From Malcolm X to Barack Obama

President Barack Obama was not the first great black orator I had the opportunity to hear.

As a teenager, an appearance by Malcolm X, the controversial and feisty fighter for the rights of black Americans at Brooklyn College left an indelible mark on my memory.   Born Malcolm Little, the autodidact who was educated in the streets and the prisons of America, magnificently held his own and more in the face of a suspicious and sometimes hostile middle class white audience, and eventually won their respect.

“I have a dream”

Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, and to hear Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary sing “Blowing in the Wind”, because of my responsibilities in the Hashomer Hatzair progressive Zionist youth movement, though many of my friends were there, and I was there in spirit.  This was just a month before I came on aliya to a kibbutz.

Jessie Jackson in Newark

In 1984, I happened to be in the U.S. on a Peace and Justice Tour, together with others from hot spots around the world who believed in non-violent conflict resolution.   Reverend Jessie Jackson, who stood alongside Dr. King in many of the civil rights struggles, had decided to run for president, and I traveled to the troubled city of Newark, New Jersey, to hear him speak before an almost all-black audience.   You could feel the excitement in the air, the sense of empowerment and hope glistening in the eyes of the young people who were there, clearly inspired by the fact that a black man was running for the nation’s highest office.  There were elements of a Southern Baptist Church in the occasion, reminding me of the extraordinary chemistry I sensed between audience and performer when I and a girl companion were the only whites at a Ray Charles concert.

Obama and the students in Jerusalem

Fast forwarding to 2013 and the Binyanei Hauma International Convention Center last Thursday, I was privileged to be one of the very small percentage of non-students to be present at President Obama’s electrifying speech.   I couldn’t help recall how Bill Clinton described the impact of meeting President John F. Kennedy when he was a young man.  I’m sure that the experience of being present and hearing Obama’s profound, beautifully built and moving speech, will be a formative moment in the life of many of the young Israeli students in the audience, and may influence their life choices.

Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman

The President’s words which resonated with me the most during his visit were said at the dinner later that evening hosted by President Shimon Peres.   Linking his words to the Passover story and the struggle “from slavery to salvation, of overcoming even the most overwhelming odds”, Obama spoke about how “African Americans and Jewish Americans marched together at Selma and Montgomery, with rabbis carrying the Torah as they walked. They boarded buses for freedom rides together. They bled together. They gave their lives together — Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner alongside African American, James Chaney.”  That comment was particularly meaningful to me, since Goodman and Schwerner were my New York Jewish contemporaries, and I was also with them in spirit while Mississippi was burning.  I knew Goodman’s mother Carolyn who served as Chair of Interns for Peace, founded by Rabbi Bruce Cohen, in the spirit of Kennedy’s Peace Corps, to advance coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.    Obama mentioned with great respect two other liberal American rabbis, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, both of whom marched with Dr. King.

How many years can some people exist/before they’re allowed to be free?

About an hour after Obama finished his speech, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary sang before and with an enthusiastic audience of young Israelis and Palestinians at the symbolic location of the Notre Dame Center on the border between West and East Jerusalem.   Once again he sang those unforgettable lines written by Dylan, “How many roads must a man walk down/before they can call him a man/how many seas must a white dove sail/before she sleeps in the sand/how many times must the cannon balls fly/before they’re forever banned…”  (here)

If any Israelis didn’t understand before the visit why Barack Obama was elected by the majority of the American people in 2008, and again in 2012, why 70% of the American Jews voted for him, and why so many young people mobilized to help his campaign, I’m sure they understand it now.




About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv