(RNS) — When President Joe Biden ended his visit to Israel on the morning of July 15, his motorcade with both the U.S. and Israeli flags was scheduled to drive to an East Jerusalem hospital before heading to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Eyewitnesses say Biden personally removed the Israeli flag from his limousine before he made the borderless crossing into Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. The U.S. team previously insisted that they would not allow Israeli security to escort him as he made the visit to the Palestinian areas.
Symbols are important. But it is not clear whether symbols can be translated into reality. Biden picked up the theme when he compared Palestinians to his own ancestors, Irish Catholics.
“There’s a great poem from ‘The Cure at Troy,'” Biden told Palestinian doctors, nurses and others gathered at the Lutheran-run Augusta Victoria Hospital on top of the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. “It goes like this — and it’s classically Irish, but it also could fit Palestinians. It says:
‘History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme’”
Biden concluded by saying he prayed that this is a reachable goal. “It is my prayer that we’re reaching one of those moments where hope and history rhyme.”
But a little more than an hour later, after meeting Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Biden called on Palestinians to wait because the time “was not ripe for negotiations” even though Palestinians have been under Israeli military occupation for more than half a century.
With the humanitarian and political mission to Palestine over, Biden was given a chance to spend some time at one of the oldest churches in the world, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Before entering the historic church, a group of Palestinian children from the nearby Terra Santa Girls School gathered to sing John Lennon’s timeless “Imagine” as they waved tiny Palestinian flags.
Biden had some quiet time kneeling and praying at the adjacent Church of Saint Catherine. He also heard from church leaders about the troubles they are facing, especially in Jerusalem, where church property is being taken over by fanatic Israeli groups using uncouth legal maneuvers with the tacit support of the Israeli government that claims to support freedom of religion but in practice discriminates against non-Jews. Later Biden tweeted that the “Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is a place of enormous significance to me and Christians across the world. This holy land and the Church of the Nativity remind us that everyone must be free to practice their faith in peace, safety, and dignity.”
Church leaders said that even though this was not his first visit, they felt Biden showed genuine respect for the sanctity of the church and appeared to be moved by what he saw and heard.
It is hard to separate individual feelings and aspirations from the hard-core politics of the day. The comparison to the Irish reflects a new and important value to Palestinians who aspire to live in a free and independent state of their own. The Biden administration has insisted from its first days on the right of all Palestinians to live in “peace, safety, and dignity.” Right now, almost every aspect of Palestinian life is void of these basic values.
The decisions and policies of politicians and world leaders are often guided by interests and political considerations. But it has been seen time and time again that if there is a debate or two sides to a particular policy decision, the personal touch of a leader and his or her spiritual and personal bias can often sway an argument. Palestinians who followed the visit of Biden to Palestine and his short time with them felt he was sincere in wanting Palestinians to live in peace and with dignity. Only time will tell if the hope and history will actually rhyme or if it’s simply a line repeated by lovers of Irish poetry.