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Obama’s Zionist Legacy

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Obama speaks during the funeral of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016.
Obama speaks during the funeral of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016.Credit: Nicholas Kamm, AFP

It’s still not clear whether there will be a third speech. But the two great speeches that U.S. President Barack Obama gave us, in March 2013 and in September 2016, have already made him the most impressive exponent of liberal Zionism today.

Eitan Haber wrote numerous moving speeches for Yitzhak Rabin. Shimon Peres was a gifted, stirring speaker. Ehud Barak gave two visionary speeches in the past year. Yair Lapid also toiled over an important, wide-ranging address that the media overlooked.

But the only great liberal Zionist statement was made here – on two occasions – by the U.S. president, ironically. To his credit, and our shame, we must admit that the remarks by the Hawaiian-born statesman at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center (in his first presidential visit to Israel) and at Mount Herzl Cemetery (during Shimon Peres’ funeral) were more precise, on-point and moving than anything said by any center-left Israeli leader of the past generation.

What did Obama say?

In his first speech, he drew a fascinating connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Israeli technology that has reached as afar as Mars. He tied the holy sites of the Land of Israel to the startups of the State of Israel and the vitality of Tel Aviv. He told us that our story is one of slavery, of wandering in the desert, of faith, perseverance, suffering, of exile, persecution, pogroms, genocide, of kibbutzim that made the desert bloom, entrepreneurs who created prosperity and an exemplary democracy. He embraced the Shrine of the Book, Yad Vashem, the graves of Herzl and of Rabin, the rocket-battered children of Sderot and the Holocaust survivors who fear a nuclear-armed Iran.

And then, only then, he told us that peace is necessary. Because without peace Israel cannot endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state. And he told us that peace is just. Because the Palestinians, too, have a right to self-determination. And he told us that peace is not guaranteed, but it is possible. Finally, he called for doing the work of repairing the world, of tikkun olam, ending with “May God bless you. May God bless Israel.”

In his second speech, Obama said that the story of Shimon Peres was in many ways Israel’s story. And he related it: the boy who grew up in a shtetl “surrounded by a sea of thick and threatening forests,” the youth whose grandfather was burned alive in the synagogue, the teenager who tried to create a model society on kibbutz, the young man who built Israel’s defense industry, the elder statesman who tried to create peace.

Obama said that “Shimon’s story, the story of Israel, is ... the story of a people who, over so many centuries in the wilderness, never gave up on that basic human longing to return home. It’s the story of a people who suffered the boot of oppression and the shutting of the gas chamber’s door, and yet never gave up on a belief in goodness.”

“[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea,” said our No. 1 guest. “Israel’s exceptionalism” is “rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision” of the Jewish faith.

And then, only then, after having embraced Judaism, Zionism and Israeliness, did Obama courageously quote Peres: “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” And he said, correctly, that the best defense of the Zionist idea is for the Palestinians, too, to have a state. With great love and great concern, Barack Obama asked us to choose life.

One can – and should – debate the 44th president’s Middle East policy. But the great speeches given by this moral leader prove beyond a doubt that he is a true friend of Israel, who looks on with despair as Israel commits slow-motion suicide. And they prove how much Israel needs an Obama of its own, someone who can tell our story and find our inner balance and inspire us.

In the face of the extreme right (which forgot what it means to be Jewish) and the extreme left (which forgot what Israeli pride is), along came Barack Obama and proposed that we all be enlightened Zionists.

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