Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On what you can build, not what you destroy

"Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." These are the words that (now) President Barack Obama uttered today in a part of his inaugural speech that addressed the Muslim world and critics of the West.

I don't know if Obama had the people of Gaza in mind when he spoke these words, but they certainly came to my mind as I listened to him. The people of America are not the only people who stand at a crossroads. As Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza and its residents start the task of sorting through the rubble, the people of Gaza stand at a crossroads. Which way do they want to go? Do they want to build? Do they want to focus their energies on creating the institutions -- and the economy -- that a successful nation needs? Or do they want to remain focused on destruction and hate? Do they want to continue devoting their energies to following Hamas' professed goal of the destruction of the State of Israel? Do they want to keep on supporting people who use courtyards and alleys right beside their homes and mosques to fire deadly missiles at Israeli civilians? Or are they ready to throw off Hamas' rule (or, alternatively, force Hamas to change its program -- to focus its energies on building Gaza instead of destroying Israel).


I found tears in my eyes throughout Obama's speech and in the moments I saw his face on the television screen beforehand. The tears came from many places, but one was of fear. I looked at Obama's head -- hatless despite the cold, as JFK was hatless at his inauguration -- and thought of what a fragile thing the human body is. So much hope put in that person. And it could all be taken away with a single bullet. I was afraid for Obama and for us. I thought of Martin and Bobby. . . . and of the Russian civil rights lawyer killed just, yesterday. I thought of the courage it takes to work for freedom and change in the face of the possibility of violence. I thought of the courage it takes to choose life, to choose to build, instead of destroy.

It is this courage that I see when I think of the people and nation of Israel; they are very much on my mind these days, especially when I have a loved one there who I left behind just a couple of weeks ago. It pains me so much to know that the impression many have of the State of Israel now -- an impression left by the television images of destruction in Gaza -- is of a state dedicated to destruction. I wish people could see the miracle that is the building of what is now a modern state with an advanced, high-tech economy from what was largely a poor, agricultural nation not so long ago. A building that has been accomplished against so many odds. A building that has happened despite the hate of so many for the Jews and for the state they formed. A building that happened despite so many acts of violence against it. This is a people that long ago chose building over destruction and that would gladly keep its tanks and planes in their sheds if only they could.


After Obama spoke, Elizabeth Alexander delivered a poem that near its end featured a repetition of the word "love" again and again. And then the 87-year old Rev. Joseph Lowery delivered his benediction. His words will probably be most well-remembered for the rhyming he used at the end in depicting a vision of a world where race is no longer an obstacle. But I was most touched a few sentences earlier when he quoted the vision of Isaiah that "nation would not lift sword against nation" and modernized Isaiah's "they shall beat their swords into plowshares" to add a hope that tanks would be made into tractors.

Then he quoted one of Martin Luthur King's most favorite biblical verses (Amos 5:24) -- "let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

May it indeed be the Holy One's will.

[X-posted to abayye]

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