Obama’s Speech to Israelis–the text and my commentary

An editorial preface from Rabbi Michael Lerner:

If only Obama could go beyond the brilliant principles he articulated today to Israelis in Jerusalem—to follow through with action based on those principles!!!

Obama had an amazing opportunity to paint a detailed picture of what a peace agreement could look like between Israelis and Palestinians. Very few Palestinians or Israelis have ever heard one of their leaders present such a vision in a way that seemed detailed enough to be plausible.

Instead, President Obama stayed at a very general level—urging people to not fear, reminding them that they are not alone. And those reminders were brilliantly done, and very important. The best was when he asked Israelis to imagine themselves into the consciousness of Palestinians living under occupation—for this alone, Obama deserves our thanks.

But even so, doing what he did can’t break through the consciousness that has been daily shaped by a distorted picture of what is possible, drawn for them by the settlers and right-wing extremists who today run the Israeli government.

This was the moment for the US to say, “here is a plan that can work” and lay it out. I’ve done that in my book Embracing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2012), and when I met personally with Obama in 2006 he agreed with much of that plan.

But Israelis and Palestinians have never been told by the US, “here is what you have to give up and here is what you will get,” and then followed through and laid out the plan. Without that, the words eventually and in retrospect will seem as hollow as Obama’s speech about democracy in Egypt which was then followed by Obama not supporting the Egyptian people when they went to the streets to overthrow their dictator Mubarak.

A U.S. backed plan will not only have to include an economically and politically viable Palestinian state on at least 95% of the 22% of pre-48 Palestine that was left to the Palestinian people after that first war—and trade of 4-5% of the land of the West Bank to Israel in exchange for equally valuable land given to the new Palestinian state. It will ALSO have to include Palestinians allowing Jewish settlers to stay on the West Bank and settle wherever they wish, but only as law-abiding citizens of a Palestinian state who have given up their Israeli citizenship and have accepted an Israeli declaration that it will not interfere with the judicial process inside Palestine if the new state prosecutes those who have illegally seized the personal property and land of Palestinians. It will have to include Israelis acknowledging partial (not full) responsibility for Palestinian refugees, and allowing 20,000 per year—each year for the next 30 years—to return to Israel and live in Israeli housing provided to them on the same basis Israel provides housing for new Jewish immigrants (20,000 a year being a number small enough to not threaten a Jewish majority, but large enough to be a strong symbolic statement of caring for Palestinian refugees). The Arab world will have to acknowledge its responsibility for the one million Jews who fled Arab lands in fear of their lives in response to anti-Zionist riots and murders that terrified the Jews who fled—and provide reparations, just as the international community and Israel will have to join in funding reparations for the Palestinian people who lost their homes, and at a level sufficient to make Palestine a thriving economy and not just one dependent on Israeli jobs. And all sides will have to join with generous support from the international community to fund an international force to work with both the Israeli and Palestinian police forces to repress extremists on both sides who will resort to violence to prevent the implementation of any agreement and to enforce an end to the teaching of hatred in the media and classrooms of both Israel and Palestine.

Without that kind of a concrete vision (and there’s more detailed in Embracing Israel/Palestine), the call for hope and trust will fall on deaf ears. Netanyahu may agree to negotiations, but not to substantive concessions. Only a clear plan from the US would change that, and Obama flubbed the opportunity to present such a plan.

And yet, speaking to the deep fears of the Israeli people is exactly what is needed, and he did it brilliantly. But it won’t change anything until the US is willing to paint the picture of a viable peace agreement with major concessions form each side, and to energetically push for it.

