President Barack Obama’s first presidential trip to Israel was coined “Operation Desert shmooze” by pundit Jeffrey Goldberg. Of course the talk was important, both the public statements and speeches by the president – particularly his riveting speech to university students – as well as the private discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iran, the peace process, Syria and U.S.-Israel relations.
But equally significant were the silent visuals at the places President Obama chose to visit in Israel, and the messages those images sent to Israelis, Americans, and particularly to those who question Israel’s legitimacy and aim to threaten its existence.
In a signal to the many Arab and Muslim leaders and figures that regularly deny or diminish the Jewish connection to the land and charge that Jews are interlopers in the region, the president visited the Shrine of the Book to view the captivating Dead Sea Scrolls. In examining the scrolls, which include the earliest known copies of the Bible and ancient Jewish texts, President Obama attested to the historic and irrevocable Jewish connection to the land of Israel.
Validating the legitimacy and durability of Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement, the president paid homage to Theodor Herzl, the “father of modern Zionism,” with a visit to his grave. The stop was a powerful rejoinder to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in a speech in February called Zionism “a crime against humanity,” as well as to those who have defamed the movement for decades by charging that “Zionism is racism.”
In a message to Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and even Syria, the president toured an Iron Dome battery, the U.S.-funded anti-missile system that intercepted hundreds of incoming rockets during the November Israel-Hamas clashes. The visit told those who physically threaten Israel that the United States will support and defend Israel against attack.
The president’s itinerary also included powerful symbolism directed to Israelis, seeking to convey that he “gets” the Israeli narrative of a fledgling state rising from the ashes of the Holocaust and defying all challenges to create a vibrant, modern power.
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum, and a requisite stop for all dignitaries visiting Israel, the president showed recognition that Jews have been the subject of hatred, persecution and annihilation for millennia, and reaffirmed the indispensible role of the State of Israel as a haven for the Jewish people. He clearly and poignantly noted that, “Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again.”
The tour of the Iron Dome demonstrated empathy for Israelis’ feeling of being surrounded by hostile forces – which was only reinforced by the Hamas-fired rockets landing in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on Israel the following day, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei pledging to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” if “they [the Zionists] were to make the mistake of attacking Iran.”
While on Mount Herzl, the president acknowledged and paid tribute to Israel’s yearning and commitment for peace and reconciliation with a visit to the grave of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Finally, in a stop at a showcase of seven Israel companies in the field of robotics, medicine and agriculture, the president embraced the miracle of a country only 65 years old becoming an economic powerhouse and one of the world’s leading technological innovators.
Certainly, most of these sites are compulsory stops on any tourist’s visit to Israel, and many Israelis griped that President Obama skipped a visit to the Kotel and the Knesset. But the president’s choice of where to visit was more than mere site seeing or political photo-ops.
With this carefully crafted itinerary, the president celebrated many milestones in the history of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, while sending carefully targeted messages that the United States believes in Jewish nationalism and stands with the State of Israel.
While we will certainly remember the schmoozing and the speeches, the last word from President Obama’s visit to Israel will not only be the optics and the symbolism, but the presidential pledge of “Atem Lo Levad” – you are not alone.