By Samuel Sokol
“Oh, G–d! I have to clean my suit!”
Those were the first words that sprang to mind when I got the late-night call from my editor at the Jerusalem Post that I was slated to cover President Obama’s visit to Yad Vashem immediately prior to his departure from Israel.
Scurrying around to clean my suit, press my shirt, and make sure that my camera was in working order, I departed from my house at 11 p.m. and arrived in my office just after midnight. Given that I was required to arrive at Yad Vashem at 6:30 in the morning, it seemed easier to sleep in my Jerusalem workplace than in my suburban home.
Arriving at Yad Vashem the next morning, hurrying to make it in time, I was told to wait. Now, obviously the president isn’t showing up anywhere at 6:30 in the morning. The required early arrival time for journalists was for passing through the multiple security checks that had been set up.
After two roadblocks, two security barriers, being checked for weapons and explosives via metal detector and chemical checks, and a long wait, I was finally inside the Hall of Remembrance.
However, as is the nature of such things, being inside did not by any stretch of the imagination mean getting started. Everything had to be in place for the president’s arrival, both for event planning and security purposes, even though the president would not stop at the Hall of Remembrance, where I was waiting, for several hours.
As I sipped a coffee brought to me by Yad Vashem’s spokeswoman, who was kind enough to offer members of the press corps homemade cookies, I watched as the television crews and photographers set up their equipment.
As the president’s arrival time came closer—he was at that point touring the museum with the prime minister—I noticed the dignitaries begin to file in. Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, was there, looking youthful with his short goatee, as was Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.
Oren, an oleh from the U.S., is a noted historian and best-selling author and was, until his appointment as ambassador, a fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center.
Speaking with me as we both awaited the president’s arrival, Ambassador Oren noted that “in the Arab world in general we face two denials that are flip-sides of the same coin: ‘Holocaust denial’ and ‘Jewish People denial.’”
“This whole visit has been about refuting that denial, whether it be by coming to Yad Vashem and upholding the memory of the Holocaust or by going to the Shrine of the Book and reaffirming the Jewish people’s millennia-long connection to the Land of Israel,” he said. “The message here is all about Jewish peoplehood. He said it again and again in his speech and he talked about legitimate rights. He talked about the Jewish right of self-determination.”
Soon after, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived and donned a black kippa, and soon after, Obama, flanked by Peres, Rabbi Lau, Shalev, and Netanyahu, arrived.
After a short ceremony which involved lighting a memorial flame, laying a wreath, and the singing of Keil Malei Rachamim, the president left the hall. Soon after we followed and were herded into a press box, where we awaited the president once again, this time for him to make his prepared remarks.
As I walked, I sidled up to Secretary Kerry and stuck out my hand. Shaking hands with the secretary, I began to ask questions. Kerry noted, as had Obama, that the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel was “an extraordinary [story of] rebirth and resurgence.”
“I think it’s one of history’s great stories,” Kerry told me.
Once safely in the press box, Obama appeared and noted that Israel was “a fulfillment of the prophecy: ‘You shall live again, upon your own soil.’”
“Here on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear, the State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish State of Israel such a Holocaust will never happen again,” Obama said.
Afterwards, former Chief Rabbi and current Tel Aviv City Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a survivor of Buchenwald, addressed Obama directly.
Lau said that last year an American serviceman who had liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, in which the future chief rabbi had been interned, begged him for forgiveness during a meeting in Seattle.
“He shook my hand and said, ‘Rabbi I was one of the liberators of Buchenwald,’” Lau recalled. He said that he had wanted to meet with the rabbi before he died and asked him for “forgiveness for being late.”
“We came too late,” Lau recalled the former soldier as saying. Looking at the president, Lau reminded him that “yesterday . . . you promised us that we are not alone; don’t be too late; remember that we need your support [and] we need your friendship.” v