Obama, the Holocaust, and Vulcans


At the Economist, Daniel Levy and David Frum debate the notion of "evenhandedness" when it comes to Israel and President Obama.

I like the format, and look forward to the follow-up exchanges.

Frum makes much (as others have) of this passage in Obama’s speech to the Muslim world last month in Cairo:

America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

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."

Here’s Frum’s point, echoed at this week’s Christians United For Israel’s Washington conference by Michael Medved, the conservative talk show host, as well as last week by Yoel Marcus in Ha’aretz:

In rebuking Holocaust denial, Mr Obama himself denied something: the millennial Jewish connection to the land of Israel. Yes, the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history of persecution. But a homeland that was merely a place of refuge could have been located anywhere: Uganda, as some proposed, or Uruguay, or (in strict reciprocal justice) Bavaria perhaps or Austria. The aspiration for a Jewish homeland specifically in the Holy Land of the Bible is rooted not in persecution, but in a thousand years of Jewish political sovereignty, more than 3,000 years of spiritual and religious connection, and now more than 150 years of modern resettlement of the ancient land. This resettlement was legally recognised in the treaties and commitments that followed the first world war, not the second.  By emphasising the Holocaust as the proximate justification for Israel’s creation, Mr Obama perhaps inadvertently acceded to a key tenet of anti-Zionism. Here for example is the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to the German magazine Der Spiegel in May 2008: "The Zionist regime is the result of World War II. What does any of this have to do with the Palestinian people? Or with the Middle East region?"

There are three problems with this complaint, which reportedly was raised again in today’s meeting between Jewish leaders and Democratic senators and is becoming something of a theme:

1) Obama’s argument for the American embrace of Israel is not based only on the Holocaust. He cites cultural ties, which would include the American recognition of ancient Jewish claims to a homeland; additionally, he cites not just European anti-Semitism but persecution of Jews "around the world," "for centuries." This conceivably includes the expulsion, and certainly encompasses his audience, the Muslim world. This is important because it places Israel’s existence in the context of a cherished notion in the Arab world — self-determination. This is Obama’s code: You want Palestinian self-determination? Fine. It comes all wrapped up in a bow with Jewish self-determination.

2) Yes, Obama emphasizes Holocaust denial. Would we rather he didn’t? Had he not addressed Holocaust denial to a polity that has embraced it, would that not be an occasion for a real plaint? This is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t approach.

3) A couple of years ago, DC Jewish reporters had an off the record briefing with a top foreign ministry official who dealt at the time with the Diaspora. He outlined his strategies for defending Israel — which all had to do with reminding the world about the Holocaust. I asked him if this wasn’t getting counterproductive as time bore on: Wouldn’t it make more sense, for a generation bearing fresh memories of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia, to point out that it is exactly that horror that Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran plan in order to achieve regional "purity"?

He looked at me as if I was nuts and said — and I swear, I’m not making this up — "Without the Holocaust, we have no justification."

So, yes, he’s an idiot, but one in a position of influence. And it’s not as if this official was operating in a vacuum; Anyone who’s attended an AIPAC policy conference has heard the speech about FDR turning away Stephen Wise, who was bearing news of the death camps, and how that will never happen again.

How exactly do Israel and the pro-Israel community make an issue of grounding Israel’s founding in the Holocaust if the same issue pops up like a melancholy uncle every time we get together? Obama could certainly be forgiven for thinking this theme was a way to please a constituency that is always mentioning it. It’s like the joke about the Jewish mother and the gift of two ties: "You hate the other one, fine."

Now to get to Levy: He mentions Mr. Spock as his ideal of an honest broker. Well, have I got news for you, Daniel. I took my kids to see Star Trek, the latest incarnation, last week. When Leonard Nimoy gave the "Live long and prosper" salute, my ten year old tugged on my sleeve and whispered, "He’s Jewish!"

So I don’t think so. Spock — definitely on our side.


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