Obama In Cairo: An Error of Omission
Op-Ed By Abraham H. Foxman
New York, NY, June 4, 2009 -- In an otherwise insightful and balanced address in Cairo, President Barack Obama made one egregious error which plays into the hands of the most extreme elements of the radical Muslim world.
In the course of his remarks, the President, appropriately, addressed a number of issues about Israel and Jews which Muslims need to deal with. Included were references to anti-Semitism, to Holocaust denial, and to terrorism against Israeli civilians. He also called on Muslims to accept Israel's legitimacy, in my view, one of the most important things the President had to say.
Unfortunately, in doing so he did it in a way that, ironically, gave fodder to the many in the Arab world who argue against the legitimacy of Israel.
He said, speaking of America's ties to Israel, that it is based on the "recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied." He then went on to talk about anti-Semitism in Europe for centuries which "culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust."
It is good that the President addressed these themes but it sends the wrong message to base Israel's legitimacy simply or essentially on this suffering. The Arab world for decades has argued that Israel was an illegitimate entity imposed on the Arab Middle East by the Europeans who, they claimed, were trying to atone for the murder of six million Jews on European soil. The Arabs argued, Why should they pay the price for what the Europeans did to the Jews.
It is a phony argument which is not sustainable because the Jewish claim to Israel doesn't rest on the Holocaust, even if that tragedy played a role in the climate surrounding discussions about the idea of a Jewish state. Israel's legitimacy rests on the unbroken connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, a physical connection, a religious connection, a cultural connection, an existential connection. It is hardly too much to say that the Jewish people would not exist today as a people had we not held hope alive for 2,000 years about the return to Zion. In other words, there was Herzl before there was the Holocaust.
It is no accident that when the Zionist movement early in the 20th century was considering other options for a Jewish home, all were rejected because Israel was the true Jewish home and only a movement aspiring to build a modern Jewish state in the Holy Land could gain the support of the Jewish people and could be sustained through an uphill struggle.
So here it was, that unique moment where the President of the United States had the ear of the Muslim world in a way that few, if any, have ever had, and he failed to drive home the critical point that, in fact, Israel was legitimate because it is the historic essence of Jewish peoplehood. If he had stated that clearly and honestly, that would have gone a long way toward addressing so many of the Muslim claims which are used not to accept Israel, not to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, not to see Israel as a permanent part of the region but as a colonial implant.
All of this comes at a time when the anti-Israel forces in the world see a window of opportunity, based on their reading of the changes in American Middle East policy, to transform the discussion about Israel in America the way they have succeeded in Europe and elsewhere around the world. That is why it is particularly disappointing that the President did not use this unique moment to clearly state the essence of why the Muslim and other attacks on Israel's legitimacy are false.
The President spoke very well when he said that, "America's strong bonds with Israel are well known," and "This bond is unbreakable." He'll need now to find another occasion to make clear that Israel is legitimate because of the Jewish people's historic connection to the land, not because of Jewish suffering in Europe.
Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control."
The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world's leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.