As President Obama wrapped up his three-day visit to Israel Friday, he spent some solemn moments at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, relighting the eternal flame there, laying a wreath and vowing to fight anti-Semitism and racism of all kinds.
Visibly moved, Mr. Obama spoke of a collective obligation “not just to bear witness but to act,” especially against attacks on the Jewish people.
“We have the choice to ignore what happens to others or to act on behalf of others,” he said after a tour of the museum and a memorial service.
“Our sons and daughters are not born to hate, they are taught to hate,” he said. “The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust but in the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, the Holocaust will never happen again.”
The remarks were the only public comments Mr. Obama was scheduled to deliver on his final day of his historic visit to Israel. He began his morning by laying stones on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the found of modern Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995 while on the verge of a peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Mr. Obama spent Friday afternoon visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, with Palestinian President Abbas. He plans to depart for Jordan later Friday.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III greeted Mr. Obama in the center of the darkened, gilded sanctuary under dozens of hanging gold lamps, welcoming him to the “place where heaven and earth met.”
“We welcome you as a messenger of peace and reconciliation,” he said.
Quoting the Beatitudes in part, he added, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
In a courtyard, about 20 children in white shirts and dark pants waved U.S. and Palestinian flags as Mr. Obama emerged.
After delivering an impassioned call for compromise, encouraging Israel’s younger generation to change their thinking towards their Palestinian neighbors and press their leaders to get back to the negotiating table, Israeli newspapers applauded the message and the president’s visit so far.
It remains to be seen if Prime Minister Netanyahu shares those views. Many analysts viewed Mr. Obama’s speech, which called for Israel to stop settlements in disputed border areas, as critical of Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama have repeatedly clashed during the U.S. president’s time in office, but there were no public signs of uneasiness or tension between the two leaders this week.
The pair will have lunch Friday to again discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They met Tuesday and emerged saying they agreed on U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Three newspapers ran Mr. Obama’s declaration in Hebrew — “You are not alone” — as banner headlines and the popular left-leaning Haaretz spoke fondly of Mr. Obama’s “promise of love.”
“The most powerful man in the world arrived in the most threatened state in the world to promise love,” columnist Ari Shavit wrote. “He gave us love every single second in every speech and in every gesture.”
But even Mr. Shavit said the “naivete” of the speech cannot be ignored.
“The president must still prove that the peace he promises can actually be implemented,” he wrote.
By the end of the visit, Palestinians were mainly disgruntled. Many of them criticized Mr. Obama’s only brief visits to their territory Thursday and Friday, the sprinkling of his speeches with Hebrew and the backslapping and warm wishes repeatedly exchanged between himself and Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli President Peres.
“Reading between the lines, this speech suggests that President Obama will do little more than pay lip service to an outcome he refuses to put the muscle of his office behind,” said Yousef Munayer, executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington.
“Rather, what he has told Israelis is that the U.S. will stand by Israel regardless of what choices it makes — even if that choice continues to be perpetual occupation. That is, to say the least, unbecoming of the leader of the free world.”
Mr. Obama’s trip was filled with photo-ops with Mr. Netanyahu, and Mr. Peres had nothing but praise and affection for Mr. Obama, which included presenting him with Israel’s Medal of Distinction at a state dinner Thursday night
At Yad Vashem, Mr. Obama was accompanied by Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor and the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, along with Avner Shalev, the museum’s director.
They first visited the Hall of Names, a massive dome filled with photographs and personal belongings of people who were killed during the Holocaust; they then moved on to the Hall of Remembrance.
In a crouched position wearing a white yarmulke on his head, Mr. Obama arranged flowers on a stone slab covering ashes of Holocaust victims and stayed with head bowed low as a cantor sang the Jewish memorial prayer, “Eyl moleh rahamin.”
Later in remarks, Mr. Obama noted that he had been to the Buchenwald concentration camp and to the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, and that this was his second trip to Yad Vashem, his first taken during his 2008 presidential campaign.
“We can come here a thousand times and each time our hearts would break,” he said. “Here we see the depravity to which man can sink. We see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph when good people do nothing.”
Pivoting in his speech, he also said the museum demonstrated the remarkable resilience of the human spirit and the story of rescuers.
“We always have choices, to succumb to our worst instincts,” he said, “or to display empathy that is at the core of our humanity.”