Barack Obama stepped down from the podium a couple hours ago after delivering what my gut tells me was a historic speech.
I have two reasons for thinking this is true, but take these comments as a quick, first reaction.
More than any other American president who has spoken about Israel and the conflict, Obama used a thoroughly Israeli vocabulary. He described how an Israeli perceives the security situation in terms that spoke directly to Israel’s historical memory, siege mentality, and utter fatigue with high-minded talk of peace.
Here’s how he described what it means to be an Israeli:
You live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected the right of your nation to exist, and 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.
This was the language that hit its mark, the Israeli kishkes, more than the name checks of Sharon, Ben-Gurion, and Rabin, or the tortured attempts to throw out a word in Hebrew here or there.
And it felt like a departure from past rhetoric, which spoke about the necessity for peace without acknowledging why it might be so hard for Israelis to take the concept seriously any more.
The other point that felt important was his appeal to empathy. While he showed his own ability to imaginatively leap into the Israeli experience, he then asked Israelis to do the same when it came to Palestinians. After describing all the practical reasons why there was no real alternative to peace for demographic reasons, for security reasons, among many others, he also described a moral argument for peace that moved beyond the usual bromides. This also felt new:
But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized. And 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.
He then went “off-script,” as he put it, to describe a meeting with young Palestinians that took place that morning, teenagers who reminded him of his own daughters, saying, “I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed.”
Now I know there will be those who will dismiss all this empathy as just more mushy-mouthed rhetoric. I too feel pretty jaded about the possibility for good feeling to enter such a protracted, entrenched conflict and know that the practical arguments for a resolution are really the best chance peace has got.
But it is powerful – and fresh, and, yes, historical – when a leader breaks down a problem like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the essential, psychological barriers that stand in its way. Even if this doesn’t bring us any closer to the nuts and bolts of negotiation and compromise, it presents the United States position vis-à-vis these two, old combatants in more honest terms than any I’ve ever heard uttered by an Israeli, Palestinian or American leader before. That’s got to be some kind of progress.
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman