Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reflecting on President Obama’s recent overtures to peace in the Middle East

I'm sure that, by now, everyone has heard that our president has recently had a lot to say about Israel. Last Thursday he gave a substantial policy address and he spoke on Sunday the AIPAC conference.
Although many people heard the speech, what he actually meant by his words is the topic of fierce debate. Presidential speeches, like tractates of Talmud are studied zealously. We look for nuances and shifts. We try to hear both what was said and what WASN'T said so as to try to understand the impact of any policy changes or additions.
Depending on whom one listens to, President Obama is either an friend of Israel, a naïve idealist, or a sworn enemy who has been drinking State Department "Arabist Kool-Aid" (to quote a recent OpEd piece by right-wing commentator, Cal Thomas).
The fact that the President referred to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations was troubling for some.  For others, the fact that he omitted any references to the Palestinian demand for a law of return was worrisome.
Although I was unable to attend the AIPAC policy Conference this year, I did follow the president's speech to the plenary as it was broadcast online.. I also followed many of the comments posted by people who were "live blogging" it on Twitter and Facebook. It was fascinating to see how so many people, hearing the exact same words, had such different interpretations.
On Tuesday, May 31 from 7:00- 8:30 pm I will be sitting on a panel discussing the following topic: "Israel and Obama's Vision For The Middle East." The program will be sponsored by "Stand With Us Israel" and will take place at the   Hebrew Educational Alliance (3600 S Ivanhoe). I will be joined by Professor Shaul Gabbay, Rabbi Bruce Dollin, Rabbi Selwyn Franklin and Rabbi Richard Rheins.
Even the title of the forum can be understood in multiple ways. For example, does the word "and" imply that Israel and President Obama share the same vision, or does it mean that they differ?
In preparation for my remarks, I would love to hear your thoughts on the following:
  • President Obama's Speech and subsequent need to clarify his remarks at the AIPAC conference
  • The state of your own personal relationship with Israel;
  • Do you feel that Obama is a friend of Israel?
  • Are his policies and pronouncements radically different than those of previous administrations?
  • What are the effectiveness of our governmental policies (or lack thereof…) vis-à-vis Israel
I'm happyto hear thoughts on others issues as well.  Feel free to post your comments on this blog, or reply to me in private. (Black@Emanueldenver.org)

Todah Rabbah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

P.S. – for more information about the community forum on 5/31, contact yona@standwithus.com


  1. Nice post, but suspiciously devoid of your own thoughts on the questions you ask...

  2. Adrian - you're very astute. At this point, I don't want the focus of responses to be about my comments, per se - I want to hear what others are feeling. I will post my comments at a later date.

  3. Well, third attempt to respond after Blogger ate the last two and locked up my browser!
    1. Obama had nothing to clarify. There was just way too much eisegesis going on (as well as too much exegesis...)
    2. I support and stand with Israel - but I believe Israel has made many mistakes and stumbles over the years (and continues to make them)
    3. Why is it relevant if Obama is a friend of Israel? Sometimes the best ideas come from critics (and sometimes the best critics are our friends.)
    4. Style may be different, but not the underlying philosophies.
    5. The US has sacrificed its ability to influence the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to bad policies throughout the rest of the middle east and the world.
    We must get past the positioning and posturing if we are ever to get anywhere. In any compromise, we'll all have lots to be unhappy about. But peace is worth it in the end. Doesn't Judaism teach us that?

  4. My friend, Lori Chinitz, sent me the following reponse via e-mail:
    1) President Obama's Speech and subsequent need to clarify his remarks at the AIPAC conference
    The people whom I know that don't trust the President will always hear a force hostile to Israel in his words.  It always surprises me.  I thought his speech was a bit of throwing down the gauntlet to both parties to get out of their "safe" zones and back to the table.  It sounded like he was influenced by what must have been an exasperated George Mitchell.
    2) The state of your own personal relationship with Israel:
    Like my relationship with the US under George Bush.  Loyal but embarrassed and distressed.

    3. Do you feel that Obama is a friend of Israel? 
    Words like "friend" and "foe" are a little immature and sentimental when it comes to politics.  Obama was elected to be president of the US and look out for our interests, not to make/keep friends.  I think he is doing what he was elected to do, and that it is in America's interests to stay strong with Israel while getting the lightning rod of Palestinian injustice off the radar of the Arab world. 

    When people say "Friend of Israel," they sometimes mean "supporter of the current administration."  I wasn't a friend of the United States when we were bombing Iraq, according to that terminology.  Just imagine if Israel's leadership was Rabin right now, or Begin.  We wouldn't be having this conversation--or this confrontation.
    Personally, I know how many Jews have been Obama's helpers and close advisors from the start.  He is extraordinarily tuned in to the American Jewish psyche, both its idealism and fearfulness.  His rational, justice-oriented approach mirrors what we learned about Jewish ethics in Sunday School.  My husband calls him "Our first Jewish president."

    4. Are his policies and pronouncements radically different than those of previous administrations?
    Different, in a way that appeals to me.  Obama is not appealing (pandering) to those in our community to get up and cheer when simplistic overgeneralizations are made.  Policy-wise, no radical changes so far, and its against his principals to impose any on either party.

    5. What are the effectiveness of our governmental policies (or lack thereof…) vis-à-vis Israel?
    We can't force Israel or the Palestinians to want to make peace if their leaders still feel that they're getting more mileage out of perpetrating hostilities.  Ayn ma la'asot.  But I believe this will change soon, because of the Arab Spring, as the President was gently trying to indicate in his speech and at AIPAC.  Halavai, someone should listen! 
    I don't see the current Israeli government as being as ZIonistic (i.e., interested in the survival of the Jewish state) as I am.  I don't think we're on a road to survival as things stand, and this scares me.

