Saturday, May 23, 2015

Two States with Equality and Justice for All: Obama Outlines his Vision on Israel/Palestine and the American Jewish Community

This past week President Obama sat down for another interview with Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, and on Friday morning he delivered a speech at the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington D.C. to mark Jewish American Heritage month

You can find the transcript of the Goldberg interview at the end of the Atlantic article here; and you can find the President's address to Adas Israel here (transcript here).

"Whatever that is," quipped Jeffrey Goldberg, referring to Jewish American Heritage month in his Atlantic article.  It's a curious befuddlement. A Jewish American Heritage month was declared by president George Bush in 2006, at the urging of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Florida) and senator Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania). It joined Black history month (February), Irish Heritage month (March), Scandinavian American Heritage month (May), Caribbean American Heritage month (June),  Italian American Heritage month (October), Filipino American History month (October), National Hispanic Heritage month (October-November), and Polish American Heritage month (October).  And, of course, we know exactly what these honorific months signify: America is a land of immigrants who brought their diverse cultures with them; each of these cultures has made, and continues to make significant contributions to America's culture, palate, and traditions, and like a fine dish, what makes America great is that we can detect the distinct spices and flavors of the ingredients that make up our "melting pot."

So what is Goldberg saying with his fake puzzlement? Is he alluding to the Netanyahu meme that Jews are ultimately not Jewish Americans, they are Jews whose real home is in Eretz Israel? [For a general background on this position see here] If so, it is something President Obama strongly disagrees with.

Here is what I hear Obama saying in this interview and speech:

1.  America is not a way station on the Diaspora trail. Jewish Americans are Americans exactly like Irish Americans and Polish Americans. They bring their heritage to this land, they are fully part of this land, and we have all benefitted from it. Jewish Americans are of this land, not Eretz Israel.

2.  America has benefitted from Jewish American values. Jewish American values speak for equality and justice for all. Jewish Americans have contributed righteously to the civil rights struggle in this country. Obama says he was personally influenced by these values in his formative years, and that his policies are infused with these values today.

3.  America supports Israel because of these shared values.  America was and is not always true to our ideals. But our founding vision and documents have provided us with a guiding North star that has and is seeing us through. Jewish Americans and their values are helping us in this work. Similarly, Israel's founding vision, as expressed in its declaration of independence is a vision America shares.  Israel's declaration of independence states, in part:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will ... foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
This commitment to a democracy that will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex ... and that will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations... this is our common bond, says Obama. That is what unites us. And just as Jewish Americans have helped the United States in its struggle to live up to its founding vision, Jewish Americans--and the United States as a whole--must assist Israel to live up to its values.

4. "Implementing shared values is hard; that's why we study," says Obama. "It's not just a formula you can apply," he says.  It allows for differences of views. Obama believes the current Israeli government is not pursuing these shared values; the occupation is not living up to these values; and discrimination against Palestinian Israeli citizens is not living up to these values. We must be able to be critical, and we must be able to be critical in the open. And we must recognize that such criticism is not anti-Israel and is not anti-Semitic.

5. We must recognize the unique history that brought Israel about, and that Israel has the right to exist as a majority Jewish state in light of this history.  Israel has a right not only to exist, says Obama, but to thrive and prosper, and to be secure. This implies no right of return for Palestinians.

6. Everybody has rights and everybody is a child of God, says Obama. We must take the rights of  Palestinian children in Ramallah, Jenin, Jericho, Nabulus, Hebron, and in Gaza (to well-being, education, and opportunities) just as seriously as those of children in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa, Kiryat Shmona, and Be'er Sheva. The preservation of a democracy in a Jewish homeland requires a two-state-solution. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be free on their land as well, says Obama.  It is required for Israel to be what it was intended to be.

What Obama outlines in this interview and speech is a principled defense of the liberal Zionist two-state-solution that the United States has endorsed and has been advocating for the past 22 years.

In the meantime, everybody recognizes that the current Israeli polity is not on board with a two-state-solution or the founding vision that Obama champions. Here is Chemi Shalev, the Haaretz Washington correspondent:
Obama’s speech accentuated ... the growing gap between the [American liberal community and the Israeli Jewish community]: One is from Venus, the other from Mars. In the eyes of most members of Netanyahu’s new coalition, American lefties, be they Jewish or African American or presidents of the United States, are even worse than Israeli lefties, and we know what they think about them. 
Obama realizes this.  By clearly outlining his commitment to the Jewish state, but anchoring this support in a tradition of shared values, Obama is continuing to lay the groundwork for perhaps supporting (soon?) a United Nations resolution to force a two-state solution.

Obama repeated that Netanyahu's open rejection of the two state-solution, and his race-baiting during the election will have consequences. What those consequences are remains to be seen.

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