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Steve Sheffey

Steve Sheffey

Posted: August 25, 2010 11:19 PM

Obama's Cairo Speech

What's Your Reaction:

Certain mischaracterizations of President Obama's June 4, 2009 Cairo speech
have become so ingrained that what he actually said in Cairo has almost become a footnote. Let's go with the facts, not the legends:

  1. Obama never referred to 60 years of "occupation."

  2. Obama never equated suffering during the Holocaust to Palestinian suffering.

  3. Obama never said that Israel's legitimacy is grounded in the Holocaust.

Here, in relevant part, is what Obama said:

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, it is ignorant, and it is 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.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. (Applause.)


Obama referred to 60 years of "dislocation," not "occupation." The difference is huge. If Obama had referred to 60 years of "occupation," he would have implicitly been saying that all of Israel is occupied territory and ignoring that from the creation of Israel in 1948 until 1967, the West Bank and Gaza were controlled by Jordan and Egypt. At any time until 1967, the Arabs could have created yet another Arab state. Instead, they chose to focus on destroying the world's only Jewish state. The PLO was formed in 1964, three years before Israel controlled the West Bank. The "Palestine" the organization was formed to "liberate" was all of Israel. If Jordan had not attacked Israel in 1967, Israel would not "occupy" the West Bank today.

The root cause of the conflict is not "occupation" or the settlements, but the failure of Arab leadership to recognize and accept Israel as a Jewish state. That's why Palestinian leadership rejected the peace plan proffered by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which would have given the Palestinians a state on 95-98% of the West Bank and Gaza (depending on whose numbers you believe) and Gaza. What they wanted was not another Arab state, but the elimination of the only Jewish state.

But Obama did not refer to 60 years of "occupation." He referred to 60 years of "dislocation," and no one can deny--no matter whose fault it was--that many thousands of Palestinians were dislocated during the Arab attacks on the newly formed state of Israel in 1948. The fault primarily lies with Arab leadership, both for inducing the Palestinians to flee (under the promise that once the Jews were wiped out, they could return) and then, having failed to wipe out Israel, keeping them in perpetual squalor. But there is no denying that these Palestinians have endured the pain of dislocation or that today many do endure the daily humiliations of occupation.

Obama never equated suffering during the Holocaust to Palestinian suffering. Read the second paragraph above from Obama's speech. Do you see any comparison of the Holocaust to Palestinian suffering? It's all about Jewish suffering. Read the third paragraph above from Obama's speech. Do you see any comparison of the Holocaust to Palestinian suffering? It's all about Palestinian suffering. Yes, the paragraphs follow one another with an "on the other hand" transition. That's the point. Obama is talking to the Arab world. No President has ever told the Arab world what Obama told them about the Holocaust. But the Arabs needed also to hear that we understand that they too are suffering, and this is the logical point in the speech to mention Arab suffering (read the whole speech and see for yourself). The acknowledgment of another side's suffering does not imply an equivalence. Some have obscenely compared Israel to Nazi Germany, which is a horrible distortion of the truth and which is why we are so sensitive, but Obama did not make that comparison. Indeed, when Obama visited Buchenwald the next day with Elie Weisel, he told Tom Brokaw on the Today show that "there is no equivalency."

Obama never said that Israel's legitimacy is grounded in the Holocaust. Obama said that "the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied." That's a far cry from saying that Israel's legitimacy is grounded in the Holocaust. We would have all felt better if Obama had spelled out that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is based on our historic, legal, and political rights as a people and that with or without the Holocaust, the moral case for Israel would be the same. But as the JTA's Ron Kampeas points out, it's unreasonable for us to expect "that every time Obama mentions Israel he must make clear he has a holistic understanding of its founding." Yet that is exactly what some of Obama's critics seem to expect.

What Obama did say is true. The realization by European secular Jews in the late 1800's that the Enlightenment had failed to stop anti-Semitism and that the only way for Jews to live as fully emancipated people was in a state of their own was the driving force behind modern-day political Zionism. While Israel's legitimacy does not derive from our tragic history, a good case can be made that were it not for our tragic history, there would be no State of Israel today. Would Herzl have aspired for a Jewish homeland if he had not witnessed European anti-Semitism?

Maybe Obama read Israel's Proclamation of Independence which, while not a long document, devotes three full paragraphs to the Holocaust and World War II, including the statement that
The recent holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the need to solve the problem of homelessness and lack of independence of the Jewish people.

The drafters of Israel's Proclamation of Independence went further than Obama did regarding the Holocaust. It is well-documented that a sense of guilt over the Holocaust played a large role in Harry Truman's decision to reject the advice of the State Department and recognize Israel.

Read again what Obama said above. I don't think he said anything we can argue with, and he certainly did not state that Israel's legitimacy is grounded in the Holocaust.

If it's still not clear that Obama did not say that Israel's legitimacy is based on the Holocaust, read this, which also contains links to other articles on this subject.

Of course Obama could have said more. He could have explained that the daily humiliations suffered by the Palestinians are the direct result of terrorism--if the terrorism would stop, Israel would not need checkpoints and other security measures. He could have explained the full moral, historic, and legal basis for the modern State of Israel. His speech was not perfect. But the Israel-Palestinian conflict was only one part of a long speech, and what was remarkable about Obama's speech was not what he didn't say, but what he did say.

President Obama went to Cairo and told the Arab and Muslim world that America's bond with Israel is "unbreakable." He told the Arab and Muslim world, a world rife with Holocaust denial, that to deny the Holocaust is "baseless, ignorant, and hateful." He told them that threatening Israel with destruction is "deeply wrong." He said that "Palestinians must abandon violence" and that "it is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus." And he said that "Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."

Who knows where we'd be today if previous Presidents had had the courage to personally deliver this message on Arab soil.