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.

March 17, 2013 23:11
3 minute read.
Obama waves during his second presidential inauguration

Obama waves during his second presidential inauguration 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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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.

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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 firmness.

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 less.

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.

At 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 poorer neighbors.

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 weak.

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 them otherwise.

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 immoral.

As a veteran tour guide, I can tell you that guided tours of Israel can have a profound effect on people’s commitments.

Itineraries 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 mike.

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).

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