In Cairo today, the real Barack Obama showed up. The question is whether we Jews are ready. During the campaign, candidate Obama was very careful to court the Jewish vote. He even went so far as to declare Jerusalem the united capital of Israel. While he said often that his presidency would be about change, many Jews were lulled into believing that change would skip over us.
In Cairo, the real Obama showed up. Many Jews will analyze every word with a microscope and weigh what President Obama said about Israelis versus what he said about Palestinians, searching for nuances that either reveal a latent bias to the Palestinians or find comfort in his continued support for and identification with Israel and its unique relationship with the United States.
Many will hear the speech and focus on the question of whether President Obama is “good for the Jews” or “bad for the Jews.” While I understand this impulse, I believe that this conversation reflects most deeply how unprepared we are for Obama’s world.
While President Obama’s speech in Cairo was also about settlements, and about the Road Map, in essence it was about neither. It was about putting forth to us all the potential for a new future. President Obama’s speech was not about policy. It was about hope and the need to place a vision of a kinder and a better world, a world in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians – and the United States and the more than 1 billion Muslims of the world – will begin to see each other as partners who inhabit this world and not as enemies engaged in Armageddon. It was about remembering what we want for ourselves and our children and then thinking about what we need to do to fulfill these aspirations.
President Obama did not naively state that his speech ushered in a new world, but it did mark the significance of the politics of hope and a morality of aspirations. The serious question we Jews have to ask ourselves is whether we are ready for a politics of hope and a morality of aspirations.
No one is calling for naivete. Naivete in a dangerous neighborhood is dangerous. When one cannot distinguish between “is” and “ought,” one’s existence in the present is in peril. At the same time, however, when one cannot distinguish between “is” and “ought,” one’s life also has no direction or purpose.
The Jewish people throughout history have been a people of dreams and aspirations. Has the trauma of the Holocaust and the ongoing fight for survival traumatized us to such an extent that we can only speak about short-term survival questions?
In Obama’s world, we need to reconnect to our greater aspirations, for ourselves, for Judaism, and for the state of Israel. These aspirations, while including survival, do not stop at survival.
We Jews have much to contribute to a world in search of meaning. We have much to teach and also learn from the people of the world. It is not Israel’s settlement policy that endangers Israel today, but rather the belief that at issue is our settlement policy.
What do we want from Israel? Who do we want to be? What role do we want to have in the Middle East? How do we envision a relationship with others that is not defined by the battlefield? How do we view our larger purpose, both as individuals, a religion, and a state? What is the message and larger vision of our Jewish state? If we start talking about these questions then we will be prepared for Obama’s world.
Once we start asking these questions then we will begin to think anew about our policies for the future. We will focus on the larger questions and how we might get there. Let’s start talking about these questions, and we will begin to shape our destiny and a new role for Israel and Judaism in the world at large.