By Nathan Diament
Originally published in The Washington Post – On Faith, March 20, 2013
Today, on an airport tarmac outside Tel Aviv, President Obama not only took his first physical steps toward a new relationship with Israel and her supporters, but a critical symbolic step. For the first time in any of the many speeches and remarks he has delivered during is presidency on the topic of Israel, Mr. Obama explicitly invoked and embraced the Jewish people’s historic footing in the Holy Land, dating back to biblical times.
After descending the steps of Air Force One and being greeted by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, President Obama stated:
“I know that, in stepping foot on this land, I walk in the historic homeland of the Jewish people…. More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here….The founding of the Jewish state of Israel was a rebirth—a redemption unlike any in history….The sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages.”
For four years, since the president’s spring 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo, Israelis and Jews in the United States and elsewhere have harbored a deep concern that President Obama did not know of or understand this biblically-rooted commitment to building a modern state of Israel.
Obama’s Cairo address was heard, rightly or not, by Jewish ears to anchor the rationale for modern Israel’s existence in Western recompense for the Holocaust. And over the course of four years of speeches and press conferences –at the State Department, the United Nations, AIPAC conferences and elsewhere –President Obama did not redress this impression.
Today, at Ben Gurion Airport he did so in his first statement in Israel. Tomorrow, the presidential itinerary will provide another moment for his embrace of biblical history as he visits the Shrine of the Book which houses the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls –physical testimony to the millennia old presence of Jews in the Holy Land.
Among the artifacts there, is a scroll of the Book of Isaiah. That prophet’s words still provide inspiration to many today. President Obama will certainly be familiar with Isaiah’s prophetic vision of nation’s beating their swords into plowshares, and may invoke it as he explores new opportunities to pursue peace negotiations.
But Isaiah also said: “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night.” Modern Israelis and those who support the Jewish state see ourselves as fulfilling this ancient charge today. President Obama’s recognition and acknowledgment of this is a welcome and blessed step in the relationship of today’s American and Israeli governments and peoples.
Nathan Diament is Executive Director for Public Policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.