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Israelis are meeting the friend they’ve always had

Barack Obama has a longstanding emotional connection to Israel and deep sympathy for the dilemmas its citizens face

President Barack Obama is visiting Israel for his first trip as Commander in Chief with a long list of important pro-Israel accomplishments under his belt.

Here are just a few:

* Obama has forged a global consensus around the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, isolating Iran internationally and significantly ratcheting up the pressure on the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

* As president, Obama signed into law the toughest-ever sanctions regime against Iran – including in February of last year an executive order cutting off Iran’s central bank from the world economy – contributing to a 40 percent drop in Iranian oil exports and a 50 percent drop in the value of its currency.

* The Obama administration has supported record-high levels of military support for Israel, including $275 million in expedited supplemental spending for the Iron Dome rocket defense system, which shot down 85 percent of the missiles fired into Israel by Hamas militants last fall.

As former Primer Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it last July: “I should tell you honestly that this Administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past.”

And yet what has always moved me as much as the President’s deeds are his words of support for Israel, which underscore his powerful emotional connection to Israel – as a Jewish state for the Jewish people.

I have been fortunate to hear Barack Obama speak twice to small Jewish audiences about this personal connection to Israel.

The first time was in February 2008, when Obama came to the Landerhaven function hall in Cleveland, OH, seeking Jewish community support in the presidential primary.

That was the first time I heard Obama affirm something he would come to repeat many times as president: his “unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel.”

And yet the most powerful moment, for me, was when Obama spoke movingly of his first visit to Israel, as a U.S. Senator in January 2006.

“It left a lasting impression on me,” he told about 100 people in attendance:

I have long understood Israel’s great dilemma, it’s need for security in a difficult neighborhood and it’s quest for peace with its neighbors, but there is no substitute for meeting the people of Israel.

Seeing the terrain, experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café. And I know how much Israelis crave peace.

My second opportunity came in June 2011, when President Obama addressed a small Jewish group at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, DC. Once more, he spoke first and foremost about his commitment to Israel’s security, adding that the U.S. and Israel “will always be stalwart allies and friends,” but, again, what truly moved me was when President Obama spoke powerfully about wanting to achieve peace so that Israeli children could sleep at night without having to worry about missiles raining down.

“Speech has power,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has famously said. “Words do not fade. What starts out in a sound, ends in a deed.”

This week, as President Obama pays his respects at the graves of Theodore Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, as he views the Dead Sea Scrolls, and as he speaks to Israeli university students at the Jerusalem Convention Center, Israelis are for the first time hearing the President speak to them directly.

“This really is the true purpose of the visit,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, in a White House video released Friday:

an ability for the President to speak directly to the Israeli people about the future we want to build together … [and] about the bonds between our countries and our commitment to Israel’s security and its future.

Over the course of this visit, Israelis have been hearing for the first time the American president speaking to them directly and from the heart – unfiltered by the news and social media, undiluted by time zones, unscripted in his personal encounters – and in this way, I believe, they are finally meeting the friend they’ve always had.

About the Author
Josh Rolnick is the publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas, fiction editor of the literary journal Unstuck, and a widely-published fiction writer; “Pulp and Paper,” his debut collection of short stories, won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award; He also served as a fiction editor at the Iowa Review, creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, an editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review and Moment magazine, and a reporter for the Associated Press. Josh is a member of the National Jewish Democratic Council Executive Committee.