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"If I Were a Candle Maker . . ."

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In sifting through tens of dozens of responses and comments on President Obama's recent speech on Israel and the Middle East, I found myself thinking about  Abraham ibn Ezra, one of history's most distinguished and versatile men of letters.  A man of staggering intellect  and accomplishment, ibn Ezra (1089-1164), known variously as "The Wise," "The Great," and "The Admirable Doctor," excelled in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and linguistics.  As a writer, he published one of the earliest works on Hebrew grammar, a brilliant commentary on the Bible, and numerous volumes of poetry.  So what was it about the president's speech and all those comments that brought ibn Ezra to mind?  Precisely this: in one of his poems, "The Admirable Doctor" wrote: 

"If I were a candle maker, the sun would never leave the sky. 

If I were a maker of shrouds, not a single person would die."

So it goes with President Obama .  The man rarely gets a break:

  • The product of a broken home who graduated from two Ivy League institutions and became the first African American to serve as Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review, Obama, far from being seen as the epitome of the American Dream of Success, was  -- and still is --  characterized in many circles as an effete intellectual snob.
  • The third sitting U.S. President to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Jimmy Carter won his 22 years after leaving the White House), Obama's award was viewed by many as a badge of capitulation to the forces of international terror. 
  • The man who has provided more federal dollars to Wall Street and  corporate America than any president in U.S. history, is branded as both "anti-business," and a "Socialist.

   And now, with his May 19 "Remarks on the Middle East and North Africa" at the State Department, he is accused of "Throwing Israel under the bus," (Gov. Mitt Romney) of "Insulting Israel," (Rep. Michelle Bachmann) and of making "A mistaken and very dangerous demand" (Gov. Tim Pawlenty).  Former Speaker Newt Gingrich called the president's speech a "disaster," and hastened to add, "I understand he has already offered concessions to the Palestinians, in advance of anything the Israelis do, in a way that could be a significant security threat to the Israelis."

   Now obviously, Romney, Bachmann, Pawlenty and Gingrich have two things in common: all are Republicans, and are either declared or soon-to-be declared candidates for President of the United States.  So they can, to a certain extent, be both forgiven and understood for their uniformly negative response to the president's remarks.

   But what about the media?  With a majority of the articles, stories, op-eds and commentary I read, they failed to report on the president's remarks in their totality.  Instead, they honed in on precisely 15 words to be found in a 73 -paragraph, 5,677-word speechWe believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines . . ." In most cases writers and commentators failed to include the words of this one sentence: ". . . with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."

   In the headlong rush to pillory President Obama and accuse him  of having thrown Israel "under the bus," many fail to report on two very important aspects of the story:

  1. That President Obama merely put into words that which Presidents Clinton and Bush and their administrations said somewhat differently.  Indeed, on May 26, 2005, then-President George W. Bush held a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and similarly said that "prior armistice lines should be used as a basis for talks."  Responsible journalists (like The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg) have noted that the Administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have all referred to the same borders in the same way -- with "mutually agreed swaps," referring to accommodations and changes.
  2. All the pro-Israel aspects of the President's speech.  For those who read his remarks in their entirety -- instead of receiving a mere filtered distillation, they will note:
  • An essential part of what the president proposed was that Israelis and Palestinians would have to agree to land swaps that would allow Israel to hold on to major Jewish settlements. This is a point which Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu failed to mention when he declared the 1967 lines to be militarily "indefensible."
  • The President clearly stated that the Palestinian Authority (PA) should be talking to Israel, not seeking to bypass it at the UN: "For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.  Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations won't create an independent state."
  • The President made it clear that the inclusion of Hamas in the PA government is unacceptable: "The recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question."
  • The future Palestinian state will be non-militarized, and Israel's military supremacy in the region must be accepted: "Israel must be able to defend itself -- by itself -- against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated."

   Thankfully, there are those who paid attention to all of what the president said, and not just that which reached them through the murky filter of political bias.  In an interview with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, the ADL's Abe Foxman said, "I don't see this as the president throwing Israel under the bus.  He's saying 'with swaps.'  It's not 1967 borders in the abstract.  It's not an edict.  It's a recommendation for of a structure for negotiations."  Foxman further said, "The speech indicated to me that this administration has come a long way in better understanding and appreciating the difficulties facing both parties, but especially Israel making peace with the Palestinians."

   Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was told Haaretz "I don't think the president's speech was such a bad thing. . . . I don't think that the president said it was necessary to return to the 1967 lines, but rather that we need to start the discussion based  on the 1967 borders."

   Goodness knows there will be plenty of people who will continue to disagree --  and vehemently so -- with anything President Obama does or says, particularly on Israel.  There are many who will continue to remind us that Obama is the first president to  have Muslims in his family.  This, they wish to not so subtly imply, colors his thinking when it comes to the Middle East.  (It should also be noted that Barack Obama is the first president to have a rabbi in his family -- Rabbi Capers Funnye, chief rabbi of Chicago's Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in southwest Chicago.  Rabbi Funnye, who is First Lady Michelle Obama's first cousin once removed, is a member in good standing of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

   No one knows how to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  There is so much history, hatred, distrust, mistrust and lies as to bury whatever that path may be -- presuming it exists.  Hawks, who believe that President Obama is Israel's worst nightmare -- and the Palestinians' best friend -- haven't got any better idea of what to do than doves who still believe that peace is possible.  To argue the facts of history won't budge either side. 

   Were Jews summarily kicked out of Arab countries?  Yes. 

   Did the Jews kick the Arabs out of Palestine in 1948?  No.

   Did the Israelis accept the 1948 Partition Plan which gave the Arabs more land than Jews?  Yes.

   Did the Arabs accept the 1948 Partition Plan?  No.

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Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
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