On Friday in Jerusalem, when President Barack Obama — following Jewish tradition — placed a stone on the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the stone was from the grounds of the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, D.C.
The symbolism was unmistakable and far-reaching.
Both Rabin, who was the Israeli prime minister, and King were assassinated. Both men strove to change their countries and paid for their efforts with their lives. But in the context of Obama’s first visit as president to the holy land, King’s example was in the forefront.
In Obama’s speech to Israeli students Thursday, he encouraged them to accept “our measure of sacrifice and struggle, just like previous generations. It means us working through generation after generation on behalf of that ideal of freedom.
“As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed: ‘I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.’”
Obama’s speech has been widely praised in Israel. Among the fans is columnist Gideon Levy of the newspaper Haaretz.
“What began as a speech that could have been given before (American-Israel lobbying group) AIPAC soon evolved into a speech by Martin Luther King. … Maybe this speech … will also resonate deeply and spark revolutions. The president of the United States took a step toward the fundamental value: justice. Now it’s Israelis’ turn to do so.”
But while affirming America’s steadfast friendship with Israel, a true friend not only says what friends want to hear, but what they need to hear, too. He spoke eloquently of the plight of the Palestinians, some of whom he visited later Friday.
“Put yourself in their shoes,” Obama said. “Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. …”
Even while asserting that “those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist … might as well reject the earth beneath them or the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere,” Obama told his young audience: “Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
Peace remains elusive, of course, but we can be proud of a president who said what needed to be said … from one friend to another.