Barack Obama: Leader of the free word

Words matter, especially when spoken by people of power. I once read a book that dissected the 271 words of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Would that speech have become historic if, instead of phrases like “a new birth of freedom,” he had used phrases like “a reaffirmation of our values”?

Would Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech have the same power had he said, “I’m looking forward?”

President Barack Obama is a man who understands the power of words. He introduced himself to Americans with words that electrified a nation. He did the same in Israel.

“Barack Obama came to Jerusalem to win over the Israeli people,” Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The New Republic, “and with a single speech he did. … It may have been the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president.”

Halevi wrote that Obama’s embrace had “an explicit message for Israelis: Don’t give up on the dream of peace and don’t forget that the Palestinians deserve a state just as you do. But as the repeated ovations from the politically and culturally diverse audience revealed, these are messages that Israelis can hear when couched in affection and solidarity. After four years of missed signals, Obama finally realized that Israelis respond far more to love than to pressure.”

To express this love, Obama used all kinds of words — he used words in Hebrew, words from Abraham Joshua Heschel, words from the Bible, words from his heart.

As I reflected on the power of his words, it struck me that, as much as bombs and rockets play a part in the Arab-Israeli conflict, words play an equally important part.

Duplicitous words from a man named Yasser Arafat convinced America and Israel to deal with a man known globally as a terrorist.

Sincere words from a man named Anwar Sadat convinced the Jewish nation to give up the Sinai and make peace with their Egyptian enemy.

Hopeful words from President Clinton convinced much of the world that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was possible, and oh, so close.

Israeli Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with words. On one hand, words have expressed their hopes and dreams and captured their highest aspirations. Words that speak of the Jewish yearning to return to Zion — “If you will it, it is no dream”— can produce goosebumps. So can words that inspired the Jews to make a desert bloom while fighting off invading armies.

But words can also deceive. They can inflate expectations. They can lead to disappointment and cynicism.

This ambivalence — this complex and tortured relationship with words — is what greeted President Obama when he came to Israel.

Israelis wanted to dream with him. They wanted to follow his lead that we’re not just allowed to dream, we must dream.

But other words kept interfering.

While Obama was speaking of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a “true partner” for peace, the words swirling in many Israeli heads were those of Abbas denying any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, or honoring the memories of Palestinian terrorists with the blood of Jewish children on their hands.

While Obama spoke with hope and cautious optimism about the Arab Spring, Israelis could hardly forget the words of hatred that have come their way for decades from the 22 Arab countries that surround them, many of them now in turmoil.

When Obama spoke with empathy about the plight of the Palestinians — “Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes” — the words of a heckler who interrupted the president provided a rude awakening.

“Are you really here to promote the peace process or are you here to give Israel more weapons to kill the Palestinian people with?” Rabiyah Aid, an Arab-Israeli student from Haifa, shouted to the president.

Whose words were more significant? Those of the leader of the free world expressing empathy for the Palestinians, or those of an Arab-Israeli rejecting that empathy?

Obama’s reaction to the heckler was telling — he used it to make a point about freedom of expression in democracies.

Yes, in democracies, words are indeed free. But in much of the Middle East, the words that are free are those that express hatred for Jews and for Israel. Words of love for the dreaded Zionist enemy, well, those are very expensive — they can easily land you in jail.

President Obama came to this crazy land armed with a laptop full of beautiful, powerful, evocative words that make people dream. And his words did put up a good fight against the words of cold reality.

But in the end, peace in the Middle East will come only when all the peoples of the region will be free to speak words of love — words that would make Lincoln, King and Obama proud.