  5. 1. A good speech. I kind of get the feeling he only needed to clarify his remarks because Netanyahu purposefully misinterpreted them. That administration doesn't really seem to have any interest in peace other than for political and economic advantage.
    2. I love Israel as the homeland of my people, but as an American as well I am frequently conflicted. Israel needs to, absolutely must, continue to exist... but many of their policies and political decisions over the last decade have been either counterproductive or overly destructive.
    3.I think that Obama is a friend of Israel. But that doesn't mean he doesn't need to look out for his own interests first. I wouldn't put my family in danger for a friend, especially if a friend was acting like an ass. I would, instead continue to try to talk... and maybe suggest solutions to both sides of the conflict (as, frankly, US presidents have tried to do for decades).
    4. As far as I can tell, not really. He just seems to be more honest than most.
    5. Our government policies are ineffective, really. We continue to give aid no matter what (which is in our interest, of course, but still), we continue to support them politically in the UN and throughout the middle east... and yet... does the settlement stop? No. Does the peace process advance at all? No. The Israeli government currently has no real interest in negotiation... and why should they? What do they have to gain? Almost nothing. They have a lot to lose however. I have to say that now that the Hamas/Fatah merger is happening I really won't blame them for refusing to return to the table... but I will blame them for a decade of missed opportunities to deal with the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

  6. A former confirmand from Minneapolis, Nate Mikhlin, posted the following on my facebook page that I thought I would share on this blog:

    Rabbi Black, I think you know that I am going to disagree with most of what you are saying. The main thing is why do we need to interpret what our president is saying? He need to me more clear, I mean I feel that I understood him just fin...e, I just don't like what I heard. But that fact that people are interpreting what he said this way or that way is in of itself troublesome. I don't think anyone is having a hard time figuring out what Bibi was saying (except of course Debbie Schlussel). I would like to quote Yoni Netanyahu, I think this quote not only pertains to what is going on today but is also one of his most important quotes. "I see with sorrow how a part of the people still clings to hopes of reaching a peaceful settlement with the Arabs. Common sense tells them that the Arabs haven't abandoned their basic aim of destroying the state; but the self-delusion and self-deception that have always plagued the Jews are at work again.
    It's our great misfortune.
    They want to believe, so they believe. They want not to see, so they shut their eyes. They want not to learn from thousands of years of history, so they distort it. It would be comic if it weren't so tragic."

    Bibi's speech was brilliant, he's looking for a partner in peace, as long as its not Hamas (well Abbas and the PA just reconciled with Hamas, so its not them either) that really leaves no one. It makes him and Israel look good, with out ac...tually having to deal with them, without having to trade land for false peace. It was Bibi who gave away Hevron in 1996, and for what? Did Hevron even buy the Israelis a month of peace? No! Now we clearly have the support of the US congress, maybe not the president, but congress non the less. I don't think that Israel needs to stress anymore about the US agreeing with the UN and referring to Israel as "occupied Palestine

  7. Here are three commentaries: one by Alan Dershowitz, one by Dana Milbank, and one by Paul Rosenblum.

    They express my feelings well.

    In addition, I wish that President Obama would speak to the provision of the charter of Hamas that promises the destruction of the State of Israel.




  8. A congregant, Jeffrey Litman, sent me the following response and gave me permission tompost it here:
    Rabbi Black...
    We haven't formally met but my wife Marilyn and I are longtime members of Congregational Emanuel.  I would describe myself as very pro-Israel and still revel in the brilliant victory over the Arab countries in the 1967 War.  As a teenager I dreamed of being a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. 
    However, it wasn't until my 60th birthday in 2008 as part of an ADL mission that I actually had the opportunity to visit this country.  It was probably the best experience of my life. During one of our many stops we were taken to David Ben-Gurion's grave near the University bearing his name in the Negev. Our tour guide who had emigrated to Israel from Australia because of anti-Semitism, who had fought in the 1973 War and who had children serving in the Israeli Defense Forces shared with us that Ben-Gurion (affectionately referred to as the "Old Man") felt that Israel has made a very strategic mistake by not negotiating land for piece with the Arabs following the 1967 War. That they had effectively let their best hope for peace get away by not pursuing peace efforts at that time. Apparently he carried that thought with him to the day he died.
    Whenever the Israeli/Palestinian debate comes up (especially after the rhetoric of the past few days) I harken back to that moment in the Negev and the vision of the great Patriarch of Israel. With that said I also wonder when does compromise become appeasement i.e., Chamberlin to Hitler in 1939.  Those hard fought territorial advantages won by the courageous Israeli Defense Forces in 1967 can only be given back if there is a clear indication the Palestinians and their backers truly are willing to accept Israel's right to exist and coexist without ongoing aggression.  I personally don't believe that is possible and from an emotional standpoint side with the hard liners are this issue. However, intellectually I probably side with the President who feels that if there is any hope for peace in the region you have to give the path he outlined last week a chance.  These are certainly tough, tough choices! 
    Jeffrey Litman

    P.s. On the same trip to Israel we also toured the Golan Heights.  Hearing the story of the battle, being on those hallowed grounds and imagining how against all odds those brave soldiers managed to regain that territory in the Yom Kippur War brought tears to my eyes.

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  11. Shalom Rav,

    Not in my words, but nonetheless my thoughts


    Make it a good week for yourself and others,