Obama, show ’em your stuff!
Few US presidents have had as intimate an acquaintance with Jews and Judaism, and after doing his homework, Obama should strut his stuff.
Obama waves during his second presidential inauguration Photo: REUTERS
On my return home to Jerusalem, I read of President Barack Obama’s planned visit
to Israel and the West Bank.
Israeli newspapers reported that President
Obama will not only meet with Israeli and Palestinian politicians, but will
address Israeli students directly at a mass assembly.
Good idea. If
properly exploited, such town hall meetings with Israel’s future leaders may
help pull Israel out of the quagmire in which the peace process has been stuck
for decades. Much depends on whether Obama can succeed in combining his personal
charisma and knowledge (of the situation and of history) with an unflinching
The planned itinerary shows that Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu has orchestrated the grand propaganda tour to serve as the background
for the visit: Yad Vashem, Model of the Second Temple, Shrine of the Book, expo
of Israel as hi-tech giant... Netanyahu has already prepared the sanctimonious
speeches with the usual themes: the greatness of Israel, the Jewish contribution
to civilization, the bonds uniting America’s manifest destiny and Israel’s, and,
above all, the need for unlimited security in response to eternal, cosmic
(especially Islamic) anti-Semitism. The speeches have been preached by Netanyahu
before ; they will be dusted off and delivered with Netanyahu’s usual arrogance
at every step along the road.
If Obama wishes not only to speak to
Israelis but to be heard by them (over the din of Netanyahu’s rhetoric), he must
present, not only a new vision of peace but a new vision of Israel. No
American presidential authority should endorse a moral mission
addressed to the Jewish people. Few US presidents have had as intimate an
acquaintance with Jews and Judaism, and after doing his homework, Obama should
strut his stuff.
The Model of the Second Temple provides an occasion to
speak of the hubris of the Zealots, who stood in the way of the Sages’
negotiations with Rome. Convinced that God was on their side, they led Jerusalem
to its tragic destruction. Perhaps he could remind listeners that when the
Temple was engulfed in flames, the High Priests climbed up to the roof of the
sanctuary and tossed the keys to heaven, proclaiming that they were returning
the keys to God, as they had proven themselves unworthy of His gift.
the Dead Sea scrolls, he should speak of the legacy shared by the three
monotheistic religions and of Israel’s responsibility to curate that heritage
for humanity. The hi-tech exhibit can serve to remind all of the enormous
responsibility that comes along with technological mastery. The same research
gave birth both to cleaner energy and to the bomb. The start-up nation should
use its genius to improve the health and welfare of both its citizens and its
And as he lays his wreath at Yad Vashem, and proclaims
his respect for the Jewish victims, Obama could also remind his hearers that if
such incomparable evil took place in civilized Germany, it could – and can –
take place anywhere. That the Holocaust is not only the result of anti-Semitism,
but of abuse of power, of indifference to the human rights of the
Some of these messages will arouse controversy. There are many
Israelis who are wary to take advice from an outsider; especially one named
Barack Hussein Obama. But the recent elections have shown that many Israelis,
while not prisoners of Netanyahu’s rhetoric, have despaired of real peace. They
envision a progressive democratic Jewish state as a bastion in the “bad
neighborhood” of the Middle East. They imagine they can achieve a better
standard of living for themselves and a progressive place in the Western world,
while ignoring the occupation of the territories. It’s up to Obama to remind
To tell them that democracy cannot apply only on one side
of the Green Line. That to act in the name of a Jewish state is to take on a
great moral responsibility.
And that Israel’s occupation of the
Palestinian territories is not only strategically untenable but profoundly
As a veteran tour guide, I can tell you that guided tours of
Israel can have a profound effect on people’s commitments.
make a difference.
How about adding a short excursion to the Separation
Wall with a coffee break in the house of a divided village? We’ve been on
Netanyahu’s tour for too long. President Obama, don’t let Netanyahu hog the
The author is an Israeli anthropologist and veteran tour guide. He
is author of Above the Death-pits, Beneath the Flag: Youth Voyages to Poland and
the Performance of Israeli National Identity (New York and Oxford: Berghahn
Press, 2008, 2010).