So what is Obama willing to push for energetically? Legitimation of a first strike against Iran for the sin of having the nuclear weapons that Israel and the US already have at much higher levels than Iran could likely achieve. This doctrine will backfire in the long run against both Israel and the US.  His most concrete point was not about peace-making, but about war-making against Iran, once again signaling that Israel could take this (illegal by international law and stupid by common sense) first strike and have the full military backing of the US. That approach will do far more damage to the security of the US than anything Jonathan Pollard did, and yet Pollard remains in jail when its time to give him clemency (though I detest his politics). By suddenly discrediting the whole notion of nuclear deterrence, Obama has made Israel and the US less secure. There will come a day when other countries will use the same logic to defend a first strike against Israel or the US. Yet deterrence has worked well in the even worse dictatorships of the Soviet Union, and the Iranian leadership understands that using nuclear weapons would lead to Iran being wiped out as a country by a massive Israeli nuclear counter-attack.  Iran is not Nazi Germany, and its leaders are far more interested in perpetuating an Islamic state than ended it in one moment of nuclear war. We ask friends to stop friends from driving when drunk—can’t we expect Obama to ask Israelis to not follow a path that might someday lead to the people of the world ganging up on Israel for this violation of international law?

So even though Obama was saying he spoke as a friend, it was not really what a friend needs to do. A friend needs to stand up against self-destructive behavior. Even if Israel “gets away with” a first strike, backed by the U.S. military, it will earn for itself the enmity of people around the world who rightly fear that such a precedent, which already led to the disastrous Iraq war, will set other countries into believing that they too have a right to take first strikes against countries whom they believe MIGHT at some future time use their weapons in a destructive manner. Moreover, we at Tikkun wish to see the oppressive and dictatorial and hate-generating regime in Iran overthrown by its own people, and an Israeli strike will have the opposite effect, forcing Iranians to rally around its own government and giving the Islamic dictatorship the credential of being the representative of all Iranian nationalists while isolating the forces that wish to overthrow it.

And yet, what Obama did do, in trying to speak to the need for feeling safe that so shapes Israeli consciousness, was done brilliantly, a great first step. Unfortunately, given Obama’s track record on human rights and peace, it is unlikely that the next necessary steps will be forthcoming. So we can appreciate the good, including pushing the peace process back into public consciousness in Israel, but notice and bemoan a huge opportunity lost at the moment before the new Israeli government consolidates itself around Netanyahu-sponsored intransigence.

—Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor Tikkun RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail.com

Full text of Obama’s speech in Jerusalem:

“So long as there is a United States of America, ah-tem lo lah-vahd” (you are not alone). “

The full text of U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013.

By Haaretz | Mar.21, 2013 | 5:07 PM


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. Well, it is a great honor to be with you here in Jerusalem, and I’m so grateful for the welcome that I’ve received from the people of Israel. Thank you. I bring with me the support of the American people — and the friendship that binds us together.


Over the last two days, I’ve reaffirmed the bonds between our countries with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres. I’ve borne witness to the ancient history of the Jewish people at the Shrine of the Book, and I’ve seen Israel’s shining future in your scientists and your entrepreneurs. This is a nation of museums and patents, timeless holy sites and ground-breaking innovation. Only in Israel could you see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the place where the technology on board the Mars Rover originated at the same time.


But what I’ve most looked forward to is the ability to speak directly to you, the Israeli people — especially so many young people who are here today — to talk about the history that brought us here today, and the future that you will make in the years to come.


Now, I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word, every gesture is carefully scrutinized But I want to clear something up just so you know — any drama between me and my friend, Bibi, over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet. That’s the only thing that was going on. We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.


I also know that I come to Israel on the eve of a sacred holiday — the celebration of Passover. And that is where I would like to begin today.


Just a few days from now, Jews here in Israel and around the world will sit with family and friends at the Seder table, and celebrate with songs, wine and symbolic foods. After enjoying Seders with family and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail, I’m proud that I’ve now brought this tradition into the White House. I did so because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful.


It’s a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land. And for the Jewish people, this story is central to who you’ve become. But it’s also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering, but also all of its salvation.


It’s a part of the three great religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that trace their origins to Abraham, and see Jerusalem as sacred. And it’s a story that’s inspired communities across the globe, including me and my fellow Americans.

