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.

Obama pledges commitment to Israel, unity against Iran

President Obama said the U.S. commitment to Israel's security “must not waver” and that the world must unite against Iran's nuclear ambitions.

“Our commitment to Israel's security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace” Obama said to cheers Thursday night, accepting the Democratic Party's nomination. “The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.”

The party's convention here has been dogged this week by headlines reviving reports of tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Democratic platform removed language recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and then restored it at Obama's behest.

Reports out of Israel suggest that its government is more exercised than ever by what it sees as Obama's refusal to make clear to Iran the consequences of not ending its suspected nuclear weapons program, including a possible military strike.

Gore’s Gamble

Unhappy with the draft of a speech he was to deliver at the Jewish state’s 50th anniversary celebration and frustrated with five Jewish aides who were unable to discuss the first biblical references to Israel, Vice President Al Gore took a break for dinner while his staff scoured Air Force Two for a copy of the Bible.

Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean while en route to represent the United States at Israel’s jubilee celebrations in April 1998, Gore huddled over all they could find — a King James Bible borrowed from a military aide.

Six hours later, amid a sea of notes, the eight-minute speech was done.

That night in Jerusalem, an enthusiastic crowd cheered Gore as he recounted the story of Jacob.

“Since the angel of God first wrestled with Jacob and gave him your name — Israel — your dream and your struggle have nurtured the children of Israel through all the bitter centuries of your wandering and dispersion, your persecution and despair,” Gore said at Hebrew University’s stadium.

Now it is Gore who is wrestling — trying to define the role of religion in public policy as he officially begins his campaign for president. And Jewish supporters of the vice president are wrestling, too — trying to reconcile Gore’s decision to make religion central to his campaign with his long history of support for Jewish causes.

If Gore is going to emerge from President Clinton’s shadow, he’s going to need some new issues of his own, supporters say. With the American people telling pollsters that they want the next president to be more “moral,” Gore’s campaign sees a winning message in religion.

“The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time,” Elaine Kamarck, a senior Gore policy adviser, recently told the Boston Globe.

Casting aside strong opposition from some of his key Jewish supporters, Gore last month called for the expansion of a federal program that’s despised by most in the Jewish community and opposed by Clinton himself.

In one of his first major campaign speeches, Gore focused on religion and pledged, if elected president, to expand “charitable choice” programs, which encourage religious institutions to provide federal welfare programs.

With this speech, Gore inserted into the campaign an issue that Democrats traditionally have been loath to use to attract voters. By all accounts, Gore is walking a fine line in his quest to woo religious voters into the Democratic camp without alienating traditional constituencies, including Jewish voters.

With Gore now in full campaign mode, his focus on religion stunned many in the Jewish community. Talk of religion in politics makes many in the Jewish community uncomfortable because usually it does not mean Judaism.

In fact, in a recent New York Times commentary, author A.N. Wilson wrote that Gore’s May 24 speech on charitable choice offered a cure for what the vice president called “ordinary Americans” who “have been turned off to politics.”

“The cure is Christianity,” Wilson wrote.

To be sure, Gore is not the type of politician who has worn religion on his sleeve.

But in dozens of speeches to Jewish audiences since he became vice president, Gore, who spent a year studying at divinity school, has frequently espoused religious themes.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella fund-raising and social-service organization of the Jewish community, in a rare policy statement, criticized the vice president’s proposal as “neither necessary nor helpful.”

Gore’s plan “will not strengthen the work of the religious sector in providing human service, but will likely undermine the quality of social services they provide,” said Stephen Solender, acting president of the UJC, which last fall voted to oppose all current charitable choice programs and any attempts to expand them.

Opponents of Gore’s proposal believe that the statement will get noticed in the vice president’s office especially because of the large number of Gore contributors who sit on federation boards across the country.

Many Republicans and Democrats alike accused Gore of sounding more like a conservative Republican — strong support for Israel and weak on social issues — than a moderate Democrat. The program will lead to proselytizing and the erosion of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state, opponents argue. In the organized Jewish community, only Orthodox and Republican groups expressed support for the program, which, for example, allows a church to receive taxpayer money for counseling that includes religious content.

If Gore had no track record with the Jewish community, some Democratic activists fear that he would be in trouble. But unlike Clinton, who was a relative unknown in the community when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, Gore has a proven history from his career in the House of Representatives, from 1977 to 1985, and then as a senator until 1993, when he became vice president.

On Israel, Gore has one of the strongest voting records. During the Clinton administration’s darkest days with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Gore was the one who maintained a dialogue with the Israeli leader, officials said.

But while Jewish Democratic activists claim support among Jewish voters for Gore is as broad as Clinton’s, who received almost 80 percent of the Jewish vote in his two presidential elections, others believe it is not as deep.

“He’s got a great record with the Jewish community, a voting record,” one activist said, trying to draw a distinction between Gore and Republican front-runner George W. Bush. “Now Gore’s got to work it.”