As President Obama begins his two-day trip to Israel, I have been reflecting on his scheduled visits. He is planning on visiting Yad VaShem, but not the Knesset, the Israel Museum but not the Western Wall. When he first lands at Ben Gurion airport he will visit an Iron Dome missile battery, meet with President Shimon Peres and then have dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Before leaving for Jordan he will meet with the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and also visit Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
I have been thinking that Obama should add a visit to Hebron to his itinerary. Leaving aside the questions of security, which I grant might prove insurmountable, such a visit could offer the necessary symbolism our current situation requires. I do not believe that President Obama really understands the meaning of Zionism and the modern state of Israel. Such a visit could communicate otherwise. When he visited Cairo at the beginning of his first term he spoke only of the State of Israel as recompense for the Holocaust and not of the deep Jewish connection to the land of Israel. Perhaps this is why he is visiting the Israel Museum this week, but a museum is not a city. It offers relics of the past not the living testimony of the present.
Obama fails to see this present, living Israel. He appears to think that Israel’s meaning is mostly tied to Yad VaShem and not to the rejuvenated Jewish life found in this land. Israel has filled cities with Jewish vibrancy. A rediscovered Hebrew is heard throughout its streets, cafes and ancient holy sites. That is why Hebron could be the best destination any White House advisor could offer not only President Obama but also the much needed medicine this fractured land desperately needs. I recognize that this city, and in particular its Tomb of the Patriarchs, is in the contested West Bank, but that is why a visit there could convey so much and perhaps, I dream, accomplish even more. I even have the chutzpah to suggest the President say the following.
“Here, in this holy city of Hebron, the Jewish faith was born. Abraham journeyed through this very area when he first sought out God. Here in this very place he buried his wife Sarah. Later his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, came together in the place that I now stand to bury their father Abraham. Jews of course trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac and Muslims to Abraham through Ishmael. Our traditions record that Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried here as well. It is from Abraham’s first encounter with God that my Christian faith arose and the Muslim religion gained inspiration. Nearby Jacob wrestled with an angel and became Israel. Within sight of this holy city Jesus was born and then later crucified by the Romans and again within walking distance Muhammad ascended to heaven from the very spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son. Here as well in this contested land the prophet Amos thundered: ‘The strong shall find no strength, And the warrior shall not save his life.’ (Amos 2:14) Throughout my life I have gained much nourishment from the prophets of Israel.
“Zionism is about a return to this land. No other land would do. Regardless of what color we might paint modern national boundaries, this land remains intimately tied to the Jewish people and their history. The State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence opens with these words: ‘Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.’ Palestinians must come to recognize this bond with the land that they also hold dear. Denying the Jewish connection to the land, removing remains from the Temple where Jesus preached, will not serve their national aspirations. Israel is not a European, colonial implant within the Arab Middle East. It is not about Europe’s guilt over the Holocaust. All of us are stained by the atrocities of those years. Israel is about so much more.
“This city of Hebron reminds us about the unbroken Jewish chain to this land. Zionism is about the Jewish return to history. Here the Jewish people will no longer be dependent on despots and tyrants but will instead write their own future. But that Jewish future cannot be built without those who also live in this land. It must be tied to a noble Palestinian future. My love of Israel and friendship with the Jewish people does not cloud my goal of helping the Palestinians achieve their legitimate dream of a state of their own.
“In this place where our ancestors are buried we see most clearly the conflict between Palestinian aspirations and Jewish dreams. While the recovery of the ancient Jewish dream was to return to this place, the new dream was to build here a vibrant Jewish democracy. These democratic values are what bind the United States and Israel together. But these values are being undermined by what Israel and Israelis are forced to do, and in some cases I am saddened to say, choose to do, to maintain their claim to this particular place, the West Bank. Palestinian aspirations for statehood are real; their methods for achieving this, I am equally saddened to say, are too often flawed. Too many stand guilty. There remain far too many tears.
“Hebron is a source of much controversy and bloodshed. Here, in 1929, Arabs rioted against Jewish settlers and murdered 67. Here as well, Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994. Let such atrocities be of the past and never again of the future.
“Soon, I fear, the enemies of democracy will gain a foothold in this place and then the chances for compromise will forever elude us. I want peace for this land. It can only be bought by compromise. The price of maintaining this new dream of a Jewish democracy may very well entail renouncing a measure of Jewish patrimony. Not every place, however sacred to the Jewish people will remain in Israeli hands. If Israel buys a secure Jewish democracy by such sacrifices I believe it will be worth it.
“Palestinians and Israelis must renounce their claims to all of this land. Mahmoud Abbas will never live in the city of his birth, Safed. Israelis might be forced yet again in their long history to visit this holy site of Hebron as tourists. We have always had only one formula, two separate nations for two peoples. This is what the United Nations Partition plan declared. I understand Israeli fears; too often offers of peace have been met by terrorism. I appreciate Palestinian disappointments; too often their aspirations have appeared within reach but opportunities were squandered. Let those be of the past as well. This generation can here and now write the borders of peace and compromise.
“I know that many Israelis do not believe I am their friend. But I care deeply about the Jewish state, its survival and most importantly its democratic character. I recognize that many Palestinians believe that my country has allowed Israel’s legitimate concerns about safety and security to cast aside their dream of a Palestinian state. I wish to make a different mark on history. I wish to be a friend of peace. That is how I can best be a friend of Israel and a friend to Palestinians. That is why I have come here to this contested city of Hebron. Accept my friendship. Listen to my suggestions. Become again rodfei shalom – seekers of peace.”
Alas, I am not the president’s speechwriter or even a trusted advisor. I am only a rabbi. Yet I will forever remain an ohev tzion, a lover of Zion. Most of all I remain a dreamer. “If you will it, it is not a dream!” said Theodor Herzl. Perhaps President Obama can seize a measure of Herzl’s chutzpah and help realize the ancient dream for this land. To paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, “Shalom, salaam, peace from far to near.”