“On the Other Hand…”

Gershom Gorenberg

Some commenters on my post about Obama’s Cairo speech have raised the question: Should Obama have based Israel’s existence on the Holocaust? The point is worthwhile. Zionism began before the Holocaust, as a national movement aimed at political independence.  With its ritual of dragging every foreign dignitary to Yad Vashem, the Israeli government itself has created the false picture of Israel as a response to the death of European Jewry. Arguably, Obama shouldn’t have fallen for this historical distortion.

Nonetheless, there was clearly value in a speech to the Muslim world rejecting Holocaust denial.

The other objection some Jews have made to the speech is that in the next breath, Obama said, “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland…” The critics claim that in doing so, he “equated” the suffering, as if the pain of Jews and the pain of Palestinians had been placed on old-fashioned scales and the scales balanced.

The simple response is that the phrase does not imply equivalence. It states that each side has to recognize the other’s history and political claim to independence. But there’s more to it than that, as my friend Shaul Magid has explained eloquently in a post at Religion Dispatches. Here are some excerpts, but I strongly recommend reading the full post:

…One of the ways the Holocaust is deployed by some Jews is as a sign of their exceptionalism. This is not always conscious and often, when conscious, not overt. It is based, in part, on the Holocaust. There is ongoing debate among scholars whether the Holocaust was an unprecedented event in Jewish or human history. Stemming from Emil Fackenheim’s book God’s Presence in History (1970), the claim went that the Holocaust was described as an expression of human evil that is different in kind from any previous event of Jewish suffering. Fackenheim intended this as a theological claim, arguing that a radically different event required an equally radical theological response acknowledging the need for a paradigm shift in Jewish life and thought. Now that we can only hear “the voice of Sinai through the voice of Auschwitz,” everything had to be different…

Such research, correct or mistaken, cultivates the attitude among some Jews that they have suffered in ways categorically different than other peoples, and that their claim to a homeland is exceptional… Obama stood at the podium in Cairo and rejected that stance as a legitimate negotiating position.

This is why I understand Obama’s claim as a proposal to the Jews that gives as it takes. Here is how I would formulate it:

I am giving my pledge that I will not tolerate any discourse that denies the Holocaust (in the Arab world and anywhere else) and I am affirming that the right to a Jewish homeland is, in part, a result of your suffering at the hands of the Nazis. And I am asking you to give up the exceptionalism that is sometimes used regarding Israel that stems from your understanding, right or wrong, of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I don’t know whether the Holocaust is a theologically or historically unique event. That is an internal matter. But while the Holocaust makes a Jewish state legitimate and our bond “unbreakable” (our “cultural and historical ties”) it does so as part of, and not as an exception to, Palestinian suffering. That is, I will treat the Jews’ right to a homeland and the Palestinians right to a homeland as two legitimate claims on equal footing. Both people have suffered. Who has suffered more is not ultimately my concern, nor should it be yours.

…In essence he is saying to the Jews, “The United States is giving you full support in making sure the Holocaust is remembered as a war against the Jews. But you must abandon using that event as an excuse to circumvent your responsibilities as a nation who is occupying another nation, preventing them from the very same rights you are claiming for yourself.”…

The full post is here.

27 thoughts on ““On the Other Hand…””

  1. You call yourselves progressives, yet you support an exclusionist zionist state. This is like saying you are pro life yet perform late term abortions. The simple fact is that you stole Palestine from the Palestinians, and it doesnt matter what sufferings you have/may have had/will have, it doesnt excuse your theft of Palestinian land. It doesnt matter whether it is pre 1967 or post 1967, it is not yours and you must cough it up. It is not antisemetic to acknowledge that Palestine is entirely stolen, and that anger at Jews will increase until Palestine is returned. Please do not cheapen the term “progressive”. Some of us regard the term with honor

  2. There is not enough land in the present Israeli borders to give Palestinians and Israelis the state each of them rightly deserve. If I’m a Palestinian, and you give me the West Bank and Gaza, I’m thinking I just got a pretty bad deal since I’m only getting 22% of historic Palestine. If I’m an Israeli, and you give the Palestinians the West Bank and Gaza, I’m thinking you just left many of my biggest population centers with a border that’s roughly 10 miles wide between the Mediterranean and the Palestinian state, and I’m completely exposed to attack.

