03/21/2008 12:44 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Limits of Obama's Race Speech

Obama's race speech has been justly celebrated by many Americans, myself among them, as a major event in American presidential politics. Without taking anything away from either the man or the speech, here is a little reality check, concerning a part of the speech that has gone without comment in the media as far as I know:


"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for a very long time, long before the emergence of present-day radical Islam. In fact, the arrival of radical Islam to Palestinian territories is a quite recent phenomenon, which is rooted in the abject failure of the last 50 years of Palestinian politics to deal with a crisis which has very different roots. To present this conflict as the result of radical Islamic ideology is as woefully inaccurate as it was to assert a link between Saddam and Al Queda.

What in the world is this sentence doing in a speech on racism in America? It stands out like a sore thumb. It is the only reference to anything but domestic race relations in America in the whole speech. In contrast to everything else in the speech, which is closely reasoned, this statement comes out of nowhere, is stated once and then not developed or returned to.

Clearly, Obama knew that with this major address on race, he would have the attention of American Jews as well as millions of others, and he decided to use the opportunity to send them a message. This is, ultimately, another sort of comment on race relations in America. But in this case he is not putting the matter up for national discussion but sending a coded message in standard American political-ese.

So here we have the limit in Obama's politics. He is challenging some long-established boundaries in American politics, but American policy in regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not one of them. That is sad, because it is hard to see how anything in the Middle East will move forward unless there is movement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But it also reflects the reality of American politics. Despite the emergence of Obama as a major national figure, to find a substantive discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one must turn to former presidents rather than aspiring ones. One could start with Jimmy Carter's 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.