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Obama’s Trip to Israel: A Rabbi’s Perspective

obama speechI’ve had a running dialogue with a friend in my congregation over the past four plus years.  I know I’m not the only one to have experienced this exchange (or something akin to it.)  My friend, let’s call him “Sam,” will approach me – at the Oneg Shabbat, at other congregational events, when we meet elsewhere in the community, and quite often during our recent congregational trip to Israel (in late December) when Sam joined the group for his first-ever trip to Israel.  The conversation often starts with something like, “So Eric,  “Is Obama good for Israel?”  Sometimes it’s “Don’t you realize that Obama is no friend of Israel?”  Once in a while it’s been, “Don’t you think that deep-down Obama is not only really anti-Israel but perhaps a bit anti-Semitic?”  Recently – every week in the past month plus, it’s been, “So what do you think about Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel?”

Some of you are smiling because you, too, have either been asked, or have yourselves asked some of these questions.  My reply to that last one over the past weeks, not uniquely my own, has been “there are those who’ve been angry with the President for not visiting Israel during his first term in office.  Now they’re angry that he’s going.”

Let me admit, I, too wish our President had visited Israel, as President of the United States during his first term in office.  I don’t know if it would have changed much on the ground – and we’ll never know. But I also remind myself, this was not Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  It was President Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  We can’t change the past.  “Should have,” “would have,” “wish he would have” don’t help us going forward.  And now, our President has visited Israel.  In fact, he’s only just left on Air Force One for the next stop on his trip.

Like many, I followed the news of the President’s visit to Israel.  I’ve read the various commentaries.  Courtesy of YouTube early this morning I listened to the President’s address at IMG_4022
Binyanei Ha-uma
– the Convention Center in Jerusalem.  It would have taken less time to read the transcript, but I wanted to hear his voice, see his face and hear his interaction with those seated in that hall where I myself have sat at many a performance and conference over the years. I sat down, imagined myself in the audience – both within the hall and beyond – and listened to the President of the United States address those assembled “around me” and those listening in from around the world.  Thus far, I’ve tried to steer clear of the commentary on his speech.  I wanted first to reflect on my own kishkes, my own gut and how I am feeling about what I heard.

I am proud of my President for the message he delivered yesterday in Jerusalem.  Do I agree with 100% of what he said?  Not quite.  But I found his message powerful, honest (and I do believe that he honestly spoke what is in his kishkes).  I also found his message to be respectful of our Jewish heritage, our Jewish past, of Israel’s history, her leaders in generations gone by, and her peoples’ existential realities.  I also found his message to be clear and forthright when it comes to the need for Israel – and others – to not “give up” on peace, no matter how hard the road to peace may be.  I found his call for justice to be consonant with what I believe is at the heart of our Jewish tradition’s value system.  I found his clear-throated call for “two states for two peoples,” and his acknowledgement that this is about the young people, the children and their future to be spot on.

I would like to believe him when he identifies Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as Israel’s true partners for peace.  I would.  But my kishkes are in a knot on that question.  President Obama’s clear denunciation of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Assad and his acknowledgment of the challenges of Israel’s difficult neighborhood and the events of the past two years in that neighborhood are realistic, not starry-eyed.

I applaud President Obama for his repeated reprise of the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States. I believe he means it.  But I also applaud him for acknowledging that the easy road would be unqualified and uncritical support for whatever Israel’s leaders and people do.  Again and again, he noted that ultimately it is for Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their differences and to choose their paths. At the same time, he called for sanity and responsibility as he called for justice and the pursuit of peace – not with blindness, but with open eyes, and a sense of reality to what actions create obstacles that prevent any progress towards what most Israelis and most Palestinians ultimately want – to live their lives.

148591_455673200821_6598853_nDuring our congregational trip to Israel in December we visited a school in the Arab Israeli village of Nahaf, near Carmiel in the Galilee.  We met with Rabbi Mark Rosenstein, who lives in the nearby community of Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980’s by a group of young American immigrants. Mark has worked as director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence.   After speaking to our group about the challenges between Israeli Jews and Israel Arabs, he introduced us to a group of Israeli Arab high school students from the village who sat with us, first in small groups, and then in one larger circle to talk about their lives, their hopes and their dreams.  I will never forget “Sam’s” words to me as we boarded the bus after our time with the students which went something like this: “These are wonderful kids.  They deserve a wonderful future. I hope that we can make that happen.”  So today I say to Sam: “How do I feel about President’s visit to Israel?  I feel very good about it.  He called Israel – and the Palestinians — to work towards the same future you spoke of as we boarded our bus that day in December.”

These past few days have been about words, photos, symbolism and yes, politics.  President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday was also about the affirmation of the enduring and unbreakable bond between our two nations, about the acknowledgment of the enduring thirst for security and freedom which we Jews will celebrate and study in the coming days of Pesach. They were also an straight-forward call to pursue justice and peace that we needed to hear. Bechol dor vador—“in each and every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim – from Egypt.  May these past few days, and the reflection both here and in Israel, upon what we both have seen and heard be part of our reflection of what it means to us in this Pesach celebration to go forth from our MItzrayim.  Some read Mitzrayim as the “narrow places.” We all have our “Egypt” from which we want to move towards greater freedom and security.  May these days – their images, the words spoken, the symbols – inspire and infiltrate our recounting of the ancient tale as we find our generation place in the “obligation to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim.”

Mr. President – perhaps we’ll see you yet again – “Next Year in Jerusalem” – in a city moving closer to that dream we all hold – Ir Shalom – a city of peace. A big dream?  You bet.  But when have we Jews not been dreamers at the same time as we are realists?

(Now I’ll go see what all the talking heads are thinking!)

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom of Newton, Massachusetts