David Harris, the Holocaust and Obama


This notion that President Obama, in his speech addressing the Muslim world last month in Cairo, rooted Israel’s founding in the Holocaust, started as a partisan proposition: I noted its citation yesterday by David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush.

It’s gaining mainstream traction, however, most recently in a speech yesterday by David Harris, the executive director of the American, Jewish Committee to Democratic senators.

It is, let me say this politely, also a crock, and it’s time it was nipped.

First, David Harris yesterday:

First, in his Cairo speech, the President implied that the Holocaust was the primary reason for Israel’s creation. That is unfortunate – and factually incorrect.

Israel was born out of an ancient vision unique in the annals of history. In the words of its Declaration of Independence, Israel "was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books."

This was understood by President Harry Truman, who defied the advice of his State Department to recognize the re-establishment of Israel in 1948.

His favorite Psalm, according to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, was Number 137: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion."

Why is this important now? Because the Arab world has long challenged Israel’s legitimacy by arguing that it is a Western implant in the Middle East, created to appease the conscience of a Europe with Jewish blood on its hands.

President Clinton encountered this view when his valiant efforts to make peace were rebuffed, as Yasser Arafat outrageously denied the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

Indeed, more than any other issue, this gets to the root of the conflict. The United States must take every opportunity to reinforce Israel’s rightful place in the region.

Next, the president 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.

Where exactly is it "implied that the Holocaust was the primary reason for Israel’s creation"? Obama cites an unbreakable bond, he talks about cultural and historical ties, he mentions a "tragic" history and makes it clear that it spanned centuries and the world (including the Muslim world) and then — and then — he says — don’t deny the Holocaust, which is exactly what the U.S. Jewish community would expect him to do, as Harris himself acknowledges:

We praise his principled condemnation of the Holocaust denial that is all too common in Arab and Muslim societies.

The cultural and historical ties Obama cites encompass America’s understanding of the ancient Jewish claim to Israel. Harris cites Truman’s religious attachement to the idea; I’m sure this is by way of example, and the director of one of the nation’s leading civil rights advocacy groups is not counseling the current president to embrace the eschatological beliefs of his predecessors.

Nothing in Obama’s comments justifies Harris’ readings. And if anything did, it would apply to the following text as well:

More important than the fight, of course, was what the Zionists were fighting for. With the Holocaust scarcely a memory, Jews saw a real opportunity to finally govern themselves in their ancient homeland.

Okay, you’ve guessed, it took me two minutes to track down the text — on the AJC’s website, from a booklet entitled, Israel at Sixty; The Road to Independence (pdf). I’m mean — there, I said it.

Obama is not beyond criticism. Harris’ second point, for instance — in which he actually quotes Obama, and does not scent out "implications" — is genuinely problematic, and at least worthy of closer examination:

Second, the President juxtaposed the Palestinian condition with that of black Americans and other suffering people "from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia."

But this grounding Israel’s founding in the Holocaust thing — it’s made up.

And to the degree that Obama attaches the significance of the Holocaust to his understanding of Israel — well, you’d think that organizations that attach seminal importance to visits to Yad Vashem would think that’s a good thing.


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