Terra Incognita: Preaching to Israel’s converted

When a heckler interrupted Obama’s speech many people assumed it was a “free Pollard” protester.

Obama speech in Jerusalem 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Obama speech in Jerusalem 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘Have you come here to give Israel more weapons to kill Palestinians?” shouted a lone heckler during President Barack Obama’s speech in Jerusalem on March 21. When the heckler interrupted Obama’s speech many people assumed it was a “free Pollard” protester. However it turned out it was a Balad activist from Eilabun in northern Israel who had been selected by the University of Haifa to attend the speech.
The presence of a Balad activist at the speech is interesting, considering that Ariel University students were excluded. But the absence of right-wing hecklers was only one element of Obama’s speech that should lead us to question its long-term effect.
Obama seemed to imitate Mark Anthony’s funeral oration in his speech, beginning by praising the status quo, only to change direction at the end. Mohammed Khalaily told The New York Times that “When he started talking about security I felt as if [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu had disguised himself as Obama and was giving the speech.”
Obama seemed to be trying to channel John F. Kennedy in Berlin when he said in Hebrew, “you are not alone.”
But after hitting the right points to make the Israeli center feel good, he then set about challenging Israel’s policy in the West Bank: “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.”
In mentioning the demographic issue Obama wanted to speak to the pragmatists. Then he sought to encourage the audience of students that the time for peace had come. “The days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments.”
He talked about the plight of Palestinian students and farmers and mentioned “justice.” Obama recalled his Cairo speech, when he had similarly appealed to young people: “The things they want – they’re not so different from you. The ability to make their own decisions, to get an education and a good job.”
Then president sought to encourage the students to force their leaders to make the hard decisions. “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.” To roaring applause he claimed, “the only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war – because no wall is high enough, and no Iron Dome is strong enough.”
The applause at every line was odd for anyone familiar with the diversity of Israel. Israel is a divided society, between secular and religious, Jewish and Arab, poor and rich. How could so many agree on so many things? The relatively homogenous applause and lack of protests in the audience was indicative of an audience that was relatively homogenous, ethnically, religiously and economically.
It was drawn from Israel’s major universities.
Obama assumed perhaps that these youth represented Israel, but he missed out on the fact that many Israeli youths study in yeshiva or in colleges, and were thus unable to attend. When the New York Times sought to interview students on the speech, the students were almost all of the same center-left political stripe.
Jonathan Helderen parroted Obama: “At the end of the day, we all want the same basic thing – to live our lives in peace and to prosper.” Moshe Ashkenazi claimed that a “window of opportunity was in the air.” Nimrod Ben- Ze’ev asserted that he sought to make young people “lose our self-image as victims, nurtured by Israeli politics and politicians.”
Tal Cohen argued the pro-Israel part of the speech made her feel “uncomfortable,” and that hope only came with his criticisms. Kevin Rosenblum similarly felt Obama had first “appeased” in his speech and then came to the point; “he wanted us, the young generation, to pressure our government to make concessions in order to attain peace with the Palestinians.” Nina Ariel claimed that unity came “not on the basis of the victimizing collective memory of the Jewish past” but through the hope the president brought.
How is it that such similar views were present at the Obama speech? How is it that, judging by these comments, many of the students believe Israel is a country of self-deluded “victimizers”? Do most Israelis truly believe that, or is that primarily the view of a small group? What was represented at the speech was in fact primarily Israel’s elite, students from secular Ashkenazi backgrounds.
In their reactions they reflected the typical Meretz, Hadash and Labor voters. But most of the country is not made up of these voters.
Obama wanted to inspire the youth to make change, but in general he was preaching to the converted. These are the same young people from the social justice protest.
Almost all of them were from the “center” of the country, the area around Gush Dan. These are the young people who feel uncomfortable when anyone speaks with too much pride about Israel, and some even felt uncomfortable when Hezbollah was called a terrorist organization by the American leader. They are the ones raised to be critics in their political sciences classes.
Obama mentioned demographics in his speech, but he wasn’t speaking to a demographic cross section of Israel.
He failed to speak to the young people who vote Likud, Shas, or for the national-religious camp. Yet those voters are the ones whose parties also play a major role in Israel.
For Israel to make peace those voters also have to be inspired and they also have to understand why peace is in their best interest.
Another major shortcoming was the insinuation that it is Israel that makes peace, rather than the notion that peace is a two-way street. As Obama said, “Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments.”
But in order to make peace between peoples you have to demand the same things of both peoples and get both peoples on board to support peace. Recognizing this would mean speaking to Palestinian students as well. Not only Israel’s young generation can make peace.
In fact, inflating the heads of secular young Israelis with the notion that they can make peace as if with a magic wand encourages their self-delusions of superiority over the Palestinians. One makes peace with peoples, and in that sense the Palestinians must be part of the story. Yet Obama’s trip imitated the same old story of meeting with Palestinian leaders while speaking to the Israeli people.
In a sense this could be seen as an acknowledgement that Palestinian students would have given the president a rough welcome, considering that activists had vandalized his posters in the West Bank and that the British consul-general had recently been attacked at Bir Zeit. But Obama could have considered addressing, for instance, students of American Studies at Al-Quds University, at least to have broached the notion, because if it is the peoples that make the peace, both peoples must be on board.