President Obama in Cairo

This is a speech that I have been waiting for since President Obama spoke for the second time at AIPAC about a year ago. I sat, watching that speech because it was one of those moments where I thought I just might hear something different.

I was totally blown away by his acknowledgment of the right of the Palestinian people to have their own land. It was then that I knew that should he become President international relations would be rooted in an entirely different mentality, one of open-mindedness and thought. One of compassion and equity. One of genuine concern and value for human rights.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity.  And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

Speaking with Brian Williams, he said that he did not believe he was the only President who could make this speech. He’s probably correct, but he is the only President in the recent past who has the ability to speak honestly and with conviction and authority about issues of integration of ideas and thoughts. With fresh ideas and a beautiful optimism that characterizes his administration. It is not an optimism of naivete, but one deeply rooted in history and belief in the true goodness of not only the American people but in humanity at large.

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam.  It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.  It was innovation in Muslim communities — (applause) — it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.  Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.  And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.  (Applause.)

President Obama’s delivery and his willingness to address Afghanistan and Iraq and 9-11 is simply the right thing to do. There is an ugly American legacy in this world right now. It is not President Obama’s personal responsibility to apologize for it anymore than it is mine. Yet, it is. As citizens of a country that has acted recklessly without concern for the safety of others that we seek in our own country, we have a responsibility to say that it is a new day. That the America of yesterday is not the America of today.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.  For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation.  Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.  They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation.  So let there be no doubt:  The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.  And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.  (Applause.)

For decades then, there has been a stalemate:  two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive.  It’s easy to point fingers — for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond.  But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth:  The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

It is with gratitude that I quote those words. For the right of every people, regardless of religion or race, to have their own land in which to govern and live and worship their God, is so undeniably basic that it is incomprehensible that a nation would stand in denial of that right. This is not to say that it would be a simple change or progression. No, it is a goal that will require much work, but includes the commitment of a President who believes deeply in this goal.

Too many tears have been shed.  Too much blood has been shed.  All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra — (applause) — as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.  (Applause.)

And this segment of President Obama’s speech was so deeply moving. It was one rooted in the history of three faiths. It is rooted in an understanding, in an ability to embrace things that are different. That is the beauty, the humbling beauty, of this presidency. It is rooted in a tolerance that is ingrained so deeply in the basic desire to accept that there are many different avenues in this life and all must be respected.

But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek — a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected.  Those are mutual interests.  That is the world we seek.  But we can only achieve it together.

It sounds like Utopia. Simply Utopia. Grandslam, Mr. President. Grandslam.

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