Forward Thinking

Why Jews Are Mad at Bibi — Even Republicans

By Eric Yoffie

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I talked over the weekend with a longtime friend – a committed Jew, active in Jewish communal life, and a strong supporter of Israel. He calls himself an independent but votes mostly Republican. On U.S. President Barack Obama, he is wary and reserved; he voted for him once but for his opponent the other time. And my friend is very, very worried about the threat that Iran poses to Israel’s security.

When I asked for his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, I was taken aback by his reaction. He was angry; furious, in fact. He saw the speech as a wildly inappropriate orgy of Obama-bashing. As an American, he was offended – and worried. Had it ever happened before, he asked, that a foreign leader spoke to our Congress and launched a direct attack on the American administration? I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, it had not.

A couple I know with more or less the same Jewish commitments and political views responded similarly. They had watched the speech and felt that members of Congress were being bullied by a foreign leader. True, the leader in this instance was from a place they love dearly, have visited often, and advocate for vigorously. And yes, they are concerned about the dangers posed by an Iranian bomb. But Netanyahu’s high-handed reprimand seemed out-of-place to them and the adoring responses more political than sincere. They saw the whole spectacle as an affront to American dignity. An American Congress with any self-respect, they said, should not tolerate being lectured in this manner.

And these were the Republicans.

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Bibi Went Too Easy on Obama's Iran Deal

By Bob Feferman and Matan Shamir

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In his speech to the U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively made the case that the emerging nuclear deal with Iran is a “very bad deal.” But we would say that’s actually a polite understatement; Netanyahu didn’t go far enough. This is a dangerous deal — not only for Israel but for the entire region, the U.S. and the world.

According to media reports, Iran would reduce the number of centrifuges in operation to about 6,000 and its capacity to “breakout” of its treaty obligations and develop a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium would be set back to one year.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that one year is enough time to respond to an Iranian rush to a bomb and we can live with that. Sounds good, right? After all, their current breakout capacity is about two months. We’re told that Iran’s nuclear program is being rolled back to the point that it will no longer pose an imminent danger to the security of America and its allies. So where’s the problem?

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Netanyahu's Speech Makes an Amazing Techno Dance Song

By Sigal Samuel

You haven’t seen Bibi’s speech until you’ve seen it like this.

Noy Alooshe, the Israeli remix king best known for his 2011 “Zenga Zenga” spoof, has outdone himself with a remix of his prime minister’s speech to Congress.


In the video, Bibi bosses around the audience members like they’re little kids, issuing alternating commands of “Sit!” and “Stand!” — a reference to a Hebrew children’s song (“Ooga Ooga Lashevet Lakum”). He wins countless standing ovations with his constant refrain of “Iran! Bomb! Iran! Bomb!” And his juxtaposition of “Iran” and “Haman” seems to be a real crowd-pleaser, too.

Meanwhile, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett watches the livestream on TV, happily lapping up this show of American pageantry. Whenever he flips the channel, we get snippets of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid yelling “Yalla be-Karchana!” — loose translation: “Party hard!” — and of Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On flouncing around in her cringe-worthy campaign video. Both of these politicians look ridiculous — like flighty and superficial teenagers — by comparison to Bibi, who’s all gravitas and scare tactics and feathery blue-white hair.

In between references to “Game of Thrones,” “Google” and the Ayatollah’s “tweets,” Bibi’s got Barack Obama and Joe Biden running laps. They look, well, like little lap dogs…and the total effect is pretty amazing.

Just try dancing to it!

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Let the Bibi-Gate Blame Game Begin

By Nathan Guttman


Let the finger-pointing begin.

Two weeks into the Bibi-gate (or perhaps Bohener-gate, or simply speech-gate) controversy, with no sign of Democratic anger subsiding, Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are starting to look for excuses.

The defense Bibi has settled on can be summed up in three words: “It’s Boehner’s fault.”

Policymakers and congressional staff members have been hearing this line in closed-door meetings with Israelis for the past week. Israelis, including Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli embassy in Washington, have been arguing that they were blindsided by House Speaker John Boehner.

It was all, they say, one big misunderstanding.

According to this explanation, Netanyahu, through his ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, had understood that Boehner would make sure that Democrats were on board with the idea of inviting the Israeli leader to address a joint meeting of Congress on the problem of Iran’s nuclear development activities. Maybe not all Democratic leadership, but at least enough to allow all sides to say with a straight face that it was a bipartisan invitation.

