President Obama Speaks to My Jewish Values

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I was moved by President Barack Obama’s speech at a Washington, D.C., synagogue and not because it marked only the fourth time a president has addressed a synagogue.

I was moved by President Barack Obama’s speech this month at a Washington, D.C., synagogue. Not just because it marked only the fourth time that a president has addressed a synagogue, but because he spoke of Jewish values — my values — and how to make them live.

The president said, “For us to paper over difficult questions, particularly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or about settlement policy, that’s not a true measure of friendship.” I agree. A true friend tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. And the president did just that.


And in the audience, looking around the room, I realized how unfortunately rare that is. I saw Jewish leaders who speak openly about Jewish values — that is, until they are talking about Israel. They lament police brutality and injustice in Baltimore and Ferguson, but not in Tel Aviv or Nablus.

I don’t hear my communal leaders asking those difficult questions of Israel. I do not hear the current prime minister of Israel asking difficult questions about the future of the country where my mother was raised.

I believe in the Jewish tradition and Jewish values. I believe in Israel’s right to exist, and I believe in human rights and democratic values. I strive to live them out every day, whether that means advocating for a two-state solution or marching in a “Black Lives Matter” protest.

I expect my Jewish communal leaders to also strive to live our values — and Israel should be no exception. But I don’t see it.

I don’t see it when I open some Jewish newspapers, filled as they are with stories about anti-Semitism or about disproportionate criticism of Israel, and yet no mention of problematic Israeli policies toward Palestinians. I don’t see it when I get emails from Jewish organizations praising politicians as “good for the Jews” when they espouse policies out of sync with the majority of the American Jewish community. And I don’t see it when I get solicited by Jewish groups who say they want me to feel “included” and good about the community they offer, but who, as institutions, never utter the word “occupation.”

My love for Israel compels me to fight for a two-state solution and oppose Israeli policies in the West Bank that undermine its democracy and security.

That is why I was proud of my president when he connected Jewish values to the struggle against anti-Semitism, racism and the pursuit of civil rights for all. President Obama said that his commitment to these values makes him “think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity.”

To the Jewish leaders in the room that day: I urge you to heed his words. Be courageous in your actions. If you believe in the values of democracy, civil rights and social justice, call on Israel to match those values with policies and actions even if it is uncomfortable.

And for my liberal American Jewish brethren who feel they can walk away from Israel because they live in America, you don’t have that luxury. As the president said about a coming nuclear deal with Iran, his name will be on it forever. And whether your family has lived in America for decades or centuries, Israel has your name on it. If you choose to be silent or to disengage or sweep under the rug everything you find difficult or distasteful, then others will surely speak for you.

President Obama declared, “Jewish American life is a testimony to the capacity to make our values live. But it requires courage. It requires that we speak the truth not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.”

That’s the path I choose. How about you?

Jessica Simon is the deputy regional director for the Capital Region at J Street.

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