Last week President Barack Obama joined Richard Nixon and George W. Bush as the only sitting US presidents to visit Israel. Israel responded to the historic visit by awarding Obama that nation’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Distinction Award. CNN and other news agencies broke into regular programming to carry the event live.
Meanwhile at that moment, in another galaxy far, far away, Fox News was reporting a faux news story about a supposed “Repeal of Obamacare” that only seems to exist in their world. Fox broke from that story to run an ad for the latest segment of Sean Hannity’s “The Real Obama: Betraying Israel” series. The breaking story reverberating in Hannity’s anger-saddled mind was “President Obama Keeps Screwing Over Israel.”
In giving this award for the first time in history to a sitting US president, Israeli President Shimon Peres remarked, “The people of Israel are particularly moved by your unforgettable contribution to their security.” The people of Israel apparently haven’t been watching Fox News.
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Of course we can’t trust politicians to speak for the people. Given the chance, however, the people will always speak for themselves, as they did at what turned out to be the most newsworthy and important stop on the presidential itinerary—Obama’s address to a massive crowd of young Israelis in the Jerusalem Convention Center.
I need to stop for a moment and defend this loaded assessment—that the president’s address to a large audience of college-aged Israelis, and their reaction to his speech, is more important than his meetings with Palestinians. It’s not that Israelis are somehow intrinsically more important or interesting. It’s that they’re holding most of the cards moving forward. Their government is building walls and settlements, demolishing homes, setting up checkpoints, taking prisoners, and sometimes killing people on Palestinian territory. The Palestinian Authority has not executed any such operations on Israeli territory. And while their political rival Hamas might win the prize for inciting and racist rhetoric, their actual effect on the ground is relatively miniscule and arguably reactionary.
Israel is expanding their occupation while the Palestinians are fighting to hold onto their land. Hence, it’s the Israelis that have the opportunity to give peace a chance. That’s why it’s the Israeli popular response to Obama’s call for peace, and his suggestion for how to achieve it, that’s particularly telling—and newsworthy.
After having warned the audience that they might not like everything he has to say, he argued that, “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.” No surprise here. That’s been the US position for a long time. What’s newsworthy is the audience’s response—wild sustained cheering. These are Israelis enthusiastically cheering for an American president proclaiming Palestine’s right to sovereignty and all that implies. Obama went on, explaining, “The only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war.” He was interrupted again with applause before he could end his sentence.
Obama went on to reiterate, “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized.” The audience again broke out in applause and cheers. When they settled down, the president asked them to “put yourselves 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…”
Obama wasn’t through with his sentence, but the audience interrupted, again erupting with cheers and applause. No boos. No visible or audible dissent. Just Israeli youth cheering for empathy, and dare I suspect, solidarity, with Palestinians.
The president picked up where he left off: “…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…”
More applause. For Americans who get their news from the mainstream media, this speech, met with such enthusiasm by Israelis, must seem surreal.
The president again picked up his sentence where he left off: “…or displaces Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.”
Again, he was interrupted with more applause and cheers. Some of the loudest support came when the president told the crowd that he was sure that they wanted the same future and the same opportunities for Palestinian children as they wanted for their own children. Where I live in Buffalo, the idea of wealthy suburbanites cheering the idea that inner city children should have the same opportunities as their children, to enjoy the same quality education and parks, is unthinkable. But that’s what we were seeing in Israel—people on the privileged side of social inequality cheering the prospect that their government should act to end such inequality.
This is the Israel where a peace demonstration a generation ago once drew 10 percent of the nation’s population. The Israel we see in our media, however, is dominated by a loud, war-mongering, right-wing minority. When our media talks about “supporting Israel,” it’s not the progressive nation driven by Jewish values of social justice they’re talking about. It’s a faction of religious fundamentalists hell-bent on destroying that Israel—on enacting an ethnocentric vision scripted in a very old and violent text, written ironically when the ancestors of Jews and Palestinians were one people. Our media tell us American Jews support this reactionary vision of Israel. That myth is a tired, anti-Semitic trope. In reality, recent polls indicate that most American Jews don’t really think much about Israel at all. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggests the occupation is souring American Jews on Israel, with 90 percent listing other issues as more important to them.
The American people need to see more of the progressive, pluralistic Israel that cheered the president’s speech—a forward-thinking nation willing to take risks and make sacrifices in the name of peace and justice. This is the Israel we seldom see. Yet it’s the only Israel that offers hope for an end to the ever more dangerous nightmare of endless warfare. Last week they cheered that peace loudly enough to perhaps break through the media filter and make their presence known.