In the United States — a nation made up of people who crossed oceans to start anew — we’re naturally drawn to the idea of finding freedom in our land. To African Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity — a tale that was carried from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement into today.


For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me, personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.


Of course, even as we draw strength from the story of God’s will and His gift of freedom expressed on Passover, we also know that here on Earth we must bear our responsibilities in an imperfect world. That means accepting our measure of sacrifice and struggle, just like previous generations. It means us working through generation after generation on behalf of that ideal of freedom.


As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” So just as Joshua carried on after Moses, the work goes on for all of you, the Joshua Generation, for justice and dignity; for opportunity and freedom.


For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland. That’s why I believe that Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea — the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.


Over the last 65 years, when Israel has been at its best, Israelis have demonstrated that responsibility does not end when you reach the promised land, it only begins. And so Israel has been a refuge for the diaspora — welcoming Jews from Europe, from the former Soviet Union, from Ethiopia, from North Africa.


Israel has built a prosperous nation — through kibbutzeem that made the desert bloom, business that broadened the middle class, innovators who reached new frontiers, from the smallest microchip to the orbits of space. Israel has established a thriving democracy, with a spirited civil society and proud political parties, and a tireless free press, and a lively public debate -– “lively” may even be an understatement.


And Israel has achieved all this even as it’s overcome relentless threats to its security — through the courage of the Israel Defense Forces, and the citizenry that is so resilient in the face of terror.


This is the story of Israel. This is the work that has brought the dreams of so many generations to life. And every step of the way, Israel has built unbreakable bonds of friendship with my country, the United States of America.


Those ties began only 11 minutes after Israeli independence, when the United States was the first nation to recognize the State of Israel. As President Truman said in explaining his decision to recognize Israel, he said, “I believe it has a glorious future before it not just as another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.” And since then, we’ve built a friendship that advances our shared interests.


Together, we share a commitment to security for our citizens and the stability of the Middle East and North Africa. Together, we share a focus on advancing economic growth around the globe, and strengthening the middle class within our own countries. Together, we share a stake in the success of democracy.


But the source of our friendship extends beyond mere interests, just as it has transcended political parties and individual leaders. America is a nation of immigrants. America is strengthened by diversity. America is enriched by faith. We are governed not simply by men and women, but by laws. We’re fueled by entrepreneurship and innovation, and we are defined by a democratic discourse that allows each generation to reimagine and renew our union once more. So in Israel, we see values that we share, even as we recognize what makes us different. That is an essential part of our bond.


Now, I stand here today mindful that for both our nations, these are some complicated times. We have difficult issues to work through within our own countries, and we face dangers and upheaval around the world. And when I look at young people within the United States, I think about the choices that they must make in their lives to define who we’ll be as a nation in this 21st century, particularly as we emerge from two wars and the worst recession since the Great Depression.


But part of the reason I like talking to young people is because no matter how great the challenges are, their idealism, their energy, their ambition always gives me hope.

And I see the same spirit in the young people here today. I believe that you will shape our future. And given the ties between our countries, I believe your future is bound to ours. (Audience interruption.)


No, no — this is part of the lively debate that we talked about. This is good. You know, I have to say we actually arranged for that, because it made me feel at home. I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have at least one heckler.


I’d like to focus on how we — and when I say “we,” in particular young people — can work together to make progress in three areas that will define our times — security, peace and prosperity.


Let me begin with security. I’m proud that the security relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger. Never. More exercises between our militaries; more exchanges among our political and military and intelligence officials than ever before; the largest program to date to help you retain your qualitative military edge. These are the facts. These aren’t my opinions, these are facts. But, to me, this is not simply measured on a balance sheet. I know that here, in Israel, security is something personal.


Here’s what I think about when I consider these issues. When I consider Israel’s security, I think about children like Osher Twito, who I met in Sderot — children the same age as my own daughters who went to bed at night fearful that a rocket would land in their bedroom simply because of who they are and where they live.


