The Obama trip to Israel and Palestine will be studied for a long time. The political meanings are layered, and not easily decipherable. And on our site, it falls to me to emphasize the positive, the extent to which Obama’s comments suggest that he has a rich understanding of the causes of the conflict, and of Palestinian conditions, even if he feels largely powerless to rectify those conditions (as he indicated to the Israeli audience on Thursday).
What follows are some of the statements Obama made reflecting his understanding, beginning with his Thursday remarks in Ramallah with President Abbas and his surprising nod to the popular struggle in the West Bank:
I think of the villages that hold peaceful protests because they understand the moral force of nonviolence. …
A repeated theme, identifying his own daughters with Palestinians. Though yes Obama also identified his daughters with Israeli youth, he knows about the segregation in Israeli society and needs to remind Americans of it:
Whenever I meet these young people, whether they’re Palestinian or Israeli, I’m reminded of my own daughters, and I know what hopes and aspirations I have for them. And those of us in the United States understand that change takes time but it is also possible, because there was a time when my daughters could not expect to have the same opportunities in their own country as somebody else’s daughters.
What’s true in the United States can be true here as well. We can make those changes, but we’re going to have to be determined.
Speech to the people of Israel on Thursday included the words justice for Palestinians and asked Israelis and Americans to put themselves in Palestinians’ shoes:
But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.) Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. (Applause.) Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land. (Applause.)
I’m going off script here for a second, but before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed; I want them to prosper. (Applause.) I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Applause.) I believe that.
In that speech, he alluded to the Israel lobby and its hammerlock on Congress:
Politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside — just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do — that would be the easiest political path. But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future, and I ask you to consider three points.
And he described the power of grassroots movements to shift the conventional political understandings of issues:
And let me say this as a politician — I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. (Applause.) Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.
I thought his speech that night at dinner with Shimon Peres was deeply ironical: he kept invoking the U.S. civil rights movement, and mentioned by name three martyrs to the end of Jim Crow, and mentioned Selma and Joshua Heschel, a hero to social justice Jews. Do you think he fails to comprehend that Jim Crow is alive and well in Israel and Palestine? Of course he does:
As I said in my speech earlier today, this [Israeli] story — from slavery to salvation, of overcoming even the most overwhelming odds — is a message that’s inspired the world. And that includes Jewish Americans but also African Americans, who have so often had to deal with their own challenges, but with whom you have stood shoulder to shoulder.
African Americans and Jewish Americans marched together at Selma and Montgomery, with rabbis carrying the Torah as they walked. They boarded buses for freedom rides together. They bled together. They gave their lives together — Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner alongside African American, James Chaney.
Because of their sacrifice, because of the struggle of generations in both our countries, we can come together tonight, in freedom and in security. So if I can paraphrase the Psalm — they turned our mourning into dancing; they changed our sack cloths into robes of joy.
And this evening, I’d like to close with the words of two leaders who brought us some of this joy. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Poland and lost his mother and sisters to the Nazis. He came to America. He raised his voice for social justice. He marched with Martin Luther King. And he spoke of the State of Israel in words that could well describe the struggle for equality in America. “Our very existence is a witness that man must live toward redemption,” he said, and “that history is not always made by man alone.”