‘The World Can Change’
Obama’s speech contained a profound message, one that is rooted in Jewish tradition, says Peter Beinart.
Today in Jerusalem, President Obama did not give a perfect speech. Contrary to what he said, the Passover story is not about “wandering in the desert”—that’s what happens after the Jews leave Egypt. It’s not about “faith in … the Torah” either, since Moses doesn’t receive the Torah until after Passover. (That’s why Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah on Shavuot—Pentecost—fifty days later.) Nor is it quite true that Theodor Herzl “had the foresight to see that the future of the Jewish people had to be reconnected to their past,” given that in 1903 he proposed accepting a Jewish state in Uganda, not a place with much connection to the Jewish past.
In his bid to show that he feels Jewish pain, Obama also occasionally bent the truth. It’s not true that Israelis in Sderot face rocket fire “simply because of who they are and where they live.” Yes, of course, Hamas and Islamic Jihad bombard Sderot in part because they reject Israel’s existence and hate Jews. But if that were the only reason, then there would have been no point in negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas earlier this year, as Israel did. By lifting restrictions on Gazan farmers and fishermen in return for a reduction in rocket fire, Israel itself tacitly acknowledged what Obama did not: that Hamas rocket fire is not motivated purely by anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but by Israeli policy as well.
Obama also exaggerated when he said that Israelis “live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected your right to exist.” In addition to Egypt and Jordan, which formally recognize Israel, every other Arab country has offered to do so if Israel returns to the 1967 lines and accepts a “just” and “agreed upon” solution for Palestinian refugees. The point isn’t that when the Arab League unveiled its peace initiative in 2002 and reaffirmed it in 2007 Israel should have signed on the dotted line. (I personally oppose a return to the exact 1967 lines.) But for Obama to discuss Arab rejectionism without referencing the Arab Peace Initiative was disingenuous.
Still, it was a great, even profound, speech. It was a great speech because Obama rejected the Jewish right’s endless rhetoric about Israel having “no partner.” He defended Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, and told Israelis what their own security officials know: that Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, at political risk to themselves, have in recent years helped save countless Israeli lives. It was a great speech because Obama asked Israelis to “look at the world” through the eyes of a Palestinian child who sees her parents controlled and humiliated by a foreign army. Contrast that to Benjamin Netanyahu, who when referring to the Palestinians’ “plight” and how much “they have suffered,” in his 2000 book, A Durable Peace, put those phrases in quotation marks, as if to suggest that real Palestinian suffering does not exist.
Above all, it was a great speech because Obama challenged the core narrative of Netanyahu and his American supporters: that Jews are the world’s permanent victims, licensed by their fears to worry only about themselves. Obama acknowledged the Holocaust; he acknowledged threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. But in the most important words in his speech, he declared that “Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world,” and Israelis must have the “courage” to see that “the world can change.”
“The world can change.” That’s what Bibi doesn’t acknowledge when he compares Iran’s leadership to Haman from the Book of Esther, the embodiment of the eternal evil that always stalks the Jewish people. For the Jewish right, Jews change—they can go from being weak to being strong—but “the world” doesn’t. The peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt don’t matter; the Arab Peace Initiative doesn’t matter; Mahmoud Abbas’s repudiation of his claim on his hometown of Safed doesn’t matter; the fact that the vast majority of Diaspora Jews now live prosperously in liberal democracies that safeguard their religious liberty doesn’t matter. Fundamentally, the world remains the same.
Because the world doesn’t change, an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank today is no different than a Jewish fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1938. Because the world doesn’t change, an American Jew lobbying for AIPAC today is no different than an American Jew lobbying Franklin Roosevelt to save Europe’s Jews in 1942. Today, as forever, because Jews stand on the knife-edge of extermination, their power only confirms upon them one responsibility: to survive.
That’s why Netanyahu and his supporters cannot see the world through the eyes of a Palestinian child. Because nothing more profoundly illustrates how the world really has changed. To truly look at the world through that Palestinian child’s eyes is to see ourselves as we have always seen others: powerful, alien, terrifying. It is to realize that today it is no longer Jewish children who grow up watching their parents’ laugh and shrug and cry, and struggle to maintain their precious heritage and human dignity under the control of a foreign army. That experience, the one that every Jew identifies with in her bones, is no longer ours. It is the Palestinians’. By clinging to it, by insisting that we are still the real victims, we free ourselves from our moral obligations to that child.
But the message of Exodus is not that freeing yourself from bondage frees you from moral obligation. To the contrary, the whole point of linking Passover and Shavuot, as Jewish tradition does, is to link the Jewish escape from oppression with the Jewish acceptance of the moral responsibilities that come with receiving the Torah. To disavow those moral responsibilities, our tradition suggests, is to not be truly free.
“It is our duty, to ourselves and to our children, to see the new world as it is now,” said Yitzhak Rabin upon being sworn in as Israel’s prime minister in 1992. “No longer are we necessarily ‘a people that dwells alone,’ and no longer is it true that ‘the whole world is against us.’ We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in thrall for almost half a century.” The year after that speech, Benjamin Netanyahu compared Rabin to Neville Chamberlain for signing the Oslo Accords. And two years after that, after being endlessly compared to a Nazi, Rabin was murdered by a Jew who claimed that Oslo threatened Jewish lives.
Today, in Jerusalem, Obama stood on Rabin’s shoulders: “the world can change.” He too declared that because Jews are not the world’s permanent victims, we must use our power to help ensure that Palestinians are not either. Tomorrow, on Mount Herzl, Obama will visit Rabin’s grave. Then, in the precious little time that’s left, he must try to finish his work.