Of all of the gestures performed during Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, that of the president of the United States bowing to the president of the State of Israel as the former accepted the Presidential Medal of Distinction was among the more extraordinary.
But even before that, there was another moment of symbolism when the two presidents, Obama and Shimon Peres, walked side by side into the presidential residence in Jerusalem for the state dinner, while the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, walked behind with his wife, Sara. State protocol or not, the prime minister, forced to yield center stage to the political elder statesman, did not seem happy.
Peres’s opening words to the gathering that included every major political and religious figure on the Israeli scene was, “Bravo, Mr. President.” Here was someone to whom Peres could talk over dinner, a younger American version of himself.
Earlier in the day, Obama did what had been promised but seemed unlikely. He spoke directly to the people of Israel, and about peace. Here was the language of “hope,” directed not to the populace of urban Chicago or rural New Hampshire, but to Israelis. Young Israelis, “Blue State” Israelis.
Obama’s afternoon speech, which surprised and quickly grabbed the attention of the nation, was addressed to university students from around the country. And once he began speaking, the controversy from earlier in the week — the exclusion from the audience of students from the university in the settlement Ariel — made sense.
Obama spoke in Hebrew, cited the Bible and the Passover Haggadah, quoted from Theodor Herzl and even Ariel Sharon (some of his other references escaped Israelis: TV commentators had to explain to the audience watching the state dinner who Abraham Joshua Heschel was). But he most emphatically did not speak for the cause of “Greater Israel.” It was not for Red State Israel, those living in the occupied territories, but for the Blue State, the students gathered in Jerusalem. Biblical history, it turns out, resonates even for them.
Obama almost certainly knows that the prophet Joshua, who inherited the leadership of Israel from Moses, is associated with Israeli settlement — Joshua is the one who conquered the Land of Israel. But in his speech, Obama referred to Blue State Israel as the “Joshua Generation,” asking them to make their own future: “You must create the change you want to see.”
To the Joshua Generation, Obama exhorted — making the previous days of publicly chumming up with Bibi almost seem a ruse — “political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do.”