    So, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is a bad deal for Palestinians and Israelis. That’s why this conflict has been going on forever. The solution the international community has been advocating is unappealing to both of the principal actors.

    So, the Palestinians should have a state of their own, but it needs to have borders that both Palestinians and Israelis are satisfied with. The Palestinian state should include territory from the West Bank, Gaza and partly from neigboring countries to make it a viable state. Israel simply doesn’t have enough land with which you can carve out a viable Israeli state and Palestinian state.

  3. For anyone suggesting that Israel “cough up” its land, I guess like the Jonah the whale, without making similiar demands on other nations that have taken land by force is simply being outrageous and holding Israel to a separate and special standard.

    Let me just think of a couple countries off the top of my head that have similiar violent histories like modern Israel: England, Pakistan, Australia, America, and Thailand. I’m sure there are many but what the hell is it with some people thinking that Israelis have some special historical or biblical responsibility to bear the hatred of the world.

  4. You said ” I will treat the Jews’ right to a homeland and the Palestinians right to a homeland as two legitimate claims on equal footing”

    Precisely. I have never understood why the Palestinian claim to a homeland is stated as something that can only be in terms of the demands of Israel. The Palestinian claim stands alone with its own legitimacy independent of any behavior by the Palestinians that is acceptable to Israel.

    In other words, how is it that Israel stands above all setting terms and conditions for a Palestinian state? This says in effect – “First Israel – then, maybe, possibly, under certain conditions to be determined by Israel, a Palestinian state.”

    The code for this is “Israel has a right to defend itself” which has been the final statement by so many U.S. politicians for years. I have heard it so often that the next two words that always come after it should probably be added: “next question?”

    I don’t know anyone personally who claims Israel shouldn’t defend itself and I certainly don’t claim that, but the legitimate claim of the Palestinians has been snuffed out for far too long under a litany of conditions that are irrelevant to the claim itself.

  5. Clif-
    You ask a good question. The reason this question is in the air is because Israel’s leaders have for decades refused to tell the truth to their own citizens and to the world at large. The question is “why is the Palestinian claim to a homeland predicated on Israel’s demands”? The truth is that this “claim for a homeland” is code for the eradication of Israel. All Arabs understand that. It is not politically correct to call for “throwing the Jews into the sea” as was done up until the 6-Day War. After that the Arabs realized that in order to get support from the world at large in addition to the so-called “Israeli peace camp”, the demand must be phrased in a way that sounds “reasonable”, so they invented the demand for “Palestinian self-determination”, something that no one had ever heard of before 1967. That sounds much nicer than a call for genocide (read Benny Morris’ new book “One State, Two States” for how the Arab struggle against Israel has had its propaganda line morph over the years).
    Israel’s “peace leaders” like Peres, Livni, Olmert and others know this, but it is not politically correct to say it so they go around babbling about their support for the “2-state solution”. Even “right-wing” Likud leaders have been dragged into this as well (Netanyahu is struggling with it now, under pressure from Obama). Israel’s leaders then condition this Palestinian state on its being “demilitarized”. Well, this is simply dishonest. NO STATE CAN BE DEMILITARIZED AGAINST ITS WILL. Germany proved that by tearing up the Versailled Treaty in the 1930’s under the Nazis. The Gaza Strip is supposed to be “demilitarized”. Is it? Ask the people in Sederot who came under rocket fire from the Gaza Strip for years.
    It is time for Israel’s leaders to tell the truth and not hind behind ridiculous demands like “demilitarization”. The Arabs don’t want peace with Israel but merely Israeli capitulation in order to give them a territorial base and continued political support for their ongoing war of attrition against Israel. All we have to do is listen to what the Arab leaders tell their own people. Even someone like Obama, in spite of his years of listening to Rev. Wright can understand that giving into Arab demands will only make war inevitable.