Furthermore, Netanyahu and Dermer did not know — at least according to people who have been in touch with Israeli officials dealing with the mess created by the invitation — that Boehner would announce the visit the morning after President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech. The timing appeared designed to rebut the president’s stand on Iran, thus infuriating the president and his fellow Democrats.

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Why Was Alan Gross Anyone's Guest of Honor?

By John Stoehr

Alan Gross basks in applause at the State of the Union address./Getty Images

If you didn’t know anything about Alan Gross other than what you saw on television, you probably thought it was right for him to sit next to first lady Michelle Obama as guest of honor at this year’s State of the Union address. His presence marked the dramatic shifts taking place in U.S.-Cuba relations, shifts that Fidel Castro said Tuesday were good for both countries.

“We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the people of the world, including with our political adversaries,” he wrote in a letter to a student group in Cuba.

In December, television news reporting told the story of Gross as a humanitarian unjustly jailed in 2009 by a repressive Communist regime for the crime of bringing Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. His release from prison in December was part of President Obama’s plan to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of regime-change policy in the United States.

This TV news narrative had bipartisan support. In announcing his administration’s shift in Cuba policy, Obama said Gross “was arrested by Cuban authorities for simply helping ordinary Cubans.” Marco Rubio, the anti-communist Republican senator from Florida, said Gross was innocent of all charges against him and that he’d been “taken hostage” for “helping the Jewish community in Cuba have access to the internet.”

Neither was the case. He wasn’t “simply” helping ordinary Cubans. He wasn’t “taken hostage” and he wasn’t “innocent” of breaking Cuban law. I don’t mean to falsely equate Obama’s and Rubio’s statements. One points to the failed policies of the past while the other points to a more pragmatic, hopeful and unknowable future. But the facts behind Gross’s escapades have been largely known since at least 2012 thanks to the dogged reporting of the Associated Press’s Desmond Butler. At the time of his release, any cub reporter could have searched newspaper archives to learn more about Gross. That his presence at the State of the Union address did not raise an eyebrow in Washington, that he was recognized as a kind of hero in the fight for democracy and justice around the world, speaks volumes to the impotence of our national media and the lengths to which Obama is willing to go to end the still-lingering absurdities of the Cold War.

In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) paid Gross, through a third party, almost $600,000 to go to the island nation to install military-grade Internet equipment in Jewish synagogues that could not be detected by the government in Havana. Gross’s company specialized in installing computer electronics in remote areas and had worked in developing countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

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A Most Inspiring Hanukkah at the White House

By Jane Eisner

jane eisner
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl addresses Hanukkah reception at the White House.

By just before 8 o’clock last night, my feet really began to hurt.

I was standing at attention, waiting for the President and his wife, wedged between four bearded Haredi men, a woman with very bare shoulders, and several people way taller than me who had their iPhone cameras at the ready and looked as if they had prior lives as paparazzi. Your typical Jewish crowd.

By that time in the evening, I had stood on line in the surprisingly chilly Washington evening to enter the White House, then stood as we ate, schmoozed, and ogled at the lush Christmas decorations, the historical paintings, the massive kosher buffet and the sheer amazingness of being here, in the central address of American power.

But I was wearing my good black heels and my feet hurt. It was cool enough to be at the Hanukkah reception. Did I really need to pay attention to the actual ceremonial part, too?

In a word, yes.

There was a special excitement about being in the White House on the day that Alan Gross was freed from a Cuban jail as part of a dramatic rethink of relations with our neighbor to the south. The President was eager to connect that story to the larger holiday theme, and a positive current buzzed through the air that was so welcome after a year of awful news.


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VIDEO: Barack Obama Welcomes Alan Gross Home

By Forward Staff

President Barack Obama trumpeted the release of Alan Gross at the annual White House Hanukkah party.

The president said Gross had his strong family and the entire Jewish community to thank for his release after five hears in captivity in Cuba.

“He never gave up and we never gave up,” Obama told guests at the White House Wednesday evening.

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7 Ways for Bibi and Barack To Move Ahead

By Ron Kampeas

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(JTA) — President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not the best of friends – that seems pretty clear by now.

But following reports during the Gaza conflict of cut-off phone calls, tough talk of “demands” and eavesdropping, it may be time for them to figure out a way back to steadier ground.

We asked an array of experts on the U.S.-Israel relationship what the two leaders must do to restore a relationship that both say is critical for their countries.