That reality is why we’ve invested in the Iron Dome system to save countless lives — because those children deserve to sleep better at night That’s why we’ve made it clear, time and again, that Israel cannot accept rocket attacks from Gaza, and we have stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself. And that’s why Israel has a right to expect Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.


When I think about Israel’s security, I think about five Israelis who boarded a bus in Bulgaria, who were blown up because of where they came from; robbed of the ability to live, and love, and raise families. That’s why every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is — a terrorist organization. Because the world cannot tolerate an organization that murders innocent civilians, stockpiles rockets to shoot at cities, and supports the massacre of men and women and children in Syria right now.


The fact that Hezbollah’s ally — the Assad regime — has stockpiles of chemical weapons only heightens the urgency. We will continue to cooperate closely to guard against that danger. I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.


The Syrian people have the right to be freed from the grip of a dictator who would rather kill his own people than relinquish power. Assad must go so that Syria’s future can begin. Because true stability in Syria depends upon establishing a government that is responsible to its people — one that protects all communities within its borders, while making peace with countries beyond them.


These are the things I think about when I think about Israel’s security. When I consider Israel’s security, I also think about a people who have a living memory of the Holocaust, faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government that has called for Israel’s destruction. It’s no wonder Israelis view this as an existential threat.


But this is not simply a challenge for Israel — it is a danger for the entire world, including the United States. A nuclear-armed Iran would raise the risk of nuclear terrorism. It would undermine the non-proliferation regime. It would spark an arms race in a volatile region. And it would embolden a government that has shown no respect for the rights of its own people or the responsibilities of nations.

That’s why America has built a coalition to increase the cost to Iran of failing to meet their obligations. The Iranian government is now under more pressure than ever before, and that pressure is increasing. It is isolated. Its economy is in dire straits. Its leadership is divided. And its position — in the region, and the world — has only grown weaker.


I do believe that all of us have an interest in resolving this issue peacefully. Strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons. Peace is far more preferable to war. And the inevitable costs, the unintended consequences that would come with war means that we have to do everything we can to try to resolve this diplomatically. Because of the cooperation between our governments, we know that there remains time to pursue a diplomatic resolution. That’s what America will do, with clear eyes — working with a world that’s united, and with the sense of urgency that’s required.

But Iran must know this time is not unlimited. And I’ve made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained, and as President, I’ve said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.


For young Israelis, I know that these issues of security are rooted in an experience that is even more fundamental than the pressing threat of the day. You live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected the right of your nation to exist. Your grandparents had to risk their lives and all that they had to make a place for themselves in this world. Your parents lived through war after war to ensure the survival of the Jewish state. Your children grow up knowing that people they’ve never met may hate them because of who they are, in a region that is full of turmoil and changing underneath your feet.


So that’s what I think about when Israel is faced with these challenges –- that sense of an Israel that is surrounded by many in this region who still reject it, and many in the world who refuse to accept it. And that’s why the security of the Jewish people in Israel is so important. It cannot be taken for granted.


But make no mistake — those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist, they might as well reject the earth beneath them or the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. And today, I want to tell you — particularly the young people — so that there’s no mistake here, so long as there is a United States of America — Atem lo levad. You are not alone.


The question is what kind of future Israel will look forward to. Israel is not going anywhere — but especially for the young people in this audience, the question is what does its future hold? And that brings me to the subject of peace.


I know Israel has taken risks for peace. Brave leaders — Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin — reached treaties with two of your neighbors. You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis. You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon, and then faced terror and rockets. Across the region, you’ve extended a hand of friendship and all too often you’ve been confronted with rejection and, in some cases, the ugly reality of anti-Semitism. So I believe that the Israeli people do want peace, and I also understand why too many Israelis — maybe an increasing number, maybe a lot of young people here today — are skeptical that it can be achieved.


But today, Israel is at a crossroads. It can be tempting to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers. There’s so many other pressing issues that demand your attention. And I know that only Israelis can make the fundamental decisions about your country’s future. I recognize that.


