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.”…