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reading between the lines of pences knesset speech

Reading between the lines of Pence’s Knesset speech

(Seth J. Frantzman)


US Vice-President Mike Pence gave a major speech on January 22nd at the Israeli Knesset. He was effusive praise to Israel and the Jewish people. What follows is some of the phrasing and highlights.

your values are our values

He said that the US and Israel share “values” a common refrain at gatherings between Israelis and Americans.

In the story of the Jews, we’ve always seen the story of America.

Jews were mentioned 23 times in the speech. Pence praised the Jewish people and sought to remind the audience about their own people’s history. He sought to connect it to the history of the American “people” as well. At the start of the speech several Arab members of the Knesset protested the speech with signs about Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine. Pence ignored them, as he ignored the 20% of Israel’s population that is Arab in his speech.

My country’s very first settlers also saw themselves as pilgrims, sent by Providence, to build a new Promised Land.

Pence sees the US as a mirror image of Israel, not only in values but in history. It is true that the founders of America spoke about a City upon the Hill. Obama has also used this language, “It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.” Pence’s comparison though of US “settlers” and Israel might not sit well with some since Zionists tend to see Jews as an indigenous people in the Land of Israel and “settlers” has different connotations. The anti-Israel crowd portrays the country one of settler-colonialism, similar to the US colonists.

Our second president, John Adams, declared that the Jews, in his words, “have done more to civilize man than any other nation.”

Here Pence gave more praise to the Jewish people, a common theme throughout while connecting Israel to the founding fathers of America.

American people became fierce advocates of the Jewish people

More about the Jewish people.

Elie Wiesel

Holocaust survivor Wiesel was one of the few people mentioned by name in the speech. Referencing Wiesel, Pence seemed genuinely moved by discussing the Holocaust which he called, “a night that transformed the small faces of children into smoke under a silent sky.” He said it challenged people’s faith.

Yad Vashem to honor the 6 million Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust

Here he described those killed in the Holocaust as “martyrs” which is interesting. A year ago, in 2017, Trump was widely critiqued for supposedly tolerating growing anti-semitism in the US. However Pence discussed the Holocaust throughout his speech. Often Holocaust victims are termed “victims,” choosing the word “martyrs” gives their deaths a higher and different purpose.

Shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’z’man ha’zeh.

Pence choose to use one sentence in Hebrew. This blessing is often said when something is done for the first time during a year. He was referencing the 70 years since Israel’s independence that will be celebrated this year.

President Donald Trump made history. He righted a 70-year wrong

The US Vice-President mentioned his boss, Trump, a dozen times in his speech. This was the most often referenced name. It shows his loyalty to Trump and the feeling in Washington that Pence is a kind of “good soldier” of this administration, even if his own views and nature after different than the president’s.

if both sides agree, the United States of America will support a two-state solution.

Pence didn’t spend much time discussing peace or the two-state solution in contrast to Obama’s years or even the last years of the Bush administration. The current US policy has shifted greatly. Here he notes that both sides much agree, a difference than the Kerry model where Israel was to be pressured and browbeaten into accepting peace, usually after being told that it was in Israel’s best interest.

I’ve traveled to Egypt and Jordan

Pence had initially scheduled his trip for December but after Trump announced the embassy move he was widely expected to be greeted by protests and postponed. Pence also was worried that meetings in Egypt and Jordan would be scuttled. In January he met with Sisi and the King. It’s not clear if he brought much from Egypt and Jordan, but he sought to mention them anyway in his Jerusalem speech.

The winds of change can already be witnessed across the Middle East.

The Winds of Change speech was made in 1960 by the British Prime Minister to discuss the changes in the colonies in Africa. De-colonization was coming. Pence, or his speechwriter chose this interesting term for the Middle East in 2018. As ISIS is destroyed the question is whether there are winds of change. The democracy neo-con policies of Bush are gone. The Obama years and Arab spring brought little change. So what are these winds?

Saudi Arabia, President Trump addressed an unprecedented gathering of leaders

Pence referenced Saudi Arabia alongside Jordan and Egypt as a bedrock of US allies in the region. This was a nod to the Crown Prince and Trump’s speech there in 2017 and probably a nod to the idea that Israel and the Saudis are growing closer.

radical Islamic terrorism

The use of this term as opposed to “extremism” was one that Trump sought to emphasize, to move away from the Obama administration’s nebulous war on “violent extremism.” But the term “Islamic” has stepped on toes in the past and even Trump has toned down his use of it.

for the first time, we are providing direct support to Christian and other religious minorities

Pence has often championed Middle East Christians. However he has been critiqued by Christian Palestinians and others as meddling in their affairs and against their interests. However he sought to emphasize this point in his Jerusalem speech, despite apparently not meeting with Middle East Christian leaders.


The US VP’s speech mentioned Iran several times, part of a policy the Trump administration rolled out in the fall of 2017.

We are your friends, and the day is coming when you will be free

Pence supported the recent Iran protests.

Abraham as their forefather in faith.

This was a very religious speech and Abraham got several mentions. It was one of the few places where he sought to discuss coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians.

the Jewish state of Israel, and all the Jewish people, bear witness to God’s faithfulness, as well as your own.

This formulation emphasizes the Jewish aspect of the Jewish state of Israel and adds more religious peppering to his speech.

pray for the peace of Jerusalem

A quote from Pslam 122:6 it was obviously chosen for a reason. What reason is not entirely clear but it shows Pence’s decision to include a religious message inside his speech, not one that feels fake, but one that feels it comes from his heart.

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