Deus ex machina: A crisis will bring us together

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator under Democratic and Republican presidents, remembers the last such breach between U.S. and Israeli leaders – when George H.W. Bush was president and Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister – and it was worse, he says. That is, until Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

“The only thing that will improve the relationship is the emergence of a joint project that affords both of the them the opportunity to get on the same page and succeeds and makes them look good,” said Miller, now a vice president at the Wilson Center. The first Persian Gulf War and the subsequent Madrid peace talks are “what saved the Bush-Shamir relationship.”

“You need a set circumstances that compels the United States and Israel to operate in a way that not just manages something but accomplishes something and makes them look good,” Miller said. “That’s the only thing that will do it – phone calls and warm statements won’t do it.”

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Obama's Peace 'Pause' Spells Victory for Bibi

By Emily L. Hauser

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There’s a lot of talk about what Barack Obama and John Kerry should, or can, or might, or won’t do in support of the two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace that has been a stated American policy goal for many, many years, following the collapse of talks. On Friday morning, we learned that Obama has suggested a “pause” in negotiations, to give the parties a chance to consider their futures without an agreement.

If history is any guide, though, we know exactly what the U.S. will do at this juncture: Nothing.

Or, more precisely, if history is any guide, the U.S. will continue to do more of the same. The U.S. will more than likely continue to put more pressure on the Palestinians (who have less to give and less autonomy with which to give it) and almost none on Israel (which is the side with a state-of-the-art military and a whole lot of bulldozers). If history is any guide, the U.S. will continue to allow Israel to undermine American interests in the region with its continued rejectionist policies and actions, and while it’s true that the U.S. may make noises that get Israel’s political class wound up, bottom line, history tells us that there will be no consequences for Israel’s building on Palestinian land or killing of Palestinian civilians. None.

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We Got Bupkis From White House Seder

By Nathan Guttman

White House Photo

What would you do if you’d have to choose between spending the second night of Passover with your family (and with your twins celebrating their birthday on that same day) and laboring in someone else’s kitchen for hours?

For acclaimed chef/beloved wife Vered Guttman, there wasn’t much of a dilemma. She gladly left me and the kids with a sink full of dishes from the previous night’s (first) Seder and went on to roll matzo balls for another family’s second Seder.

The fact that this Seder was hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama and that the kitchen was located in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, can perhaps make leaving your family behind a bit more understandable.

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Obama's Thanksgivukkah Greeting Has Different Meaning for Israelis

By Ben Sales

(JTA) President Obama, always up on the latest Jewish internet fads, sent out an official Thanksgivukkah greeting yesterday:

“For the first time since the late 1800s – and for the last time until some 70,000 years from now – the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. It’s an event so rare some have even coined it “Thanksgivukkah.” As we gather with loved ones around the turkey, the menorah, or both, we celebrate some fortunate timing and give thanks for miracles both great and small.”

Very nice. But a sentence in the next paragraph caught my eye:

“In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, [the Maccabees] reclaimed their historic homeland. But the true miracle of Hanukkah was what came after those victories almost 2200 years ago – the Jewish Temple was cleansed and consecrated, and the oil that was sufficient for only one day lasted for eight.”

With this sentence, the White House has — inadvertently, I’m sure — taken a side in an old, latent Israeli debate over what the “Hanukkah miracle” really was.

Like almost every Jewish holiday, Hanukkah has something for both secular and religious Israelis. Secular Israelis see in Hanukkah an epic story that prefigures the birth of the modern state: a small, informal army — facing seemingly insurmountable odds — defeats a more powerful foe and creates an independent Jewish commonwealth. For non-religious Jews who find little to no meaning in the Second Temple and its sacrifices, the miracle of the oil is an afterthought.

But for religious Israelis, the war that liberated the land was just a prerequisite for the holiday’s real miracle: the small jar of oil lasting eight days – enough to reinstate the Temple service. In a similar vein, some modern Orthodox Israelis see the current, secular state as a stepping stone toward a coming messianic era when Jewish religious law will guide Israel.

The debate even emerges in two alternate Hebrew spellings of the word “Maccabee.” One spelling, with the Hebrew letter kuf, means “hammer” — emphasizing the Maccabees’ strength and the military victory. It’s the word’s popular English translation and also the inspiration for this gem of a film.

But the more common Hebrew spelling is with the letter kaf, which makes the word an acronym for the phrase “Who is like you among deities, God?” — stressing the Maccabees’ divine inspiration.

You probably won’t find people fighting in the streets of Jerusalem over the correct interpretation of the Hanukkah miracle. But for those who are counting: score one for the oil.

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Did You Get Invited to Obama's Hanukkah Party?

