Obama’s Double Talk on Palestine

At the United Nations, President Barack Obama tried to square the circle of U.S. support for democracy and freedom across the Middle East with his threat to veto statehood for the Palestinians, a cause he championed just last year. In an open letter to the President, author Marc H. Ellis critiques Obama’s depressing double talk.

By Marc H. Ellis

Let’s face it, President Obama, your speech to the United Nations this week was all fluff, domestic political gist for the 2012 American election cycle. I refer here especially to the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Mr. President, you have been accused of being too professorial. I know that politicians have to be elected or reelected to be successful.

Thoughtful people sitting on the political sidelines have to cut politicians slack. Still, if I may, I bemoan your lackluster performance on a variety of issues. You seem to be unwilling to play political hard ball on the issues facing our country.

Yes, I know things could be worse. Yes, I can imagine one of the Republican front-runners, say Rick Perry, giving the United Nation’s speech after being elected President in 2012.

Yes, I remember President George W. Bush. I live in Texas. I can imagine President Rick Perry. I hear you loud and clear. I should be careful when I criticize.

Still, I have a basic question for you. And I ask you this as a Jew.

Even factoring in the political spin necessary to navigate the American political scene, do you really believe your own words on Palestine statehood?

I am fascinated, Mr. President. Your discussion about Palestinian statehood mostly revolves around the state of Israel, Jewish history and the Holocaust. Why is that? I listened to your words with interest:

But understand this as well: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.

Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses.

Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, look(s) out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off the map.

The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are.

Those are facts. They cannot be denied.

The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors.

And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.

I read the rest of your speech as well. Closing my eyes for a moment, I picture you in your professorial mode. I hear you lecturing, from the Jewish perspective, about why Israel is important to Jews. 

You recite what has almost become rote in my community. You are right when you speak about centuries of exile and persecution, the devastation of the Holocaust and the return to our ancient homeland.

Then you turn to the Palestinians. I listen with anticipation. But Mr. President, I am disappointed.  It seems that in your historical rendering Jews, the Holocaust and Jewish history simply land on the Palestinians. Or rather there is Jewish history and then there are Palestinians who also deserve a state.

That Jews dislocated Palestinians and took their land seems incidental to you. In fact, you never mention this. You don’t use the term “ethnic cleansing,” what happened to the Palestinians in the creation of the state of Israel.

For you, Mr. President, Palestinians and Palestine are problems to be dealt with. I didn’t get the sense from your lecture that there is a flesh and blood issue that needs exposure and redress. Like what was necessary for Jews. Like what is still necessary for Jews.

It seems your presidential chalk board is filled with Jews and Jewish history. When you come to Palestinians, you turn to the board and write: “Problem.” 

Since you came back to the “problem” several times, in my mind’s eye you circle it as well. Then you return to your main subject: Jewish history.

Rockets falling into Israel from Gaza. Mr. President, have you forgotten Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s invasion of Gaza just after you were elected president?

Arabs demeaning Israel. You should accompany me on one of my lecture tours. You would hear what Jews and non-Jewish American audiences have to say about Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians. In unguarded moments and often in public, have you listened in on the discussion about Palestinians in “the only democracy in the Middle East,” our great ally, Israel?

Mr. President – and with all due respect – may I say clearly that you do not speak for me or many other Jews who do not think that “something” happened to Palestinians simply as a byproduct of Jewish history. We don’t think that Palestinians exist without a history or without a destiny in their own land.
Indeed, as you say, it could be worse, Mr. President. But perhaps it already is. When I heard your words I thought that the end had come. I held my head in my hands – Jewish history couldn’t have to come to this.

I wanted to shut your words out. I wanted you to speak about other things that you know more about or at least are closer to your heart. I wanted something other than the political spin cycle.

Yes, Jews do carry centuries of exile and persecution. European Jews did suffer six million slaughtered. I know this as a Jew. I grew up with these memories. 

But Mr. President, as a child learning of our history, I never imagined that Jews would use these centuries of exile and persecution, our six million dead, as a blunt instrument against another people. Never. Not even in my wildest imagination. No!

Hearing you I thought of how things end. How Jewish history has ended – in ethnic cleansing and occupation.

But, Mr. President, this can also be our beginning. That beginning will only come when the truth is told by Jews and Palestinians together. And yes, perhaps one day, by the President of the United States of America.

Marc H. Ellis is the director of Jewish studies at Baylor. He is the author of Judaism Does Not Equal Israel, among other books. 

9 comments for “Obama’s Double Talk on Palestine

  1. September 26, 2011 at 14:37

    Oh, my, the “Israel-right-or-wrong” vipers are after Marc Ellis for denoucing Israeli crimes and American subservience to Israel and its expansionist-occupation policies.

    What these critics are doing is increasing anti-semitism since they make it look like all Jews are like former Mayor Koch, Israelis first and Americans second.

    Koch endorsed a Republican to join the Teaparty House, as replacement for Anthony Wiener because this Republican is a stronger supporter of Israel-right-or-wrong. Is Koch typical of all American Jews? Increasinly and happily, he is not. Israel needs criticism since it is heading off a cliff. It brushes of Arab League offers to recognize Israel if it will give up the stolen lands and return to the 1967 borders. These ongoing land-thefts, euphemized as “settlements” will be Israel’s undoing.

    The threat to Israel is not Hamas, a group that has no army, navy, or airforce…whereas Israel is the fourth strongest military power in the world and the sixth strongest nuclear power. The threat to Israel is from suitcase size atomic weapons and other minaturized weapons biological and chemical…weapons that are incresingly available to thoe who are outraged by Israeli expansionism. That is the holocaust Israel expansionism is courting as they continue to exacerbate the hostility toward them by brutal occupation and violations of international law.

