It’s been just two days since President Barack Obama touched down in Israel, and no doubt you’ve probably read and heard it all by now. The ribbing banter with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Best Frenemy Forever. The constant ovations during his speeches. The Presidential Medal from Shimon Peres. The fact that Obama gave a traditional toast in Hebrew. (Note to his critics: Barack Hussein Obama now officially speaks more Hebrew than the average American Jew.)
After such a warm and successful visit, the biggest shock seems to be that Obama didn’t just make aliyah.
But for all the coverage, I still think the media missed the single most important story: Barack Obama has more in common with young Israelis, and with young American Jews, than Bibi Netanyahu. There is a Jewish “Arab Spring,” and its leader is the American President.
Just after the visit began, the press was asking whether what Obama had to do to succeed in the eyes of American Jewry. But as I told one reporter, American Jews already like Obama — it’s Netanyahu they’re testing.
Politically, Israeli and American Jews are each other’s mirror images. They poll against Obama; we overwhelmingly vote for him. They supported the Iraq War, we opposed it. They only thing we love equally is hummus, and Bar Raphaeli.
So from the point of view of American Jewry, it wasn’t Obama who had anything to prove, it was Netanyahu. Would Bibi put on his gracious, appreciative, compromising and welcoming face? Or would he be the rude, demanding Bibi he’s shown himself to be in some meetings past? We like the Bibi who likes our Barack.
And young Israelis seem to really like Obama, too.
At the Jerusalem Convention Center on March 21, Obama addressed some 2,000 Israeli college students and received numerous ovations. The press called his speech “tough love” — which it was — but if that’s the case, young Israelis seem to like it rough.
Obama is the first American president to speak directly to Israeli youth and apply the language of the American Civil Rights movement to the Palestinian cause. Here’s what he said:
“But the 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. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. 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.”
Put yourself in their shoes. You would think that line would be greeted with boos and catcalls. But it received an extended ovation. The young Israelis didn’t see this as “tough love.” They saw it as “about time.”
"Standing ovations from young Israelis for an endorsement of a Palestinian state by an enthusiastically Zionist African-American President whose middle name is Hussein," wrote Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic writer who witnessed the speech. " How, exactly, did he pull that one off?"
Obama pulled it off not by speaking to the Israel these young people know, but to the one they aspire to, the one they believe in.
One thing this means is that the noisiest, hardline “mainstream” pro-Israel voices do not speak for or to the next generation of Israelis, as they don’t for most young American Jews, for that matter. That doesn’t mean, as Peter Beinart and others would have it, that young American Jews don’t care about Israel, any more than you could say these young Israeli Jews don’t care about their country. They’re both just frustrated that the Israel they believe in, the one they aspire to build upon or support, is not reflected in the actions of the Bibi government or the pronouncement of Jewish American leaders.
In retrospect, none of this should be surprising. An October 2012 Jerusalem Post poll showed that a center-left megaparty could defeat Netanyahu in the 2013 elections. Israelis overall are more centrist than their American supporters, or their media critics, make them out to be.
Among the young, even more so. They care more about opportunity than ideology. Born in the 1980s and ’90 s, they would like, finally, to put the 1967 war behind them.
Obama correctly assumed this generation feels as much kinship with the striving, riled up Arab youth across their borders in Egypt, Syria, Jordan—even Palestine—as they do with a calcified and resistant political order back home.
“One of the great ironies of what is happening in the broader region is that so much of what people are yearning for – education and entrepreneurship; the ability to start a business without paying a bribe, to connect to the global economy – those things can be found in Israel,” Obama said.
In other words: They want what you want: freedom, security, a chance to make it.
This isn’t to say these Israelis would support the terms of whatever peace process comes along—and unless what Obama said resonates just as deeply with Palestinians, there won’t be much of one.
But if the Cairo speech Obama gave at the start of his presidency set the president back in the eyes of Israelis, his Jerusalem speech showed that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Israelis: and Obama has put himself in their shoes.