Obama at Yad Vashem, the diplomatic ‘gateway’ to Israel whose function is to root Israel — in the mind of every visiting dignitary — squarely in the Holocaust
Abe Foxman, President of the Anti-Defamation League and a stalwart cheerleader for Israel in Washington, has been worried about President Barack Obama ever since the new Administration took office. When Obama named Senator George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy, Foxman actually complained that the problem with Mitchell was “meticulously fair and even handed,” which he insisted was not a desirable approach for the U.S. to take to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ever since Obama’s Cairo speech, Foxman’s concerns have become more pronounced. It’s not that the Anti Defamation League president didn’t take heart from Obama’s insistence that Israel’s security is sacrosanct; or that “he made strong statements against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.” No, his concern — among others — was that Obama should have “made clear that Israel’s right to statehood is not a result of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.”
He’s not the only one who argues this, of course; many on the Zionist right have long insisted that the movement claimed sovereignty in Palestine not on the basis of the Holocauast, but claiming to represent the continuity of the Hebrews of Judea thousands of years ago.
The same theme was echoed today in Haaretz by Israeli liberal Aluf Benn.
Commenting on Obama choosing to follow his Cairo speech with a visit to Buchenwald, Benn said this decision to balance an outreach to the Muslim world with a gesture recognizing the horrors of anti-Semitism may have been welcomed by American Jews, “but in Israel it was taken as an affront. The Israeli narrative attributes the state’s creation to a historical bond from biblical times, to the Zionist struggle and to the victory in the War of Independence. Obama’s message in Cairo – that Israel was established as compensation for the Holocaust – was perceived in Israel as an adoption of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Zionist stance.”
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear… Where on Earth did Barack Obama get this idea that Israel’s foundation was intimately tied to the Holocaust? Maybe it’s the fact that the first place Israel takes every visiting dignitary is to Yad Vashem, which as Avrum Burg has so eloquently argued, a visit designed effect what he calls the “emotional blackmail” that sears into the minds of the guest that Israel is the answer to the Holocaust, and that any criticism of the Jewish State must be muted for that reason.
Or maybe it’s the fact that Israel’s leaders are always rabbiting on about every new challenger in the region being a reincarnation of Hitler. Begin said it about Arafat; Netanyahu says it about Ahmadinejad. For years, Israel’s leaders have spoken about the 1967 borders as “Auschwitz borders.” I could go on and on. The Zionist narrative as I was fed it growing up portrayed the creation of the State of Israel as a triumphant redemption from the horrors of the camps. And the same narrative became the organizing principle of Israeli education starting in the 1960s with the Eichmann trial, when as Tom Segev and others have shown, the Israeli state makes a conscious decision to emphasize the Holocaust as the basis of its national identity to keep people from leaving. Jewish schoolkids, many of whose families had never set foot in Europe, now make an annual pilgrimage to the death camps of Poland. Israeli air force planes fly over Auschwitz in symbolic claiming of the mantle of the survivors.
And most of those Jews abroad who support the principle of a Jewish State — and the Western nations who do likewise — do so on the basis of the Holocaust. If Israel’s claims were based only on a mythologized history of a Biblical kingdom, frankly it would have aroused no more sympathy in the Jewish world than Bin Laden’s fantasies about resurrecting the Islamic Caliphate have done in the Muslim world. Without the Holocaust, in other words, Zionism would have remained the fringe movement among Jews that it was before World War II.
To suggest that the link between Israel’s claims to legitimacy and the Holocaust were invented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is absurd. They were present at the founding in the international community’s response to Israel’s creation (does Aluf Benn really think Israel won the UN vote that enabled its creation because of the Biblical claims of the Zionist movement?!), and they have been systematically developed and exploited by Israel itself.
The reason the likes of Foxman, and the Israelis themselves, are suddenly feeling queasy about the Holocaust-as-basic-argument-for-Israel, is that they’re suddenly recognizing the limits of what that buys them.
As I wrote here following the Cairo speech, the likes of Foxman suddenly realized that the Holocaust argument set limits on what Israel could legitimately demand — Obama expressed a rock solid commitment to ensure Israel’s security, but warned that settlements outside its 1967 border had no legitimacy. After all, they were if anything a drain on Israeli security, and Obama made clear that the U.S. recognizes that Israel’s creation came at the expense of another people, rooting the plight of the Palestinians first in the expulsions of 1948, and then in the occupation that began in 1967 — and he insisted, to the chagrin of Foxman and others, that the Palestinian narrative and aspiration had equal status, and could not be ignored by the U.S.
Hence, a solid U.S. bond with Israel to guarantee its survival and security in a hostile environment, but no endorsement of an expansive Zionism that calls on Jews to “redeem” the Biblical Land of Israel by settling on West Bank land. By insisting that Palestinians are born equal to Israelis and that their side of the conflict be understood, and that Israel halt its expansion into Palestinian territory, Obama is forcing Israel to confront a basic question of its own identity — and also to reckon with the fact that its creation, and expansion, have occurred at the expense of another people who are deemed of equal status in the mind of the American president. No wonder, then, that some Israelis and their American supporters are annoyed.
Still, having told the world and the majority of Jews who live in it that Israel was the answer to the Holocaust and the inheritor of the mantle of the survivors (a contestable claim, to be sure, but you only have to look at the fact that Germany paid most of its “reparations” not to the survivors themselves, but to Israel), Foxman et al are going to have a hard time pivoting to the narrative of Biblical redemption. For starters, most of the world’s Jews don’t buy such bubbemeis. And you’re going to have a hard time getting American Jews and most Western countries to accept the idea that the Palestinians’ epic suffering has been inflicted simply in the name of a distortion of Biblical fantasy.
Essentially, the problem they face is that an ideological construct of their own making is no longer serving its purpose of ensuring a blank check for Israel’s endless dispossession of the Palestinians. The bad news, of course, is that justifying that dispossession on the basis of a Biblical narrative is going to get even fewer takers in America, of any persuasion.