Last week, President Obama delivered an address to the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt. While there is much to criticize in the President’s speech (see below), I do appreciate what he was trying to accomplish. For years we have waited for an Arab leader to rise up and inspire his people with a compelling, peaceful alternative to the path of Al Quada, Hamas and terror. Since no such charismatic moderate has emerged, President Obama seems to have stepped forward to fill the void. Standing in Cairo, our President invoked his Muslim and African heritage, denounced terror and set forth an alternative vision of peace.
Let’s face it, the President’s very name and biography stand as a stark challenge to the negative stereotypes of America so prevalent in the Muslim world. He is right to employ these assets along with the asset of his eloquence to our strategic benefit. As he does so, we may even want to cut him a little slack if he chooses to employ a little historical gloss and moral equivalence while making his larger points. Changing America’s image in the Muslim world is a political exercise, not an academic one.
It is no easy thing to stand in Cairo, Egypt and proclaim that America’s bond with Israel is “unbreakable.” It is no small thing to tell the Arab world that the violence of suicide bombings and rocket attacks is “not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.” It is no simple thing to lecture the Muslim world about the hard facts of the Holocaust. The President did these things, and his doing so was significant.
Yet while the President attacked some myths, he actually helped to perpetuate others. After challenging the myth of Holocaust denial, for instance, he proceeded to reinforce an even more pernicious myth about the Holocaust: that Israel’s right to exist is based upon it. As the President put it in Cairo: “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in tragic history that cannot be denied. Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.”
Let me be clear. An Israel built solely on the moral foundation of the Holocaust has no moral foundation. There is no ethical principle than can justify compensating Jews for their suffering in Europe by giving them a piece of someone else’s land in the Middle East. This is why Israel’s detractors constantly claim that the creation of Israel was simply an expression of European guilt for the Holocaust — they know that in so doing they undermine Israel’s moral legitimacy. President Obama should never have reinforced this most dangerous of lies.
The fact is that the Jewish connection to Israel is rooted in a rich history that precedes the Holocaust by millennia. It was in the Land of Israel that the Jewish people was born and governed itself for multiple centuries. It was to this land that the Jews prayed daily to return after they were exiled from it by the Romans. It was to this land that the Jews repeatedly did return over their long centuries of exile. It was in Jerusalem that Jews constituted a majority by the late 1800’s. It was this land — in recognition of this history — that the League of Nations designated as the site of a “Jewish national home” well before the Holocaust in 1922.
President Obama perpetuated a second dangerous myth in Cairo when he stated that Palestinian “dislocation” and “suffering” were the result of “Israel’s founding.” The fact is that the 1947 partition plan recognizing two states — one Jewish and one Arab — in Palestine did not create so much as one Palestinian refugee. Palestinians began to flee their homes only after the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors launched a war to destroy the Jewish state. Had the Palestinians accepted this two-state solution along with the Jews in 1948, there would have not have been any Palestinian refugees, and the Palestinian State would have just celebrated its 61st independence day along with Israel.
Of course, the Palestinian rejection of a Palestinian State in 1948 was not a singular mistake. In 1937, the Palestinians rejected the two state solution offered by the Peel Commission, even though the Jewish state on the table (and accepted by the Jews) was a tiny sliver far smaller than the current State of Israel. In 2000, Palestinian President Yassir Arafat rejected an offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak which would have given the Palestinians a state in all of Gaza and approximately 95% of the West Bank, including a capital in East Jerusalem. Just last year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected what by most accounts was an even more generous offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Palestinian suffering and statelessness cannot be denied. But the myths about the reasons for this suffering do not build the case for peace — they undermine it.
I hope that President Obama’s speech achieves his admirable goals. I hope it boosts Muslim moderates and strikes a blow to terrorist recruiting and momentum. Time may teach us that the President began in Cairo a process that furthered US interests in the Arab and Muslim words. But I fear that in the long run, the myths he perpetuated may well overshadow those he challenged, damaging both the United States and Israel in the process.