Forward Thinking

Why Obama's Speech Was Historic

By Gal Beckerman

  • Print
  • Share Share
getty images

Barack Obama stepped down from the podium a couple hours ago after delivering what my gut tells me was a historic speech.

I have two reasons for thinking this is true, but take these comments as a quick, first reaction.

More than any other American president who has spoken about Israel and the conflict, Obama used a thoroughly Israeli vocabulary. He described how an Israeli perceives the security situation in terms that spoke directly to Israel’s historical memory, siege mentality, and utter fatigue with high-minded talk of peace.

Here’s how he described what it means to be an Israeli:

You live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected the right of your nation to exist, and your grandparents had to risk their lives and all that they had to make a place for themselves in this world.

Your parents lived through war after war to ensure the survival of the Jewish state. Your children grow up knowing that people they’ve never met may hate them because of who they are, in a region that is full of turmoil and changing underneath your feet.

This was the language that hit its mark, the Israeli kishkes, more than the name checks of Sharon, Ben-Gurion, and Rabin, or the tortured attempts to throw out a word in Hebrew here or there.

And it felt like a departure from past rhetoric, which spoke about the necessity for peace without acknowledging why it might be so hard for Israelis to take the concept seriously any more.

The other point that felt important was his appeal to empathy. While he showed his own ability to imaginatively leap into the Israeli experience, he then asked Israelis to do the same when it came to Palestinians. After describing all the practical reasons why there was no real alternative to peace for demographic reasons, for security reasons, among many others, he also described a moral argument for peace that moved beyond the usual bromides. This also felt new:

But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized. And put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.

It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own — living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank or displace Palestinian families from their homes. 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.

He then went “off-script,” as he put it, to describe a meeting with young Palestinians that took place that morning, teenagers who reminded him of his own daughters, saying, “I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed.”

Now I know there will be those who will dismiss all this empathy as just more mushy-mouthed rhetoric. I too feel pretty jaded about the possibility for good feeling to enter such a protracted, entrenched conflict and know that the practical arguments for a resolution are really the best chance peace has got.

But it is powerful – and fresh, and, yes, historical – when a leader breaks down a problem like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the essential, psychological barriers that stand in its way. Even if this doesn’t bring us any closer to the nuts and bolts of negotiation and compromise, it presents the United States position vis-à-vis these two, old combatants in more honest terms than any I’ve ever heard uttered by an Israeli, Palestinian or American leader before. That’s got to be some kind of progress.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: tel aviv, rabin square, jerusalem, israel, barack obama

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.