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. American Ambassador to Tel Aviv Dan Shapiro was there, looking youthful with his short goatee, as was Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren.
Oren, an oleh from the US, 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 people-hood. 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, Lau, Shalev and Netanyahu, arrived.
After a short ceremony which involved lighting a memorial flame, laying a wreath and the singing of El Maleh Rahamim, 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] 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.”