A President’s Rule to Live By

A few weeks ago, the attention of the American people was drawn to Washington, D.C., as the U.S. Supreme Court listened to arguments in two cases addressing the status of gay marriage in this country.  Vocal constituencies on both sides of the issues gathered outside the Court to make sure their perspectives were heard, on what many view as the seminal civil rights issue of the current era.

In a television interview last spring, the President of the United States announced, informally but momentously, that his views on the subject had changed: he had concluded that gay couples should, indeed, have the same right to marry that heterosexual couples enjoy. To what did he attribute this change of heart?  As he told the interviewer, Robin Roberts, while he and the First Lady are practicing Christians, “the thing at the root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

This is hardly the first time Barack Obama has invoked the Golden Rule during his Presidency.  At the National Prayer Breakfast held shortly after his inauguration in 2009, he focused explicitly on “the one law that binds all great religions together…the Golden Rule — the call to love one another, to understand one another, to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this earth.”

A few months later, Obama delivered his pathbreaking speech to the Muslim world in the Grand Hall of Cairo University, and concluded by urging his audience to be guided, above all, by the “truth [that] transcends nations and peoples,” “the one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”  And in Stockholm in March, 2010, accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama went further. Questioning why we don’t acknowledge that we all “basically want the same things” — the chance to find some measure of fulfillment for ourselves and our families — he identified the challenge to adhere to the Golden Rule as not only the very “purpose of faith” but as “the core struggle of human nature.”

Fast forward to Jerusalem, March 21, 2013.  It’s Obama’s first Presidential visit to Israel.      He’s delivered his long-awaited speech to the Israeli people, and, more specifically, to Israel’s young people.  By most accounts, the speech is a great success, even historic. Obama needed to connect, and he did connect.

The President made crystal clear that he understands and respects Israel’s national narrative, that he embraces the long-standing bond between the two countries, and that, as he put it, “Israel’s not going anywhere.” From that foundation, he asked what the future holds and, more specifically, the future for peace.  Suggesting a path forward, Obama sounded his quintessential theme.  This time, the “rule of love” was nowhere directly quoted.  In remarks unmistakably infused with it, it didn’t need to be.

He spoke of the need to recognize the Palestinian people’s right to justice and self-determination. How did he frame it?  In a way that no U.S. president ever has before: “Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.” He acknowledged as unjust the harsh reality that Palestinians have lived for generations with the presence of an army that controls their movements, prevents them from farming their lands, and displaces them from their homes.  More framing: “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”  The unmistakable symmetry of the Golden Rule.  And when he spoke about the young Palestinians he met, who weren’t so different from his own daughters — or those of the Israelis he was speaking to — he said “I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do.”  The code is hardly disguised: Do unto the Palestinians…

Trade places.  Acknowledge the narrative of the other.  And then ensure his and her just treatment, as we would wish to be treated. Whether in Washington or Cairo or Stockholm or Jerusalem, the Golden Rule resonates, as it has for millennia.   In Israel — and in the U.S. — skeptics will insist that such talk is naive foolishness, that the conflict isn’t susceptible to a fix based on empathy.  Fair enough. Empathy alone isn’t sufficient.  But — no less than pragmatic, reality-based negotiation that leads to painful compromise on both sides — it’s essential.  For starters, consider this example, not mentioned by Obama: If you were going to negotiate over the size of your country, and the party you intend to negotiate with, before you began, was methodically chipping away at the land you were supposed to be dividing — how would you respond?

Obama should keep speaking these words, this “rule of love,” wherever he goes.  But, as he said and as he knows, it takes a whole lot more than talk. It falls on all of us, in each of our places of conflict, to take action — to press our leaders — to turn the rule into reality on the ground.

About the Author
Michael Felsen's op-eds on Israel/Palestine, American Jewish-Muslim relations, and secular humanism have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Boston Globe, The Forward, Common Ground News Service, and elsewhere around the world. He is an attorney who recently retired after four decades in government, and is a past president of the Boston chapter of Workmen’s Circle, an almost 120-year old communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture, and social justice.