  6. YBD, I follow your reasoning and would say it is the slippery slope – if there is a concession made, how can it be stopped?

    But I would make an analogy to a pendulum. The pendulum had swung hard against the Jews just before Israel was established. Then, after 1967 it had swung to the extreme in the other direction.

    Now, I believe Israel is attempting to hold the pendulum in that extreme position in its favor, the settlements being an attempt to nail the pendulum in place there, and I don’t think it can be done. The question is how the pendulum can be brought to rest at center or, if not at rest, be prevented from swinging to the extremes we have seen?

  7. I don’t think Israel would be a state today if it was not for the Holocaust.

    Lloyd, there is a bright line that begins with the end of World War 2 in the form of international law which forbids the acquisition of land through war as we go forward. We don’t do that anymore. Were that not so the past would be repeating itself in endless wars for territorial expansion. (Saddam tried it in Kuwait). Israel is an exception ( I believe) having been accepted in the UN with territory won beyond the UN partition in it’s war of independence in ’48.

    I agree with Shaul Magid . I believe Obama was not making the sufferings equivalent but rather saying that Palestinian suffering flowed from the Holocaust, or Jewish suffering, and thus to be considered part of each other. This is more about cause and effect perhaps, more like a stone being thrown into a pond and causing ripples , or more catastrophic, an earthquake causing a tsunami.

    There is something very wrong or at least repulsive, in comparing and arguing about human sufferings as though it were a test or contest in which we can, point by point, assign values and add it up somehow to come up with a result and a winner. Killing is killing, suffering is suffering.

  8. Suzanne: good post. I appreciate para. #2 mostly. Para #1 may or may not be true. Zionism was a fact before WWII but perhaps the Shoah made enough non-Jewish people upset enough to say enough is enough – here is a place that all Jews can live and voila the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were the first two countries to recognize Israel after the U.N. voted for it.

    That is my oversimplification. History is much different – I am sure.

  9. YBD–why, the, did Arafat give up on negotiations in 2,000? If you are correct, then he would have accepted anything, knowing he could build up forces and get more land later.

  10. Well, there are at least three separate issues here. Suzanne may be right that Israel wouldn’t have been established but for the Holocaust. And Gershom is certainly right that the early Zionists obviously weren’t motivated by the Holocaust. But those factual claims are distinct from the idea that the Holocaust provided the moral justification for establishing the Israeli state. (Another issue, of course, is whether Obama actually meant to link the creation of Israel to the Holocaust. As I recall, he said that it was “rooted in a tragic history” or something.)

    If that is Obama’s position, then it’s worth noting that it’s a position shared by some Zionists. (Unless, of course, you’re inclined to exclude left-wingers wholesale from the ranks of Zionism.)

  11. TM-
    What you are asking is a famous question. One of those mysteries of history such as “why did Hitler declare war on the US when FDR wanted only to fight Japan?”. Logically, he should have done what you said….taken what was offered and then continue the war. However, had he taken Barak’s offer, he would have gone down in history as a traitor to the Arab cause. This is what happened to Sadat. It’s true Sadat got far more out of Israel than any of the “extremists” and he succeeded in creating a situation which allowed HAMAS to take over Gaza, bringing Islamic extremism close to the Israeli heartland. However, it must be understood that in the Arab/Muslim world, being seen to be loyal to the cause is more important than any temporary advantages being gained by deceit of that sort. Benny Morris asks this question in his new book “One State, Two State” and he speculates that perhaps that since Arafat was old already, and it wouldn’t have been possible to immediately go to war right after gaining all the territory, he figured he wouldn’t be around if he had to wait the necessary period in order to go on the offensive, so he decided to go out as a “war leader” rather than a “peace man”.

