Taking Back the Night

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 28, 2009, issue of February 06, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It is still much too early to start singing dayenu, that wonderful song that celebrates each element of the Exodus and that says, bluntly, that each alone would have been sufficient. But the first building blocks of such a song celebrating the movement toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians have now been laid down.

Just last June, in Jerusalem, several visiting Americans squabbled with veteran Israeli diplomat and peace activist Yossi Beilin. Beilin insisted that on our return to the United States, we should meet with top people in the McCain and Obama campaigns (and, if possible, with the principals themselves) and urge them to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the first 100 days of the new American administration. Some of us thought the idea absurd: Surely the next president’s advisers would recommend that he postpone such engagement until he’d built up some credibility in the area of foreign affairs, surely he’d be totally preoccupied during his first months in office by the unfolding economic crisis, surely the Middle East would prove a thankless place, a continuing frustration.

Though all of us who were present were strong supporters of Obama, we seriously underestimated his vigor, his intelligence, his seriousness of purpose. So now, not 100 days but on his sixth full day in office, Obama has already provided us with three powerful markers. On his very first full day as president, before leaving for a special prayer service at the National Cathedral, the president made four overseas phone calls — to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, to King Abdullah of Jordan, to Prime Minister Olmert of Israel and, most notably, to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. A day later, rejecting a number of American diplomats who have been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for many years, all with extensive contacts — and histories — in the region, he made a far more imaginative choice for special envoy to lead the American effort to encourage peace: George Mitchell, an acknowledged heavyweight and principal architect of Northern Ireland’s reconciliation. And, perhaps most stunning of all, just four days later he sat for an extended interview with a representative of satellite television station Al Arabiya — stunning not only by virtue of the fact that this was his first media interview since taking office but also by virtue of its thoughtful and measured content.

Might this significant down payment on a vigorous policy engagement have happened without the Gaza war? I am increasingly inclined to think it would have, the product of a mix of Obama’s ambition and of the Obama Inauguphoria now sweeping the country. Especially because there will be no quick fix to the economy, Obama knows that he will likely never have as much space to innovate, maneuver, lead as he does just now.

The president was pitch-perfect during the Al Arabiya interview, the implicit purpose of which was to create an opening to Arab and Muslim moderates. I could now simply quote some of its more impressive passages — there are many — but the fact is that the transcript is online, readily accessible and well worth reading in its entirety.

Instead, I want to call attention to the meaning of this flurry of activity. It is no secret that the mood among both Israelis and Palestinians is glum. People are tired, fatigued by the conflict, yet see no way forward. Naysayers are everywhere at center stage.

The night before the interview, I went to see the Israeli movie “Waltz With Bashir.” It’s up for an Academy Award as best foreign film, and rightly so. It is brilliantly innovative and utterly heartbreaking, an inventive documentary on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982. As an eloquent antiwar movie, it deserves a broad audience. As a specific depiction of a very low point in the Israeli past — a focus of the film is the massacre at Sabra and Shatila — it is a brutal reinforcement of the prevailing hopelessness. In the 26-and-a-half years since 1982, there have been the two intifadas, Israel’s war in Lebanon two summers ago and now Gaza. I left the movie feeling that death and devastation had become destiny. Far more important, that is how very many Israelis and Palestinians feel. And their hopelessness paralyzes, gives the fanatics freedom to roam and to ruin.

Comes the gifted new president of the United States and says, “No.”

He may fail; many others have, and it is late in the day. The effort requires much more than charm. It doesn’t begin to be enough that many of us still get a pleasant buzz every time we hear a newscaster refer to “President Obama.” It means nothing that my own mood lightens every time I glance at the video of the Bush helicopter receding, receding. This is for keeps. And it comes in the nick of time, just as prospects for a two-state solution have been growing more and more dim. That is why this flurry of activity seems almost a reprieve, as if already the night has been held back.

It is plainly far too soon to celebrate; night has not been canceled. And we will doubtless now hear cries of alarm from those in the American Jewish community who prefer a president who loves Israel well but not wisely. They come to this new time fresh from eight years of a president whose way it was to indulge the Israelis, never to insist that they live up to their own stated commitment regarding withdrawal from at least some West Bank settlements. It is time for them, like their patron, to recede. It is time for them to give peace a real chance. It is — dare I say it? — time for hope, again.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.