Jeffrey Goldberg has conducted yet another fascinating interview with President Obama. They spent time discussing three topics: ISIS, Iran and the President’s relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. I was particularly struck by the depth with which the President addressed the last one.
I said in a previous interview and I meant it: I think it would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States, and a moral failing for America, and a moral failing for the world, if we did not protect Israel and stand up for its right to exist, because that would negate not just the history of the 20th century, it would negate the history of the past millennium. And it would violate what we have learned, what humanity should have learned, over that past millennium, which is that when you show intolerance and when you are persecuting minorities and when you are objectifying them and making them the Other, you are destroying something in yourself, and the world goes into a tailspin.
And so, to me, being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish is part and parcel with the values that I’ve been fighting for since I was politically conscious and started getting involved in politics. There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind. But what is also true, by extension, is that I have to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values—its founding principles—that it has to care about those Palestinian kids. And when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had visited in Ramallah, and I said to a Israeli audience that it is profoundly Jewish, it is profoundly consistent with Israel’s traditions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not translated into policy—if we’re not willing to take risks on behalf of those values—then those principles become empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for us to continue to promote those values when it comes to protecting Israel internationally…
But my hope is that over time that debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if … all we are talking about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself — as a Jewish-majority democracy. And I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of, you know— Kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it. We are going to do it the right way. We are going to make sure that the lessons we’ve learned from our hardships and our persecutions are applied to how we govern and how we treat others. And it goes back to the values questions that we talked about earlier—those are the values that helped to nurture me and my political beliefs…
I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium. The same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery. The same values that led to Nelson Mandela being freed and a multiracial democracy emerging in South Africa. The same values that led to the Berlin Wall coming down. The same values that animate our discussion on human rights and our concern that people on the other side of the world who may be tortured or jailed for speaking their mind or worshipping—the same values that lead us to speak out against anti-Semitism. I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in that fight for what I believe to be true.
In his write-up about the interview, Golberg ends by saying that this conversation with President Obama felt like discussions he has participated in dozens of times, but mainly with rabbis. Goldberg sent part of the above quote to his own rabbi to see if he agreed. Here’s what he wrote back:
President Obama shares the same yearning for a secure peace in Israel that I and so many of my rabbinic colleagues have. While he doesn’t speak as a Jew, his progressive values flow directly out of the core messages of Torah, and so he is deeply in touch with the heart and spirit of the Jewish people.
President Obama often speaks about the importance of empathy. This is a perfect example of how he embodies that value.