I also know, by the way, that not everyone in this hall will agree with what I have to say about peace. I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise, have a different vision for Israel’s future. And that’s part of a democracy. That’s part of the discourse between our two countries. I recognize that. But I also believe it’s important to be open and honest, especially with your friends. I also believe that.


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.


First, peace is necessary. I believe that. I believe that peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. 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. That is true.


There are other factors involved. Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war. Because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm.


And this truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab world. I understand that with the uncertainty in the region — people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics — it’s tempting to turn inward, because the situation outside of Israel seems so chaotic. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve and commitment for peace. Because as more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace simply with a handful of autocratic leaders, those days are over. Peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments.


No one — no single step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It would make a difference.


So peace is necessary. But peace is also just. Peace is also just. There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is all true. And that’s why security must be at the center of any agreement. And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiations — which is why, despite the criticism we’ve received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United Nations. It has to be done by the parties. But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized.


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. 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. 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 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.


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. 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. I believe that.

Now, only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. But remember that as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians — you will define the future of Israel as well.


As Ariel Sharon said — I’m quoting him — “It is impossible to have a Jewish democratic state, at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.” Or, from a different perspective, I think of what the novelist David Grossman said shortly after losing his son, as he described the necessity of peace — “A peace of no choice” he said, “must be approached with the same determination and creativity as one approaches a war of no choice.”


Now, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who is dedicated to its destruction. But while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. I believe that. And they have a track record to prove it. Over the last few years, they have built institutions and maintained security on the West Bank in ways that few could have imagined just a few years ago. So many Palestinians — including young people — have rejected violence as a means of achieving their aspirations.


There is an opportunity there, there’s a window — which brings me to my third point: Peace is possible. It is possible. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed. I can’t even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible. I know it doesn’t seem that way. There are always going to be reasons to avoid risk. There are costs for failure. There will always be extremists who provide an excuse not to act.


I know there must be something exhausting about endless talks about talks, and daily controversies, and just the grinding status quo. And I’m sure there’s a temptation just to say, “Ah, enough. Let me focus on my small corner of the world and my family and my job and what I can control.” But it’s possible.


Negotiations will be necessary, but there’s little secret about where they must lead — two states for two peoples. Two states for two peoples.


There will be differences about how to get there. There are going to be hard choices along the way. Arab states must adapt to a world that has changed. The days when they could condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity, or government corruption or mismanagement — those days need to be over. Now is the time for the Arab world to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.


Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.

I’ve suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for these talks. But for the moment, put aside the plans and the process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people.


Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people — politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want, they’re not so different from what the young people here want. They want the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education, get a good job; to worship God in their own way; to get married; to raise a family. The same is true of those young Palestinians that I met with this morning. The same is true for young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.


That’s where peace begins — not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people. Not just in some carefully designed process, but in the daily connections — that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem.


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. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.

I know this is possible. Look to the bridges being built in business and civil society by some of you here today. Look at the young people who’ve not yet learned a reason to mistrust, or those young people who’ve learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents, because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart. Your voices must be louder than those who would drown out hope. Your hopes must light the way forward.

Look to a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land. Believe in that. And most of all, look to the future that you want for your own children — a future in which a Jewish, democratic, vibrant state is protected and accepted for this time and for all time.


There will be many who say this change is not possible, but remember this — Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel is not going anywhere. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but — this is in your nature — Israel also has the courage to see the world as it should be.


Ben Gurion once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” Sometimes, the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. That’s a lesson that the world has learned from the Jewish people.


And that brings me to the final area that I’ll focus on: prosperity, and Israel’s broader role in the world. I know that all the talk about security and peace can sometimes seem to dominate the headlines, but that’s not where people live. And every day, even amidst the threats that you face, Israelis are defining themselves by the opportunities that you’re creating.


Through talent and hard work, Israelis have put this small country at the forefront of the global economy.


