President Barack Obama told over a thousand young Israelis why he thinks the Jewish state is one of the most amazing places on earth, how he understands their people’s ancient history and modern redemption, and reassured them that in their hour of need, America will be there.
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The crowd went wild.
But then he went on to tell them that occupying another people was not the way forward, and to the surprise of many journalists looking on, they continued to applaud heartily.
“The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized,” Obama said. “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 her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. 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.”
A true clap-o-meter would probably have shown that following these comments, the applause was lighter than it had been following his words lauding Israel’s achievements or say, the unacceptability of Iran going nuclear. But still, reporters local and foreign were agog at the sight of so many young Israelis applauding a U.S. president’s calls to end the occupation and to lend their support for the creation of a Palestinian state. At one point, the enthusiasm for Palestinian justice seemed so widespread that it appeared the hall had largely been packed with the youth of Meretz, Peace Now and Breaking the Silence.
Students I interviewed directly following the speech, however, said that was not the case. A gaggle of undergraduates from Tel Aviv University said they’d been chosen via lottery and had “gotten lucky.” They loved Obama’s speech and had applauded wildly, but said that students sitting nearby them from Bar-Ilan University – a school associated with the national-religious movement – were still and silent during many of these statements.
“I saw all kind of Israelis in the audience, it wasn’t just secular people like us,” said Katya Ulanenko, a young Israeli woman with roots in the Ukraine. “I think most people were cheering because it’s refreshing to hear a leader speak so honestly. He’s speaking about things our leaders don’t dare speak about, because if our leaders would say such things, it’s seen as too pro-Palestinian and their careers will be destroyed.”
Indeed, institutions of higher learning from all over Israel were given seats to the event and distributed them lottery-style. The audience included some students from haredi professional colleges, knitted-kippa wearers, and Arab students as well as secular students and soldiers. The latter group, obvious in their uniforms, refrained from clapping along with the audience during most of these comments, save one lone soldier who stood up and ignored the stoicism of his comrades. Not a few VIPs mingled in the audience, including MK Stav Shaffir and Rabbi Michael Melchior.
“We also really liked hearing that Israel has a right to defend itself,” said Yakir Lidani, a biology student at Tel Aviv University. “For the first time, I felt he saw things from our point of view.”
Obama rolled with the punches when one member of the audience got up to heckle him. He was shouted down and seized by security so quickly that his words were unintelligible. No one seems to be sure what he said. I thought I heard the word weapons – and thought the heckler might have been making some statement on Iran. A White House pool report suggested the heckler was calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Earlier reports suggested the shout was "Free Palestine,” The Guardian reported.
The American president had just finished a section of the speech lauding Israeli democracy, saying it has “a spirited civil society, proud political parties, a tireless free press, and a lively public debate – lively may even be an understatement.”
After the heckler was removed, Obama made light of him. “This is part of the lively debate we talked about, this is good,” he said, evincing a bigger-than-ever round of applause, as many in the audience rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
“I have to say we actually arranged for that because it actually made me feel at home,” Obama joked. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have at least one heckler.”
One comment seemed to split the crowd more than any other – his comments on settlement activity in the West Bank.
“Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable – that real borders will have to be drawn,” Obama said.
How they loved the president’s words – until they became specific. Say you want peace and everyone applauds. Stop building settlements – some clapped and some booed, creating a moment of cacophony in the room.
“Some of us liked what he had to say, but not everyone – clearly the opinions were mixed, like the people of Israel,” said Ilana Levinzon as she left the Jerusalem International Convention Center, where the speech was held. “It shows how hard it is to get us to agree to anything.”