By Nathan Guttman

It’s time to check your inbox. The White House has sent out invitation for this year’s Hanukkah reception hosted by President Obama.

It is a good way of measuring one’s status in the world of Jewish leadership. If you’re not invited to the White House reception you’re either from the wrong party (in that case you might want to check out the RJC’s party) or you’ve just no longer a “Jewish leader.”

The good news is that this year’s list of invitees, which usually reaches 300-400 members of the tribe, is expected to be even bigger. In fact, the traditional White House Hanukkah reception will, for the first time, be divided into two receptions, one after the other.

The events, an administration source promised, would be identical, so no need to fret over which reception is better. They’ll be plenty of Jewish VIP’s at both events. Israeli-born Grammy winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari is expected to perform, and, just as in previous years, the White House kitchen will be made kosher for one day, to provide for the crowd.

For those who did not get a White House invitation, they’ll be a host of other opportunities to light the Menorah with Washington movers and shakers: at the Congress, the Pentagon, and of course the traditional lighting of the National Menorah sponsored by Chabad at the Ellipse just south of the White House, next to the national Christmas tree.

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Was That Barack Obama or Henry Kissinger?

By Aaron Magid

getty images

At the start of President Barack Obama’s presidency, he announced a “pivot towards Asia” after years of American military and political resources being bogged down in the Middle East.

Obama’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly shows how clearly the pendulum has swung back. Although he referred to Iran, Syria Israel, and Palestine a combined 71 times, Obama only mentioned China once. He left out other Asian nations such as India, Japan, and North Korea altogether. This imbalance speaks volumes about Obama’s understanding that in the current era it is nearly impossible to avoid the volatile Middle East.

The speech also highlighted his abandonment of democratization and human rights as supreme values, replaced with a Henry Kissinger-style Realpolitik.

When addressing the Syrian crisis, Obama asked rhetorically how the United Nations and United States have handled this delicate affair. His underwhelming response: “We believe that as a starting point the international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons.”

Gone was the rhetoric calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s immediate removal from power. The stated root for this policy is also illuminating, “I did so (supported intervention) because I believe it is in the national security interests of the United States and in the interest of the world.” His main focus is American security interests and global norms.

Obama continued by outlying his doctrine using American military power: if America’s allies in the region are attacked, oil flow disrupted, terrorist bases built, or weapons of mass destruction utilized. The president pointedly avoided promising that the U.S. would will use force to prevent genocide or to end a human rights massacre like in Syria. Translation: Obama is giving free rein to Assad to continue slaughtering his own people. Just don’t use chemical weapons or stop the flow of oil to Chicago or Los Angeles.

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The Presidential Blessing

By Yermi Brenner

Taking a moment off from the intense debate over Syria, President Barack Obama published a blessing for the High Holidays.

Obama noted that 50 years ago, Rabbi Joachim Prinz stood with Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and told the marchers the when god created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. The president added that it is the time of year in which we should all ask ourselves the most piercing questions, like, “Am I doing my part to repair the world?”

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/183238/barack-obama-will-visit-stockholm-synagogue-during/#ixzz2dwnl2MH5

Obama attended a Rosh Hashana service in Stockholm, Sweden, where he will also visit a memorial monument for Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

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Obama Tweets 'Love Is Love' on Gay Marriage

By Forward Staff

getty images
Barack Obama

President Barack Obama wasted no time hailing the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage.

Within moments of the ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, the president Tweeted:

Today’s DOMA ruling is a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality. #LoveIsLove.

Obama later applauded the decision that makes married gay men and women eligible for federal benefits, and he directed Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure the ruling is implemented.

“We are a people who declared that we are all created equal, and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said in a written statement. He got the news as he flew to Africa aboard Air Force One.

Obama said the ruling applies only to civil marriages and that how religious institutions define and consecrate marriages has always been up to those institutions.

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Jack Lew's New and Improved John Hancock

By Nathan Guttman

getty images

When President Obama nominated Jack Lew to be his next treasury secretary, he could not avoid teasing Lew for his only known fault – his illegible signature. “Jack assures me that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency should he be confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury,” Obama joked back in January.

And Lew took notice.

After two and half months in office, Jack Lew unveiled his new signature, doing away with the loopy squiggly John Hancock that had become his trade mark, in favor of a way more conventional “Jacob Lew” signature, with a pronounced J and L and a winding W at the end.

Jack Lew’s new and improved signature

Lew is the most senior Jewish member on Obama’s team and the only Orthodox Jew to hold a top cabinet position. When first nominated, handwriting experts said his eccentric signature, made up of a series of loops, indicated a personality that can “adapt quickly” and Lew proved to be just that, with his complete signature makeover.

