In his March 21 speech in Jerusalem, President Obama asked young Israelis to make a leap of empathy. “I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with [Palestinian] kids, they’d say, ‘I want these kids to succeed,’” he said.
His message resonated with his audience. Subsequent surveys revealed that the speech transformed the Israeli public’s image of Obama, and stirred a dormant peace movement. Typical was the Israeli student who called on the country’s leaders to “use this window of opportunity that is filled with renewed hope in the light of this inspiring speech.”
Of course, empathy is a two-way street. No doubt there are Palestinian parents who are prepared to sit down with Israelis and feel for their kids. But all too often the message out of Gaza City and Ramallah is one of rejection. While empathetic Palestinians speak in whispers, public acclaim is reserved for figures like Mariam Farhat, the “mother of martyrs” who cheered as three of her sons died carrying out deadly terrorist attacks on Israelis. About 4,000 Palestinians attended her funeral in Gaza last week, including the Hamas prime minister.
Obama spoke as one friend to another, but the message that is too often heard on the outside is one of moral and political equivalence. In a recent issue of the Minneapolis StarTribune, cartoonist Steve Sack showed a dove of peace, tugging at an olive branch weighed down by “Hamas rockets” and “Israeli settlements.” As Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, pointed out in a letter to the editor, to portray Hamas rockets and Israeli settlements as equivalent “is morally obtuse. Rockets kill and maim and cannot be negotiated back. The status of settlements can.” The cartoon also obscures Israel’s record of making bold and controversial moves for peace, with little reciprocity from the Palestinian side.
Israel, with its formidable military, American support, and booming economy, is able to negotiate from a position of strength. And yet Palestinians too must be called to account and be asked to see the world through others’ eyes. When they do, the response from Israeli parents will be overwhelming.