Barack Obama likes to change what history means, and that’s a very good thing.
Today, for instance, marks 42 years since the Six-Day War began. Ever since then, the term “June 4 lines” has referred to the on-the-ground border between Israel and its Arab neighbors on the eve of the war – not the lines marked on maps, but the lines marked by forward military positions. On the Syrian front, for instance, the actual positions lined up with neither the pre-1948 international border between Palestine and Syria, nor with the 1949 armistice agreements. The small distances on the ground make for big problems in peace negotiations.
As of yesterday, however, June 4 means something entirely different. It now refers to the day on which Barack Obama chose to speak in Cairo. “June 4 lines” henceforth mean the line of thinking that the president laid out for reconciliation between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and along the way, between Israel and the Palestinians.
His message to us was very, very basic Obama: First, I acknowledge your history. Second, it’s time each of you recognize the other’s side history, that you stop thinking that somehow by admitting the other’s side suffering you’ll erase your own. And now that you’ve acknowledged history, stop holding on to it as if electricity were running through it, as if your hand can’t let go. Move forward. Turn history into history – the text explaining how we got here – and stop treating it as an ever-repeating present. This is what he told Americans about race when he was campaigning for president. Now he’s telling it to us and our neighbors:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust… Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation… They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable…
For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive..if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.
OK, so the president gets up in a hall in Cairo and cogently, concisely tells the Muslim world that Holocaust denial is wrong morally, and self-defeating as well. And then he turns and tells Israel: your trauma should not blind you to what has happened to the Palestinians, which is “intolerable.” Quietly and calmly, like a psychologist trying to get two very upset people to reframe their past so they can move on.
I have some friends who think that Obama’s speeches are fomulaic: on one hand, on the other hand. Wrong. This isn’t a rhetorical formula, it’s a thought-out view of the world and of political action: Empowering people, getting them to break out of despair, requires getting them to think of the past in a different way. What Obama is doing is a mix of cognitive psychology and the wisdom of his community organizing guru, Saul Alinsky – though as president rather than street organizer, Obama is a lot more polite in his language as he tells people that they should stop making excuses for leaving things as they are.
Obama also told the Palestinians that their own violence was defeating their struggle, and posed the counter-example of the civil-rights struggle in the US. Yes, as some critics have noted, parts of Obama’s history were off: The South African liberation struggle included violence. Nonetheless, he was right about the message. Palestinian advocates of non-violence – Sari Nusseibeh, Sami Awad, Nafez Assaily, the organizers in Bilin who have never quite gotten the method across to local teens – should take courage from this.
And of course, Obama drew another June 4 line, a line in the sand: No settlement construction:
The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
The wording here is either a bit sloppy, or deliberately ambiguous. He’s saying construction must stop. Is he also saying that settlement as such must end, that settlements must be evacuated? I suspect that settler leaders heard it that way. For once (it had to happen), they’re right. The president is telling them that he opposes not just the next house, but the entire enterprise.
I would have been happier if Obama had devoted more time to his effort to reframe history. Alas, he was trying to do a lot in one speech. The democracy advocates are upset that he didn’t say more on democracy – though as Michael Cohen writes, Obama did dramatically shift the American position: “The President is saying that the United States will welcome ANY peaceful and law-abiding government.” It could be Islamist. It could be socialist. It doesn’t have to work just like America’s. It has to be accountable, respect human rights and be willing to give up power if it loses the next election.
The problem with trying to convince people to look at history differently is that a lot of them don’t want to. Ex-Knesset speaker Dahlia Itzik said that, “The equation that the US President formed between Israel and the Palestinians is very disturbing.” Itzik, remember, is in the centrist opposition, so she tried to put her miscomprehension politely. Arye Eldad, from the right, said that “Obama drew a shocking parallel between the destruction of the Jews of Europe and the suffering that Israeli Arabs brought upon themselves.” There are too many things wrong with this sentence to list. But the underlying problem is: Obama wants Israelis and Palestinians to be able to see history twice, to see it as having two faces.
And many of the people to whom he is speaking are either cognitively incapable of that, or very desperately committed to living in one version of the past. They don’t want to be empowered to change their situation.
Obama, as a student of Alinsky, knows how attached people are to their rationalizations. He knows one speech won’t change all attitudes. It’s a beginning. It’s the June 4 line.