Israelis understand the value of education and have produced 10 Nobel laureates. Israelis understand the power of invention, and your universities educate engineers and inventors. And that spirit has led to economic growth and human progress — solar power and electric cars, bandages and prosthetic limbs that save lives, stem cell research and new drugs that treat disease, cell phones and computer technology that changed the way people around the world live.


So if people want to see the future of the world economy, they should look at Tel Aviv, home to hundreds of start-ups and research centers. Israelis are so active on social media that every day seemed to bring a different Facebook campaign about where I should give this speech.


That innovation is just as important to the relationship between the United States and Israel as our security cooperation. Our first free trade agreement in the world was reached with Israel, nearly three decades ago. Today the trade between our two countries is at $40 billion every year. More importantly, that partnership is creating new products and medical treatments; it’s pushing new frontiers of science and exploration.


That’s the kind of relationship that Israel should have — and could have — with every country in the world. Already, we see how that innovation could reshape this region. There’s a program here in Jerusalem that brings together young Israelis and Palestinians to learn vital skills in technology and business. An Israeli and Palestinian have started a venture capital fund to finance Palestinian start-ups. Over 100 high-tech companies have found a home on the West Bank — which speaks to the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of the Palestinian people.


One of the great ironies of what’s happening in the broader region is that so much of what people are yearning for — education, entrepreneurship, the ability to start a business without paying a bribe, the ability to connect to the global economy — those are things that can be found here in Israel. This should be a hub for thriving regional trade, and an engine for opportunity.


Israel is already a center for innovation that helps power the global economy. And I believe that all of that potential for prosperity can be enhanced with greater security, enhanced with lasting peace.


Here, in this small strip of land that has been the center of so much of the world’s history, so much triumph and so much tragedy, Israelis have built something that few could have imagined 65 years ago. Tomorrow, I will pay tribute to that history — at the grave of Herzl, a man who had the foresight to see the future of the Jewish people had to be reconnected to their past; at the grave of Rabin, who understood that Israel’s victories in war had to be followed by the battles for peace; at Yad Vashem, where the world is reminded of the cloud of evil that can descend on the Jewish people and all of humanity if we ever fail to be vigilant.


We bear all that history on our shoulders. We carry all that history in our hearts. Today, as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, you — the young people of Israel — must now claim its future. It falls to you to write the next chapter in the great story of this great nation.


And as the President of a country that you can count on as your greatest friend — I am confident that you can help us find the promise in the days that lie ahead. And as a man who’s been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience — tikkun olam -) — I am hopeful that we can draw upon what’s best in ourselves to meet the challenges that will come; to win the battles for peace in the wake of so much war; and to do the work of repairing this world. That’s your job.


That’s my job. That’s the task of all of us.


May God bless you. May God bless Israel. May God bless the United States of America. Toda raba. Thank you.

This text appeared originally in Ha’aretz, Israel’s most distinguished and reliable daily newspaper.


tags: Israel/Palestine   
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17 Responses to Obama’s Speech to Israelis–the text and my commentary

  1. David March 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    The Jewish people owe reparations. Arab states do not owe reparations as Zionism and its assault on Palestinian was the provocation for attacks on Jewish citizens. As the first cause was Zionism, no reparations are due from these countries.

    Zionism has everywhere, and in all instances, damaged whatever it touched including the Jewish people and Judaism. Zionism became (but did not originate as) the military arm of “chosen-ness.” It must be repudiated now. If one quibbles with this, then the fault of “chosen-ness” must be attached to Jewishness and Judaism and that is surely not desirable.

  2. Pat Carmeli March 21, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    I thought Obama’s speech was sickening. He lauded all things Jewish and Israeli -dwelled on their suffering, their attempts at peace, their brilliance, He spoke of the Israeli girl afraid to sleep at night because she might be the target of a rocket – but said nothing of the hundreds of Palestinian children actually killed by Israeli fire, burned by US white phosphorous, deprived of home, land, education and self-determination. As an American, I was embarrassed. But as a humanist working for true peace and justice, I was saddened and dispirited. The one consolation for me was that in the ballot box this time around, I voted for Jill Stein for President.