  12. YBD- Sadat, you may agree, was ahead of his time. He was ready before the rest were ready, to make peace. This history is so much about leadership and timing. Part of my problem with your responses is that you are backward looking, hanging on to the past. People who think like you exert a big drag on the process going forward. Looking backward is as much of a risk, no probably more I think, than looking forward and making a bit of a leap. My readings about Arafat’s refusal is that he and those who he needed to back him, or get behind him principally in the Arab countries, were not ready. The Israeli offer was reluctant and had to be teased and not enough. (This does not mean he had designs on the whole of Israel). Arafat did not want to be at the peace table as much as Clinton and Barak. Do you remember that famous picture, so tellling, where Arafat had to be kicked,pulled into the White House ( by Clinton and Barak) to talk.

    Still Barak was not offering anything appealing in the beginning and had to be coaxed into it. Barak did not have his people completely behind him either. If it had come to a referendum in Israel I don’t think it the final deal would have passed. But that is conjecture. Then of course in the telling Arafat was the one that was painted as the refusnik- which is what Arafat had feared to begin with.

    Benny Morris when he gives his opinion, is not an authority. It’s his opinion. Palestine as a state, recognized in the UN, ( or even if it were not) would have to stay within it’s agreed upon borders or risk a full out justifiable war upon itself. I don’t buy BM’s speculation b/c he is only looking from one angle ( which is fear-based and not realistic imo), not the full 360 degrees.

    PS – It seems to me that Israeli policies have enabled Hamas to grow strong far more than anything Sadat did.

  13. lloyd- you give the examples of England, Pakistan, Australia, America and Thailand.

    I don’t know why you pick Thailand. Thailand is the only east Asian country that has never been colonized though it has lost and regained territory to/from France and England. I don’t read that it has been acquiring any land not it’s own, through war.

    England’s acquisitions happened prior to the modern period,during a different era in history, that of the British Empire. There have been many independence movements and nations formed during decolonialization including Pakistan, born out of India. Pakistan did not conquer territory through war. It was a movement from within- ie self determination. It would be the same for Kurdistan if it became independent. America ( the US) also was about self-determination and separation from the British Empire. There are many examples of this from the past – ie regarding Spanish French the Netherlandish colonies.

    Nations today, as members of the community of nations, have agreed to respect each others borders-which are internationally agreed upon.

    Israel, the modern state,declared in 1948, was welcomed into the community of nations, agreed to it’s charter and accept conditions: agreeing to resolutions 181 and 194 specifically. This was after it’s war of independence which changed it’s UN partition borders. So I read this an an exception made for Israel by the UN of territory gained through war. The Holocaust created a desperate situation for Jews and it was felt at the UN.

    On the other hand, the contining occupation of territory taken in the 67 war is only allowable ( according to my understanding of international law) insofar as Israel can claim that it is for security reasons. This excuse is getting a little old. But it would make sense that those within Israel who do not wish to give this land to the Palestinians under any circumstances, would have incentive to prove and promote Palestinians and Arabs as an “existential threat”.

    Palestinians would have their state already were it not for their violent resistance which feeds into Israel’s fears and justifications.

  14. Suzanne:

    I like that post too. The whole thing. Re: Thailand etc. I was referring to the initial conquests etc. The Thais came down from southern China and took over from the local kingdoms. There is also an issue with the southern Muslim provinces which perhaps at one time may have been independent states. The English are the result of Germanic, and French, Roman, and Scandinavian tribal conquests. I don’t remember the exact order but that was the idea anyways. No one argues about giving the land back to the Celts. I’ll read your post again when I get home from work.

  15. Zionist hasbarists often cite Darfur, Tibet, etc as human rights problems that are worse than the Palestinians. I doubt this to be the case. The Naqba remains the single most egregious case of human rights violations of the 20th century and it extends to the 21st century. We can tackle these other human rights violations after we solve the most basic one, that of the dispossession of the Palestinians

  16. Phillips Brooks says:
    The Naqba remains the single most egregious case of human rights violations of the 20th century

  17. YBD —

    It seems to me that your statement:

    “it must be understood that in the Arab/Muslim world, being seen to be loyal to the cause is more important than any temporary advantages being gained by deceit of that sort”

    contradicts your assertion that

    “The truth is that this “claim for a homeland” is code for the eradication of Israel. All Arabs understand that.”