Old signature

Attention to Lew’s signature was not only an item of curiosity and a rare glance into the head of the otherwise perfectly molded civil servant. As Treasury Secretary, Lew’s signature will be on every new currency bill printed in the United States. And so the threat of having dollar bills carry an strange looking string of circular loops has been lifted, depriving Americans from an opportunity to see a more whimsical signature adorn bills in their wallets.

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Is Barack Obama Less Pro-Palestinian?

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images

A new poll indicates that Barack Obama’s Middle East visit left Israelis less convinced that he is pro-Palestinian.

A survey conducted before the visit found that 36% of Israelis considered the president more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli. This fell a remarkable 20% to 16% in a survey published today. Smith Research conducted both surveys.

Though Israelis now view Obama as less pro-Palestinian, there has been only a tiny increase in those who say that he is more pro-Israeli than pro-Palestinian. Only 27% of respondents took this view, compared to 26% before the visit.

The Jerusalem Post, which commissioned both Smith polls, stated that the new survey shows that Obama made an impression on Israelis but “not the impression he was trying to make.” But one wonders if this is a fair interpretation.

The results were a way of Israeli’s saying that they’re less skeptical and less convinced that Obama is on “the other side” but not yet ready to endorse him, which is only a natural part of the process of warming to him. Or at least, it’s a natural way of them expressing themselves if confronted with this rather odd line of questioning.

Why ask people which “side” Obama is taking, constructing pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli as polar opposites? This makes an assumption that not all Israelis accept, but which all respondents are forced to adhere to. And perhaps in part the fact that the pro-Palestinian figure dropped without any significant increase in the pro-Israeli future points to the problem with this model of questioning.

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Obama Seder Reflects Common Bond With Jews

By Devra Ferst

Just before the doors of the Old Family Dining Room swing open to welcome Elijah to the White House Seder, Dr. Eric Whitaker, a friend of President Obama, reads aloud the Emancipation Proclamation.

White House/Pete Souza
Welcoming Elijah: First Lady Michelle Obama lights candles to begin last year’s White House Seder.

Last week, as I researched the Obama Seder (the only Seder hosted by a sitting President), I was struck by several things, including the homey feeling of it and the extraordinary circumstances of the first Seder on the campaign trail in 2008. But nothing struck me as much as this profound reminder of the real meaning of Passover.

The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the grandest-named document in American history aside from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. But the practical implications for slaves when it was enacted on January 1, 1863, were far fewer than its name would imply.

Issued by Abraham Lincoln, the document only liberated a very small number of slaves. Freedom for most black Americans didn’t come about until the Civil War was won and the 13th Amendment was adopted nearly three years later. And, of course, it took a century more before even a semblance of real equality was achieved.

Despite its shortcomings, the sentiment of the document can not be overlooked. It was a crucial step in the fight to create a country where freedom and equality are rights granted to everyone.

Similarly, during the Seder, we end the story of the Exodus long before the Jewish people reach the Promised Land (40 years, to be precise). And most of those liberated from Egypt would die on that long journey towards a truly free life.

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6 Things to Remember About Obama's Trip

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images

Strategically sandwiching his public criticism of Israeli policy in the middle of three days committing himself to Jewish history and hopes, President Barack Obama flies out of Ben Gurion airport hoping that Israelis will remember the balance in his visit.

The visit was all about critical mass. He wanted a critical mass of poignant words, actions and visits that would push the buttons of Israelis, in order to make the reprimand for Israeli policy towards Palestinians in his speech yesterday just one part of a bigger picture. The reprimand was essential for his agenda, but for it to be received by mainstream Israel as caring not denigrating, all of the rest of the trip’s content was important. Here’s five things to remember about the historic trip:

Joke’s on Bibi Obama made himself him seem familiar and friendly. Hence his joke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his sons are “very good looking young men who clearly got their looks from their mother.”

It wasn’t very funny – in fact it would’ve been far funnier if he suggested they got their dress sense from their mother – but it sent Israelis the message that Obama isn’t sparring with their Prime Minister, and if Bibi is sharing jokes with him, who are they to be suspicious?

Touch of Hebrew Whether it was Obama speaking in Hebrew on a few occasions, or making reference to the Israeli television satire Eretz Nehederet, it sent the signal out that Obama appreciates their culture and has made some efforts to understand it.

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Why Obama's Speech Was Historic

By Gal Beckerman

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.

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