Every American presidential visit to Israel is historic. Accounts of a president’s travels go into history books — or at least into the presidential archives. But when it’s Israel the president visits, the event is always much more than something destined for an obscure archival niche. And despite the opportunity for grandiose photo-ops, it is much more than that, too.
Because of the monumental issues of war and peace, the special bilateral relationship, the overtones of faith, and the shadows of fanaticism and hatred, a presidential visit to Israel is something that rivets the attention of the entire world.
The visit of President Donald Trump is no exception. Indeed, it has been historic in a number of ways. Never has a president of the United States made a trip to Israel so early in his administration, sending an unambiguous message about his personal determination to help bring peace to the region.
The flight of Air Force One from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, almost lost in the rush of events, was also unprecedented. It’s the first time a president has traveled this direct route. As Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Monday in his welcoming remarks, he hopes that in the near future he will be able to travel the same route.
But most of all, the president’s visit to the Kosel made history. It was not only that he was the first sitting U.S. president to do so (a fact of which he says he was informed only after the visit), but the way he did it.
Many other foreign dignitaries have gone to the Kosel, but for the most part their visits were part of their diplomatic rounds, along with a visit to Yad Vashem, the prime minister’s office and the president’s residence.
Such was not the case this time. Initially, it appeared that the Kosel visit might be smitten by mutual tension. An acrimonious exchange between obscure officials prior to the visit indicated that it might not be an uncomplicated item on the itinerary, as an Israeli request for PM Netanyahu to accompany President Trump on the visit was rebuffed.
However, the reason for Mr. Trump’s insistence on going on his own was entirely honorable. He wanted there to be no politics. He wanted to keep the visit from becoming embroiled in the saga of the Mideast conflict or the saga of the Trump administration. It was intended as a private visit. And so it was, or at least as much as it could be under the circumstances.
The president and his family — First Lady Melania Trump, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner — accompanied by the Rav of the Kosel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, spent their precious moments there in prayer. Respectfully, they approached the holiest place in the world; reverently, they touched the stones. The president read from Tehillim. Ivanka Trump could not hold back tears.
Who could not be moved by such a sight?
It is worth noting, as well, that the president’s wife and daughter said their prayers in the women’s section, showing respect for the sanctity of the Kosel and its traditions. At a time when our tradition is being vociferously challenged by Reform and Conservative groups and their allies, this sign of respect is greatly appreciated.
These are moments that will not be forgotten. They transcend politics and put the trivia of celebrity and the pettiness of media concerns and everyday life into their proper place — in the background.
For a brief time, it was not about Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu or anybody else. It was about the holiness of the Kosel, and the yearning for peace and truth that it represents. President Trump gave us that moment.
This man, Donald Trump, who has been relentlessly ridiculed, harassed and vilified in the media even before the first day of his presidency, somehow succeeded in putting it all aside on Monday.
For one brief day he was among friends. The nation of Israel welcomed him with open arms. For he came as a friend, not with demands for concessions for peace, not with dire warnings of the consequences of failing to make peace, but with words of praise and admiration for the Jewish people. He came as a friend, and he was welcomed as a friend.
As Rabbi Rabinowitz wrote in a letter published later in the day: “I would like to thank the President of the United States and his family for the great honor they have given me and the Jewish nation by visiting this sacred site.”
We thank him, too.