 36 hours, the image of himself and Benjamin Netanyahu as not only not at loggerheads, as not being linked by icicles. He did it, not only by calling the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi, but with humour: "just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet." At the same time, he showed that he knew the most popular satirical news show on Israeli television.
He did it by personally and institutionally identifying with the Jewish people. Not only had he introduced seders into the White House, but the story of Jewish wandering, Jewish homelessness, Jewish perseverance, Jewish religious faith, indeed, even the history of Jewish persecution, was his personal story even though he was not a Jew. It was the story with which he identified and that inspired him. "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."
As he said, however, the Zionist dream did not end with getting to the promised land, with getting a state of their own for the Jewish people. That was just a new beginning: "the work goes on – for justice and dignity; for opportunity and freedom." Barack Obama did not just say that the statement that Zionism is racism or that Zionism is apartheid. Barack Obama in effect said: I am a Zionist, just as John Kennedy had once said, I am a Berliner. "The Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And 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 homeland." Israel is the realization of national self-determination for the Jewish people. "Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own."
The second part of the speech dwelt on Israel as the start-up nation par excellence. Israel is a country of innovators, of Nobel prize winners, a thriving democracy where referring to lively public debate is an understatement. And all this has been accomplished in the midst of intense hostility and physical insecurity. He then told a big white lie. Through it all, the United States of America has shared an unbreakable bond of friendship with Israel. In the context, it was totally understandable and forgivable.
America shares interests with Israel, shares $40 billion dollars annually in trade, shares a commitment to the security and stability of the Middle East, shares a belief in economic growth and the expansion of trade around the world, shares a belief in a strong middle class, shares a faith in democracy. But international realism is not all both nations have in common. Both are countries of immigration representing the ingathering of people from around the world. Both are countries enriched by faith. Both are countries made strong by a belief in the rule of law. Both are countries fueled by innovation and entrepreneurship. After he established his deep personal identification with Israel and America`s shared interests and values with Israel, Obama moved into the third and tough part of his speech – the issues of establishing security, peace and prosperity in the Middle East.
He began with security as he had adumbrated in his speeches over the last months when addressing the Issue of Israel. Security was basic – not simply in general but for the child in Sderot. Security requires an Iron Dome. Security requires a strong defence force. But these are not sufficient. These will not protect Israelis boarding a tour bus in Bulgaria. The only real protection is when the people in the region – specifically in reference to Syria – can live in states in which the leadership is responsive and responds to the needs and desire of its people while protecting all communities within and making peace with countries beyond those borders.
Obama brought up Iran, and without underlining any differences with Netanyahu over red lines, reaffirmed that America was committed to Iran not acquiring nuclear weapons. While giving diplomacy a chance, "America will do what it must to prevent a nuclear armed Iran." Then he delivered the lines that must have received the longest and loudest standing ovation. "Make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd."
You are not alone. I am with you. America is with you. Further, you are even justified in being sceptical about the prospects of peace. But I, Barack Obama, am not going to take the easy way out and express solidarity in the abstract without working to assure that security in the best way possible, through peace.
So Obama came to the fourth and greatest section of his speech – his arguments to say that peace was necessary, peace was just and peace was possible with the Palestinians.
1. First, peace is necessary. Indeed, it is the only path to true security. You can 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 and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.
2. Second, peace is just. Though security must be at the center of any agreement, the only path to peace is through negotiation. The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. 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.
3. Third, peace is possible. Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable– that real borders will have to be drawn. But only you can make that dream possible. That is where peace begins – not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections that take place among those who live together in this land, and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see. Your hopes must light the way forward.
There will be many voices that say this change is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be. Ben Gurion once said, "In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles." Sometimes, the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. After all, that is a lesson that the world learned from the Jewish people.
We bear that history on our shoulders, and we carry it in our hearts. Today, as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, you – the young people of Israel – must now claim the future. It falls to you to write the next chapter in the story of this great nation.
As a man who has been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience – tikkun olam – I am hopeful that we can draw upon what’s best in ourselves to meet the challenges that will come; to win the battles for peace in the wake of so much war; and to do the work of repairing this world. May God bless you, and may God bless Israel and the United States of America. Toda raba.
I believe that great words well said can change the course of history.
Tags: Obama, Israel, peace process, Zionism.