Many political progressives have harshly criticized President Obama’s recent trip to Israel and Palestine. They claim he was too warm toward Israel and too lukewarm toward Palestine.
Did these critics pay close attention to what the President actually said and saw on this trip? I don’t think so.
The president declined to speak to the Israeli Knesset, asking instead for a younger audience.
In his speech to Israeli youth, the President said:
[T]he Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and 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 her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.
In the picture above one of those Palestinian children watches his father show his papers to an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.
Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun (shown below with the President) told Daoud Kuttub she was especially pleased that the arrival of a khamsin* sand storm that hit the area on Friday, forced the president to forego an Israeli helicopter. She observed that:
By driving, Obama would have no choice but to see the wall surrounding the city. It was as if, she said, “God willed that Mr. Obama enter from the gate of reality, rather than from the sky of no reality.”
Mayor Baboun, the mother of five, is Bethlehem’s first woman mayor. A former Bethlehem University English literature professor, she was elected in October, 2012. She is also a professor who has a way with words.
MJ Rosenberg was one observer of the president’s trip who paid close attention to the fine print that emerged from the trip.
Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer, now a harsh (and well-informed) critic of both AIPAC and Israel, reported on the speech the president gave to young Israelis:
In words that must have shaken Netanyahu, Obama referred to “the moral force of nonviolence” to resist the occupation. Coming out of left field, this was probably an indication that Obama read the Sunday New York Times magazine cover story on non-violent resistance in the West Bank by Ben Ehrenreich.
Obama compared the Palestinian struggle to the civil rights movement in America, invoking his own daughters as beneficiaries of that struggle.
This presidential encouragement of the one form of protest that Israeli officials fear most as threatening their hold on the West Bank was significant. It is easy to imagine Palestinian protesters now marching against the settlements, waving photos of Obama along with his words endorsing non-violent resistance’s “moral force.”
Rosenberg adds that “the most significant part” of Obama’s speech came when the President referred to the Palestinians’ right to justice, specifically referencing settler violence that goes unpunished”
Rosenberg adds that he believes Obama is the first US president to use “the language of justice in discussing Palestinian rights, which is, of course, how Palestinians rightly see it”.
The introduction of the “language of justice” into the US public debate over Israel and Palestine, is, of course, long overdue.
The encouraging thing is that an American president has used “the language of justice” as a way of warning the Israeli people that their future depends on their leaders’ willingness to embrace that language. The discouraging thing is that the mainstream media covering the trip focused more on power politics than it did on what Obama said and saw in Palestine and Israel.
Alex Kane, writing for Mondoweiss, found a change message in Obama’s speech to the young Israelis:
Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war.
This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics –it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace.”
It is instructive to note that a few days after Obama’s trip, the US Supreme Court began their deliberations about two cases, both involving equal rights for gay and lesbian couples. The tide in favor of those rights has shifted dramatically.
On his MSNBC program this week, Lawrence O’Donnell noted the “sea change” taking place in this country regarding sexual equality.
He reported that North Carolina Democratic Senator Kay Hagan had joined a growing number of political leaders by endorsing marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. What makes her endorsement particular noteworthy is that the seat she now holds once belonged to arch conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms.
Given the passion and conflict generated by equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, and for Palestinians, why has support for Palestinian justice lagged so far behind support for marriage equality? The answer lies in the power of grassroots support in US political decisions.
Politicians respond to political pressure from voters. In a prescient column he wrote for the Progressive magazine in January, 2009, John Nichols wrote:
Whether the previous, more progressive Obama still exists within the man who will take the oath of office on January 20, remains to be seen. But the only way to determine if Obama really is the progressive he claimed as recently as last summer to be is to push not just Obama but the public.
Nichols looks back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt:
Franklin Roosevelt’s example is useful here. After his election in 1932, FDR met with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of them active Socialists with whom he had worked over the past decade or more. Hillman and his allies arrived with plans they wanted the new President to implement. Roosevelt told them: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
Supporters of gay marriage have developed a large grassroots movement which led to these court cases.
US supporters of justice for Palestinians, both religious and secular, have yet to build a strong grassroots movement to overcome an unjust occupation.
President Obama wants the American public to “make him do” the right thing. His progressive critics should remember that in a democracy, the president cannot change history alone.
The video is from Palmedia. The picture of Mayor Baboun and President Obama was taken in front of the Church of the Nativity by Jason Reed of Reuters. The picture of the child and his father is from the Islamic Forum.
* A khamsin is a hot, dry, dusty wind in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that blows from the south or southeast in late winter and early spring.