    If “all Arabs understand” that the point of the Palestinian state is a platform for eradication of Israel, then Arafat would not have had a problem coming to an agreement, because “all Arabs” would have understood that he was getting them closer to the ultimate goal, rather than being disloyal.

    I also find it interesting that you choose to associate Sadat with the rise of Hamas in Gaza, given that Hamas’s Egyptian counterpart killed Sadat and Israel gave Hamas early support.

  18. “The Naqba remains the single most egregious case of human rights violations of the 20th century”

    This is the single most uninformed opinion about the horror going on in Darfur I have ever read. Mr. Brooks, you need to learn more about Darfur.

  19. Ah, the hasbarists have come out in force, with Darfur as their mystical totem. If you cannot give up your selfish desire for an illegitimate state to better humanity, you will be viewed as the enemies of humanity

  20. Referring to private citizens who make posts on the website South Jerusalem as hasbarists is a bit of a stretch even for an anti-Jewish antagonizer such as Mr. Brooks. I guess one could make the argument that this website’s readers would read some of his statements and come to the opposite conclusion. If his statements are true regarding the extent of this website’s influence, who then would be the hasbarist with the most influence upon the common reader? I personally consider Mr. Brooks as Israel’s self-appointed PR man – at least on this website. We all should be proud of his achievement – I know he does not or ever would approve of such high social standing within Jewish circles. But there he is typing away- out hasbara-ing the rest of us.

  21. The above postings just reinforce my own status as a JAFO – Just Another Foreign Observer in accordance with the website’s PG rating.

    But as an American relic of the 20th Century I also claim to know a few things about history, and I completely agree with YBD and aliyah06.

    When it comes to the “the single most egregious case of human rights violations of the 20th century”, there is a lot of stiff competition.

    Khmer Rhouge in Cambodia, Darfur (as mentioned), Rwanda genocide, Armenian genocide, Stalin, Hitler, … it is, to use our American code phrase, “not helpful” to try to reserve the status of “most suffered at the hands of another race.”

    Stop the hate. Shock your opponents by being generous. Do not be imprisoned by the conflict of your fathers and your grandfathers. “Green” could win tomorrow in the Islamic Republic. There is a reason for hope, if only we change the trajectory of all our history. That’s the message of Obama. Seize it.

  22. Suzanne:

    I wrote one post and it disappeared into the internet. Anyhow I re-read your thoughtful and insightful post. I still liked it. I was referring to Pakistan and its creation which involved the transfer of millions of Hindus and Muslims. It is somewhat analagous to the situation with the creation of Israel where Arabs went one way and Jews were later kicked out of Arab countries and ended up in, you guessed it, Israel. I will check out those U.N. resolutions.

  23. TNM-
    You did catch me in a situation where I did not fully explain my position which caused what seemed to be a contradiction in my position.
    Here it is: Yes, it is true that “all Arabs” understand that their political platforms are designed not for peace, but for ultimately eradicating Israel. However, it must be understood that the Arab world is very badly divided. For example, Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad hated each other and would have killed each other if given the chance. However, they both hated Israel, too. That fact, though, was not enough to unite them. The Shi’ites and Sunnis who have been slaughtering each other in Iraq also both hate Israel, in fact they accuse each other of being Israeli agents. Same in Lebanon where there was a bloody civil war, same with Algeria. In spite of the internal hate, all sides involved hate Israel. In Europe, antisemitism infected all countries to one degree or another, but the countries there were also at each other’s throats for centuries, down to modern time. Thus, a common hatred of Jews or Israel is not enough to create a national identity. The Palestinians themselves are badly divided between those in Gaza and those in Judea/Samaria. Sure, they both hate Israel, but, again, this is not enough to create a national ethos. Then even within each seemingly homogenous sub-group (i.e. the Shi’ites of Iraq, the Gazans, etc) there are sharp divisions along clan lines.

