How President Obama got it wrong on Israel’s history..….
and why it matters for future peace

Published: 14 June 2009
Briefing Number 242

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Summary: Israel’s legitimacy is founded not on the Holocaust but on the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in the land with which they have an unbroken 3000 year connection.  In his landmark address to the Muslim world of 4 June 2009, Obama completely ignored this point.  This Briefing explains the issues, and sets out the views of Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, and the director of the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Dr Ephraim Zuroff, on why this is such a dangerous omission for President Obama to have made.  We conclude with key messages.  

Israel’s fundamental right

The Jewish people have a right of national self-determination in the land of Israel, which is the land of their heritage.  The Jewish people have an unbroken 3000 year connection with that land, and with that vision.  

If the Arab world recognised that right, both in word and in deed, there could be peace. There could be coexistence. And the Palestinians could enjoy self-determination and stability, sustained prosperity and dignity.

The problem is, they don’t recognise this right.    

Some Arab moderates are reconciled to the fact of Israel’s existence, and that Israel won’t ‘go away’.  But even they cannot embrace the idea of Israel, less still its legitimacy.  

President Obama’s Cairo speech

On 4 June 2009 President Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech at Cairo University, which was broadcast live round the world to hundreds of millions of Muslims.  He called for a new beginning in relations between the USA and the Muslim world, and defined the challenges as he sees them for the Middle East, including for Israel and the Palestinians.  His speech was full of noble intentions, and soaring rhetoric. 

When it came to Israel, this would have been a great opportunity, concisely, to impress upon his massive audience the fundamental truth of Israel’s case. 

Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed.  The President said nothing about the principles stated above.  Instead, he framed Israel’s existence as a response to the Nazi Holocaust of World War 2.  

He stated that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history which cannot be denied”, namely the Holocaust.  He then went on to condemn Holocaust denial, and those who threaten Israel with destruction.   

(Note: during his visit to Buchenwald concentration camp the next day, Obama stated that ‘the nation of Israel arose out of the destruction of the Holocaust’).
So what? Isn’t this just quibbling over history?  Surely the important question is what happens in the future, not arguing over the past.  Unfortunately, this is not the case. 

Why this aspect of Israel’s history is so important – the Jerusalem Post’s view

Here’s part of an editorial of 7 June 2009 in the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s leading English language newspaper, explaining the concern over what Obama said:-

“Long before Christianity and Islam appeared on the world stage, the covenant between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel was entrenched and unwavering.  Every day we prayed in our ancient tongue for our return to Zion.  Every day, Mr President.  For 2000 years.

At every Jewish wedding down through the centuries, the bridegroom crushed a glass beneath his foot while declaring: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem….”

Perhaps it’s because Palestine was never sovereign under the Arabs that even moderate Arabs cannot find it in their hearts to acknowledge the depths of the Jews’ connection to Zion.  Instead, they insist that we are interlopers.

When Obama asserts that Jewish rights are essentially predicated on the Holocaust – not once asserting that they are far, far deeper and more ancient – he is dooming the prospects for peace.

For why should the Arabs reconcile themselves to the presence of the Jewish state, organic to the region, when the US President keeps insinuating that Israel was established to atone for Europe’s crimes?...” [our emphasis]

In an opinion piece in his own name on 4 June 2009, Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz called this omission from Obama’s speech a “stark failure”. 

Horovitz suggested that the speech “reinforced the portrayal of Israel as a modern colonial upstart” and called on the President to rectify the “misstep”, arguing that “Muslim recognition of our fundamental right to be here, precisely here, is central to the President’s admirable quest to make a better world, a peaceful world, a new beginning….”

The concerns of Dr Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre

A similar point was made on 5 June in the Jerusalem Post by Dr Ephraim Zuroff, who is the director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre: 

Zuroff might have been expected to applaud the President for his condemnation of Holocaust denial, a phenomenon which the Wiesenthal Centre so energetically opposes.  But instead, Zuroff focused on the same omission from the Obama speech:

“President Obama’s comments regarding Israel and Jewish history were so problematic.   First and foremost was his linkage of the establishment of the State of Israel and the Holocaust.

Thus, according to Obama, Americans recognise that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history which cannot be denied”, an obvious reference not to the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from its historic homeland, but rather to the Holocaust.  The continuation of the speech, in which he refers to his visit to Buchenwald and attacks Holocaust denial, makes this linkage absolutely clear.

Besides being historically inaccurate, this false connection strengthens one of the strongest canards of anti-Israel propaganda in the Muslim world [our emphasis]; that European guilt over Holocaust crimes established a Jewish state in Palestine at the expense of the local Arab residents to atone for their World War II atrocities.

By ignoring three thousand years of Jewish history, by neglecting to even mention the unbreakable link, started long before the advent of Islam, between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, Obama totally failed to deliver what should have been one of the most important messages to the Arab world.

The major problem of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the tensions between Jews and Muslims all over the world is not Holocaust denial.  As irritating and disgusting as that phenomenon undoubtedly is, it is merely a symptom of something much deeper, which Obama either failed to understand or refused to publicly identify.  And that is the basic refusal of the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Dar-al-Islam, the Islamic expanse.

So to devote most of his comments on the Middle East conflict in yesterday’s speech to Holocaust denial was to squander a unique opportunity to convey an absolutely vital message which the Arab world has to hear…..”

The same concern was voiced by many other commentators. 

Key messages

  • Tragically, in his Cairo speech, President Obama got it wrong on Israel’s history. 
  • While calling for Israel’s legitimacy to be respected across the Arab world, he provided a historic narrative which goes a long way to undermining that legitimacy.
  • And while calling for an end to violence against Israel he implied that Israel was a modern implant in the region, imposed on the Arabs to make up for the Holocaust - a message which actually helps to fuel the violence.
  • To build peace, it is not enough to argue how much peace is necessary, and how much Israel yearns for peace.  There’s another building block: to affirm the fundamental rights of the Jewish people (see on this the Beyond Images Advocacy Toolkit, March 2008) 
  • Much work will need to be done to correct the false history which President Obama has delivered to the Muslim world.
    Some related Beyond Images Briefings

‘Israel’s fundamental case’ (Special Briefing 2008)

Five foundations for Israel’s right to exist’ (Briefing 167, February 2006)

‘Israel and the Jews: the 3500 year connection’ (July 2002)

‘Rejection of Israel in the Muslim world: observations by a pioneer of dialogue’ (Briefing 145, 27 June 2005)