If there is one thing that can be said for President Obama, it is that he doesn’t shy away from speaking hard truths. As I listened to the speech in Cairo, as I reread the transcript and as I studied the numerous commentaries and analyses of the speech, I was reminded of the timeless adage: Sometimes the truth hurts.
While many in the Jewish community were critical of his speech, I count myself among the majority, confirmed in a recent J Street poll, that wants this president to push for peace, speak hard truths and stand up in public for what he believes in private. The Cairo speech did that in a few significant ways.
First, Obama stood in the heart of the Arab world and told them that extremist behavior and violence is not the way to achieve freedom and peace. While straddling a fine line of mutual respect and admiration for Muslim achievements, past and present, he said in no uncertain terms that the great struggles for democracy and human rights have been through nonviolent means.
While we in the West may take the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and the women’s suffrage movement for granted, I have often been told, when asking my Arab colleagues why they don’t embrace nonviolence as a tool for achieving their goals, that the Arab world doesn’t have these heroes in their historical memory banks. And so, without demonizing the Arabs and without embarrassing them in public, the president taught a history lesson, educated without criticizing.
It is a message that I have been wanting to hear for decades, and I am very proud that Obama had the courage and conviction to deliver it.
Second, Obama stood in the heart of the Arab world and told them that America’s bond with Israel is unbreakable. It is hard to get any clearer than that. And yet, because he also spoke of the Palestinian hardship and struggle, Jewish leaders are doubting his words.
That is shortsighted and a big error. Obama is a leader who has the necessary qualities and ability to hold multiple truths before him without diminishing their individual merits. That is the sign of a strong leader.
And while I would have preferred that he travel to Jerusalem after the speech rather than to Buchenwald, I understand and appreciate his motivation.
America’s bond with Israel will only be strengthened by our willingness to speak hard truths in public, the truths that we all know and many of us speak about in private. He told the Palestinians to end violence, accept Israel’s right to exist and be ready to engage in difficult and serious negotiations that will involve compromise. And, he told the Israelis that they need to end settlement construction, which is taking the very land any future Palestinian state will be built on.
He told the Arab world to stop denying the Holocaust and demonizing Jews. He told the Jews to understand and recognize the pain that the Palestinian people have been enduring, much of their own making, but, and this is the hard truth, some of it is of Israel’s making. Ignoring it or denying it won’t change the truth. Obama is helping us bridge this painful gap. We should cross the bridge with him.
And finally, Obama stood in the heart of the Arab world and encouraged a movement toward freedom, democracy, women’s rights and economic equality. With respect and dignity, he was able to appreciate the contributions of a culture different from his own, while also calling out several areas that can and should be improved.
Mutual respect doesn’t always mean mutual agreement, and my hope is that through his message of hope and reconciliation the leaders of the Arab world might finally realize their greater potential for success, one that they led the entire world in just several centuries ago, and allow for equal rights and democracy to blossom in their lands, so we can one day enjoy a world built on bridges of trust, cooperation and economic stability, rather than on wars, anger, distrust and economic domination.
That is what I heard Obama calling for. Nothing can happen with one speech, but words matter, messages matter and as President John F. Kennedy reminded us, courage matters.
As a Jewish leader in America, I am heartened by my president’s courage and wisdom. He taught meaningful religious texts from Judaism, Islam and Christianity; in fact, the text he quoted from the Quran about taking one life and saving one life can be found verbatim in the Talmud.
He chose to say things that he knew would be unpopular in all camps. But, as a good friend, a good leader and a wise politician, he said things that needed to be heard, and he said them in public. The end of his speech, in particular, was so moving, so encouraging, so bold. I urge us all to go and read those parts where he talked about coming together, overcoming fear and how “we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.”
I end with the president’s own words: “The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on earth.”
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and on the advisory board of J Street.