    • L. Hall March 22, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      Honorable Leader,

      Seeds of racial conflicts embeded in minds of blaming first AA(Presi. Obama) radiates around the world for unaccountable justice in America’s political character among state
      political representatives. The President can only encourage, not amend any mental-denial of Humanity’s behavior! This leader deserve all respect! Attacking His remarkable character is sound! Mental disease of hate shows in spiritual hatred.

      Historical cultural wars invested precious time blaming “the messenger!” One God over this world! “Leaders with past Power were destructive naturally-Evil” God’s people of Justice stand before World Leaders Justice for People of the World! Goverments around the world are becoming capitalist under capitalism for markets “not” humans around the world.

      All leaders of people should work together and face reality! Abusing people under religion, Markets, and weak laws above Humanity must STOP! No “One,” Africian-American president created “Institutions Racist Behaviorisms in America, or other countries!

      President Obama bring immediate attention as Leader! yet, encourage courts, around the World for Due Process of Laws around the world for humanity!(I researched your work before ICJ by internet) My prayer remains!

      Institutions of Race Relations around the world is an issue! In America or around the world unjust “Racism exists!” Local sovereign state political GOP-TEA-PARTY practices “overthrow!s America Leadership among local states! Rethinking Religiou’s Ideology shouldn’t remain in denial, while ‘greed and destructive governing leaders undermine a first minority person of color work among “racist (whites) of Congress Privileged-GOP-TEA-PARTY affiliated/conservatives underming the will of the “People of America!”

  3. Val Scott March 21, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Dear Michael,

    President Obama sounds absolutely sincere to me in the speech above, which I just completed reading, slowly and carefully.

    A true gem, I thought.

    Now, for the follow-through – by us all!

    In love, in truth, and inner peace unlimited,


    Does he not also to you?



  4. David Givers March 21, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you for the insight of the missed opportunity. I heard the out-takes of the speech today on NPR and Mr. Obama once again shows he is well accomplished in touching the hearts of people. After reading your thoughts on the speech, I am reminded of Mr. Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech–initiating all the empathetic chords, but ending with machtpolitik.

    Many blessings to you and yours.

    David Givers

  5. Gene Glickman March 21, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Dear Rabbi Lerner:

    This is one of the few times when I have disagreed with you.

    The basis for your advice to President Obama seems to be predicated on the idea that the United States can act as an “honest broker.”

    To be such, the intermediary must be accepted by both sides. Unfortunately, I do not believe that the Palestinians will any longer accept our country as an “honest broker.” It is, I believe, abundantly clear to everyone that the United States is a close ally of Israel.

    As such, our country has forfeited the right to act as a neutral mediator, telling each side what they will have to give up and what they will achieve thereby, as you suggest in your commentary.

    All the best,

    Gene Glickman

  6. FreeSpirit March 22, 2013 at 5:41 am

    Look, the idea is for the US and Israel to fool some of the people some of the time until Israel has confiscated the entire Palestinian territory and thrown the remaining Palestinians out of their land. Everything else foolish pontification!

  7. Wiley Krapf March 22, 2013 at 6:44 am

    I think think Gene’s comment that the US cannot act as an “honest broker” in this situation is too kind. History demonstrates that the US government is incapable of acting as an honest broker any dealings, even with its own citizens.

  8. Ashby March 22, 2013 at 8:47 am

    President Obama’s avoidance of specific policy recommendations could be a sign of wisdom gleaned from past mistakes. He tried to publicly pressure the Israeli government into halting settlement expansion; he also tried to publicly pressure the Palestinian Authority into dropping their bid for statehood at the UN. Neither of these tactics worked, and Israel and the Palestinians took (warranted) offense at their respective instructions from the US.

