Obama’s speech: The view from the crowd

The crowd in Jerusalem Thursday was a stark reminder that many Israelis simply do not live and breathe politics, the conflict, or other issues that are breathing down Obama’s neck. But the real question was posed by one youngster who on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv kept shaking his head, saying, “I wonder what will come of it.”

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in Jerusalem (YouTube screenshot)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in Jerusalem (YouTube screenshot)

President Obama gave a master speech at the convention center in Jerusalem Thursday night. Gone was the stammering, glancing-around insecurity he showed in his interview with Israeli Channel 2 prior to the visit, or the cautious pauses on display in his press conference on the first day of the trip.

The president seemed to have branded the event in his mind on one hand as a young person’s moment, wearing his flowing, casual style like a hip jacket – he jogged onto the stage as if stumping in Ohio, practically catching the audience by surprise; on the other hand, his speech seemed designed to plant tiny seeds of big ideas, through the gravitas and sensitivity of his words.

He gave the old standard of America being Israel’s best friend; he joked and he played the “sahbak” – chummy pal – and cracked out some strategically placed words in Hebrew. The reassurance factor could not have been stronger, and when it reached its peak, he turned to the “but.” There was no more caring way to say it: as a friend, tough things need to be said sometimes. He pre-empted rejection by acknowledging that not everyone would like what he had to say and then spent substantial moments humanizing Palestinians (if this sounds colonialist and patronizing to Palestinians, the sad truth is that Israeli society needs it). He described their rights and the constraints on those rights, through daily tribulations. For a moment there, I felt he was bringing the occupation to the Jerusalem convention center. There is much more that could have been said but for an Israeli mainstream audience in the heart of Jerusalem, it was as bold as a U.S. president could be expected to provide.

Did the audience hear it? Did they want to hear it?

The students who gathered in uncharacteristically patient crowds waiting in line to pass through security were truly fresh-faced. Although we know it from the ballot boxes, a crowd like this was a stark reminder that many Israelis simply do not live and breathe politics, the conflict, or other issues that are breathing down Obama’s neck. Diana, a 25-year old student about to graduate from the Technion University in Haifa, said she was there mainly because she thought it would be an exciting way to end her studies – but she expected him to talk about “the usual things.” She and her friend Gal are both students of material sciences and engineering. Gal said he was most interested in hearing what was important for Obama, rather than holding any of his own expectations.

A trio of Druze university students waiting in the lobby bubbled with excitement. One of them Iman, said he had no idea what Obama might say, but assumed he would touch on “important things,” like U.S.-Israel cooperation, maybe the peace process, maybe Israel’s role in the Middle East. Evelyn, from Ben Gurion University, said that her main expectation was simply to be there for the “historic event,” by which, it turned out, she meant the strengthening of the Israel-U.S. alliance. She saw Obama as an “inspirational man” who could emphasize the need for education, the need to improve relations between countries, and spread peace, “because that’s what Barack Obama is about.”

I wondered what they were thinking during the speech. I wondered if they were among those who cheered and clapped when Obama talked about how Israel will always exist, and that as long as America exists, “You are not alone” (I will not attempt to reproduce his strained Hebrew, but it elicited thrills from the audience every time).

Or were they among those showering huge applause and ovations when the president served up his “tough talk?” The crowd clapped at length and with energy when he spoke of the need to ensure Israel’s future by establishing an “independent and viable Palestine.” Perhaps the most emotional moment was when he went “off-script” to talk about meeting with Palestinian youngsters, and how sure he was that Israeli parents, too, would want the same things for them that they do for their own children. He told the audience to put themselves in the Palestinians’ shoes and that, I can say with some confidence, is almost never done.

It was not a given, but it was pleasantly surprising to feel that the audience gave rousing, emotional applause at these moments. They felt louder and more excited than the clapping on cue for the regular messaging. The ovations sounded like those of people who not only agreed, but finally felt that the most important person in the world had vindicated their ideas.

After the speech, I didn’t find the same students whom I spoke with earlier, but speaking to others, the words “inspiration” and “impressive” came up frequently. It is easy to be cynical; we might have wanted him to push the envelope much harder on the conflict. But the 28-year old student I spoke to afterwards, who served for six years in the Israeli Air Force, and said he moved from right, to center-“ish” and maybe a bit more left, and was thinking hard about Obama’s words.

But the real question was best articulated by another youngster, a 23-year old student named Eran in his first year of political science and economics at Hebrew University. He had watched the speech on television, and lauded the fact that the president put the real issues on the table. On the long bus ride back to Tel Aviv, however, he kept shaking his head and gazing out the window, saying, “I wonder what will come of it.”

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