Deeply disturbing, though, are students' reactions to Obama's discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three out five students who reacted to this issue rejected Obama's attempt to be even-handed, specifically his parallel treatment of Jewish and Palestinian suffering. One of these three negative reactions was overtly antisemitic, a second implicitly so. All three reacted angrily at what they saw as an insinuation that Israel's existence was justified by Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.
Obama did not say that. But he seemed to. These reactions, prejudiced though they are, highlight a lacuna in Obama's presentation that did register with me* when I heard it:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. 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.There's almost a sleight-of-hand in this passage that sits oddly with its brutal honesty. First, the passive construction "the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries" avoids saying who persecuted them, e.g., perhaps, Muslims as well as Christians. Then comes the statement of Holocaust fact, followed by the assertion that Holocaust denial is poisonous, and then by a claim that Holocaust denial prevents peace -- apparently, Obama seems to imply, by further traumatizing traumatized Israeli minds.
What's missing is a statement of why Israel has a right to exist. Perhaps such a statement should not be necessary. But Obama did come near enough to suggesting that its justification lay in the Holocaust to make the absence of an explicit justification felt. And into that gap rushed the inference that the Holocaust was the reason that Arabs should accept Israel's existence -- which touched a raw nerve in these three students. Here are excerpts from their reactions, starting with a weirdly "doublethought" Holocaust denial:
Tarek Hefni, 20, is a student of computer science at Cairo University from Giza, EgyptKholoud Khalifa Kholoud Khalifa, 22, who majored in journalism at the American University in Cairo and describes herself as an “Egyptian-Austrian Muslim,” watched the speech in Mohandesien, Egypt.
I did not feel very comfortable regarding the two state solution and regarding treating the Holocaust as a fact. It is still a debatable issue and should not be taken as granted....
Lede Blog Editor's Note:We asked Tarek to clarify his objection to President Obama’s statement that the Holocaust is a fact in his speech today in Cairo. Here is what he told us:
I admit a genocide has taken place! That’s a fact. However, the numbers are really doubtful. I also don’t see any relevance between people being killed by other nation and building a homeland in a different land. Again the genocide did take place. I just doubt the numbers.
I was troubled by his words regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and those on democracy. The others were okay, they were expected — violent extremism in all of its forms didn’t really hit a nerve. Iran’s nuclear controversy is just filling white space, but claiming the Holocaust justifies a Jewish homeland and then saying it’s wrong too, what was it? Oh, uttering the same about Jews because it revokes past emotions is atrocious. For 60 years the Palestinians have been displaced, killed and terrorized and it’s disparaging to think of it as a tragic event rather than a genocide. To me, that thought confirms only one thing — his views of Palestinians are no different to those of Zionists.Riham El Houshi
Where Obama really lost us is Palestine. He didn’t beat around the bush, at least, and made it clear right away that the American bond with Israel was unbreakable.It must be said, too, that two of the six students published by The Lede accepted Obama's assertion that a two-state solution is necessary. But still, there's a frightening glimpse here of the depth of hatred for Israel among educated young Arabs. Obama, for his part, should be commended for directly confronting Arab anti-semitism. But he needs to rethink the sequencing of fact, logic and association with which he served up this root of bitterness today.
But he has clearly failed to understand that the problem Muslims have is not seeing both sides of the conflict, but seeing the conflict in historical context. I can safely say that Muslims do not and never will feel responsible for the Holocaust, and do not think it justifies setting up a Jewish state upon Palestinian lands. Lands, which, have shrunk over the decades as settlements have continued to rise and more and more territory has been annexed.
And despite the beauty of the words he used about Jerusalem, it was heavily symbolic talk about a messy issue. Palestinians and Israeli may agree on everything, but they will never relinquish their rights to Jerusalem as the capital of their respective nations.
* I must confess to conveniently forgetting this perception while writing the prior post.
UPDATE: The Times reports a Muslim Brotherhood official's reaction very similar to that of the students cited above:
...in Jordan, Rohile Gharaibeh, deputy secretary general for the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected any reference to the Holocaust. “The Holocaust was not the doing of the Muslims, it was the Europeans, and it should not come at the cost of the Palestinian people or the Arabs and Muslims,” he said.More on Obama's speeches:
2029: Look back in wonder
The Gospel according to Obama
What Will.i.am had to work with