    This time, instead of telling people what to do specifically, he appealed to their values and strongly encouraged them to be the better version of themselves. His chief message was that any viable path to peace must come from the hearts and minds of the people with the most at stake. And to satisfy the basic needs of the citizens of Israel (security) and the Palestinians (sovereignty) the people must use their power to force their leaders to do the right thing.

    Echoing Alice Walker and other purveyors of wisdom, President Obama reminded the audience that we are indeed the ones we have been waiting for; we are the change we can believe in.

  9. Gwendoline Y. Fortune March 22, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Obama kissed The Blarney Stone, gift from his Irish mother, but picked up a virus of over-compromise elsewhere–not from his father as I read. Oh well, two parents do not pass-on all our inheritance.

  10. Garry Davis March 22, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Invoking the creator of the Universe to bless Israel, the United States of America and Obama’s youthful audience is the ultimate illusion. The world is one; humanity is one; the cosmos is one. Peace is not a cause; it is an effect. It’s cause is enforceable law, i.e. government. A “Jewish or Christian or Islamic, Hindu, etc. state” is a non sequitor. Nuclear weaponry is genocidal irrespective of religion. Humanity can only survive via enforceable world law as Einstein proclaimed.

  11. pat carmeli March 22, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I’m disappointed, Rabbi, that you chose not to include my comment on your website. I wonder why. Please reply.

  12. bruce jackson March 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Appreciate the analysis and continuation of the struggle. I live in a country that has given up its neutrality as well. There are many of the same struggles in Canada between the 1st Nations land and so called Canada’s elected governing party. Obama’s words “We bear all that history on our shoulders. We carry all that history in our hearts.” Such is true. What also is true that such story is just a story.
    It is easier to “Act out a new way of acting/living” than to try “thinking/changing how we live”. If we can forgive ourselves of our past- and remembering the other is also us -we may, like the young rising new generation be able to find ways of living together. A way of living acted on the whole open stage of life which can withstand the elimination of walls, lines on a map, and embrace regions and places where radical hospitality – grace becomes the way of being in right relationship.
    We need to free ourselves from the grief and traumatic stories that have become embodied within us, remember our past as a reminder of who we can become. With that reminder we can stop our addictions to power and control – and chose living into becoming the peace – filled healing presence which is the “great work” of life in all its glory.
    Making enemies of the boogey man just beyond our borders will mire us in the on-going destruction and violence we all live with in the here and now. Thank you for providing this forum in a circle of trust!!

    Blessings on all
    bruce jackson

    • J. Zellweger March 28, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      Bravo!!Bruce Jackson. I want to hear more from you and others with your positions.

  13. Claudio Duran March 22, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Well, I tend to agree with this comment, unfortunately. Obama’s position is wishy-washy. The US is unprepared to support such plan. The US is unreliable as an honest broker. The US still behaves in the world as a military and political power not as a country seeking peace and understanding. I am so sorry to have to say this: the US follows the unfortunate tradition of all military and political powers of history: a paranoid and schizoid way of being.

  14. Bruce Novak March 23, 2013 at 9:09 am

    The author of the brilliant Surplus Powerlessness may be underestimating the ultimate effect of Obama’s words on Israelis. Just as his Cairo speech in 2009 may have been a major factor in inspiring the Arab Spring of the last few years, a new wave of Israeli activism may well come into being through the seeds of hope planted in this speech–not unlike the seeds that may have been planted in Obama in Chicago in 1996 when he spoke at the Politics of Meaning conference Re-Awakening Hope in a Time of Cynicism, which we built together with the sadly departed Sam Ackerman, who had helped launch Obama’s political career in Illinois shortly before that time. Obama, in fact, made a call for tikkun olam at the end of his speech I’m shocked you didn’t quote. I have no doubt he was thinking of you and your work when he used those words. And if an Israeli Spring should now ensue as the Arab Spring did two years ago, its origins will be in part through you.
    Yours, Bruce Novak

  15. Marcelino Martinez March 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    It is written, Two shall NOT walk together unless they have agreed.

    Let him that reads understand.

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