    Therefore, the Arabs face a dilemma in deciding how to confront Israel. AFter the Yom Kippur War, Ford and Carter supported an international peace conference, but everyone knew that this is automatically a recipe for paralysis since the most extreme group dictates the tone. So Sadat, feeling that his regime was in danger (there were bread riots in Egypt in early 1977) decided his only chance of survival was to cut a separate deal with Israel. He was accused of treason by the rest of the Arab world. To this day, I believe most of the Arab world views him as such, even in Egypt, even though they benefitted from what he did.
    Same with Arafat. Those who opposed him, for internal reasons, often turned to HAMAS to express their opposition, even though Arafat made it clear in his internal propaganda that he was not making peace with Israel, but simply getting Israel to give him a territorial base from which to attack (of course, he didn’t say these things to Western reporters and diplomats…he wasn’t that stupid).
    So had Arafat in the end signed an agreement with Israel, no matter what the terms, he would have been called a traitor by his opponents, not because his opponents necessarily believed such a charge, but because that accusation would be another weapon to bludgeon himself with.
    This is the reason why no Palestinian MK Gandhi could ever arise. He would be accused of being an Israeli agent and of trying to disarm the Palestinian ‘resistance’ by groups who don’t like the clan or sect this person would come from, no matter what it is.

  24. YBD–

    If hatred of Jews is a uniting, motivating force in the Arab world, why would Sadat think that the cure to rioting at home would be a trip to Israel? Wouldn’t that just exacerbate the riots? And, in any case, it would seem that if your statement that any effort at rapproachmont with Israelis is seen as a betrayal in the Arab world is true, then Arabs must be taking such an effort as a serious one, otherwise nobody would bother trying to assassinate those who attempt it, above and beyond trying to make political hay out of it.

  25. TNM-
    I assume you know what happened in the end to Sadat.
    From the beginning of Sadat’s “peace initiative” down to today, Egypt has presented the peace agreement with Israel to its own population as basically a temporary cease-fire made, just as Muhammed did with the treaty he made with the Quraish, in order to buy time in order to strengthen one’s self in order to resume the struggle later in a more advantageous position.
    This does not necessarily mean that Sadat had in his mind, a date that he would then scrap the treaty and go back to a war footing. In fact, as the Palestinians developed, first , their suicide bombing campaign, and later, the rocket arsenal of HAMAS, Egyptians could feel that they had spilled enough of their own blood and that the Palestinians could take over the fight.
    However, no one in Egypt was ever under the illusion that the agreement meant that Egypt really accepted Israel’s existence. To this day, as I understand it, maps of the Middle East printed in Egypt do not show Israel.
    Of course, the Muslim extremists who assassinated Sadat had plenty of reasons to oppose him and they could point to the agreement with Israel as another example of his “perfidy” in order to justify their act, whether or not they truly believed that Sadat really had “betrayed the Arab cause” by making the agreement with Israel.

  26. As you note, Sadat was killed by Muslim extremists, not by a mob of ordinary Egyptians incensed at his betrayal of the Arab cause. And yet, as you note, he went to Israel despite a situation already at the boiling point back home. It would seem to me that this at least is one point that goes against your earlier point that “all Arabs” (I find it odd that you’re willing to stand behind the idea the “all” members of any group are in favor of anything, but that’s a different issue) are pushing for the eradication of Israel. It’s not surprising that extremists would act as they did – whether it’s Sadat’s assassination or Rabin’s, they tend to react to peace talks with moves they hope will ensure the failure of the talks. You can speculate all you want, but I think this is a much more likely explanation for Sadat’s assassination, and if it’s true, then the extremists take action not because they have other axes to grind but because they are afraid the negotiations might succeed – and might end up in a permanent settlement.

  27. TNM-
    Tell me, on the street in Egypt today, who is considered a better or more popular figure in history, Nasser or Sadat? I don’t know for a fact, but I would venture to say that Nasser is a much more popular figure.
    I will never forget that when Sadat was assassinate that NBC newsman John Chancellor said “I expect we will see the same mass outpouring of emotion in the streets of Cairo for the funeral of Sadat as we saw for Nasser”. He was wrong. There was no outpouring of people into the streets in memory of Sadat. The average Egyptian was glad to be rid of him. Not necessarily because of the peace agreement, but that was a factor in their indifference to his killing.

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