    Israel can have expansion or peace. It is insisting on expansion. Choices have consequences.

  2. Notsodumb
    September 25, 2011 at 00:51

    This reminds me of the stupid word-game we play with Israel: Do you agree that we have a right to exist?” Never mind the puerile silliness of such a sophomoric proposition. They want to ignore the idea that governance depends on the right of the governed to give their consent to governance. They want to pretend that individuals can answer this question. The “right to exist” as a sovereign nation on an international level depends on whether or not other sovereign nations give their consent. Most of them don’t. That’s Israel’s real problem.

    Certainly, Israel, as a multi-ethnic apartheid state which denies a large segment of its population access to rights, privileges and legal protections has a moral dilemma to justify. It uses its relationship with the USA, purchased by campaign contributions from AIPAC to accomplish that.

    Israel, like Iran, should not be able to hide behind the fact that it is a repressive, fascist nation. Iran is getting away with this now because they have the support of the “BRIC” countries. The reason USA has been, “backed into a corner” is because Israel knows we are weak and scared.

    I don’t particularly care. You can hang me now or hang me later. But I have no stake in Israel’s future. I don’t really care what happens to them. I am an American, and I have no interest in supporting a fascist, apartheid government.

    My goal is to support My Country. The “American” politicians that support Israel’s interests over mine are traitors. Nothing more, and nothing less. TRAITORS! I care about Americans , and I Don’t care about Israel. What did Israel ever do for me?…besides screw my country? Remember the USS Liberty and that spy Robert Pollard. America: think twice.

  3. Avid Reader
    September 24, 2011 at 17:27

    Those Jewish refugees absorbed by Israel were also apparently referred to on some occasions, as, “the ashes from Auschwitz.” They were often not welcomed fondly. When Israel traded U.S. Intelligence to the Soviet Union, which they obtained from the spy, Robert Pollard, they got something in return. The USSR raised its cap on visas to allow emigration of Soviet Jews. Some would say those are the pawns being used to populate the illegal land grab Israel colloquially calls “settlements.”

    Norman Finkelstein soundly debunked most of the myths in the last comment. Not in any of his books or public appearances, mind you, but in his Ph. D. thesis, if I recall correctly. It is my understanding that Noam Chomsky encouraged him, but warned of the irrational spite that could make him a pariah.

    The sad truth is, Israel’s own population apparently overwhelmingly favors Palestinian statehood. They realize their future may very well depend on it. This is a battle being waged by American Christian and Jewish right wing zealots, and it could get us all a big side-dish of sautéed mushrooms. Not the ones you get at Outback Steakhouse, the ones that Condi Rice, Dick Cheny and George Bush recommended when we asked them, “What’s on the menu?”

  4. flat5
    September 24, 2011 at 15:49

    Mr. Ellis claims of the “Jews dislocating the Palestinians and taking their land” is simply a falsehood:

    Another of the big lies that are being passed off as truth by politics and mass media is the “Palestinian refugees” issue: the allegedly “native” population that were “evicted” by the Israelis. Actually, in 1948 the Arab so-called refugees were encouraged to leave Israel by Arab leaders, who promised to purge the Land of Jews. Almost 70 % of them left without having ever seen a single Israeli soldier.
    On the other side, nothing is said about the Jewish refugees that were forced to flee from Arab lands due to Arab brutality, persecution and pogroms. As soon as the State of Israel was founded, hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from every Arab country, mainly Yemen, Iraq and Egypt. The Mizrachim, also known as Babylonian Jews, were living in present-day Iraq since the Babylonian exile in the 6th century b.c.e., the Teymanim or Yemenite Jews were settled in the Sabean Kingdoms long before Roman times. Arabs have expelled them from the lands where those Jews were living for many centuries! The number of Arab so-called refugees that left Israel in 1948 is estimated to be around 630,000, while the Jewish refugees that were forced out from Arab lands is estimated to be some more than that… Nevertheless, the UN has never demanded from Arab states to receive the Jews that were settled there for many generations and to restore their property and to provide them employment. Meanwhile, the so-called Palestinian “refugees” were intentionally not absorbed or integrated into the Arab countries to which they fled, despite the vast Arab territory (Israel’s extension is less than 1% of the territory of all Arab lands). Out of the 100,000,000 refugees since World War II, the so-called Palestinians are the only refugee group in the world that has never been absorbed or integrated into their own peoples’ lands. On the contrary, Jewish refugees were completely absorbed into Israel.

    • Felix Golubev
      September 24, 2011 at 20:39

      Mr. Ellis is a useful idiot. That’s all I can say

      • rosemerry
        September 26, 2011 at 15:50

        flat5 shows the usual Zionist spin. Jews are all that m

        • rosemerry
          September 26, 2011 at 15:56

          sorry! flat5 shows the usual zionist spin. only jews matter- “so-called palestinians”??? All Arabs are the same, so Palestine belongs to israel and IS israel?
          Jews lived in Arab lands and then wanted to settle without any non-Jews, even when Nazism was defeated and Jews now are welcome and successful in most Western lands. Why can they not share??
          As for Golubev- luckily you say no more, since your offensive comment aout someone who thinks a lot more than you just shows your ignorance.

          • flat5
            September 29, 2011 at 13:36

            The PA rejected offers twice by Israel in 2000 & 2008, which included almost all of the W. Bank (Judea & Samaria), and parts of Jerusalem. A May 2011 Pew Poll showed that 68% of Palestinians support suicide bombings and 73% of Palestinians support the murder of Jews. (Palestinian Center for Public Opinion 7/15/11.

            BTHW, do you support Saudi Arabian theocratic fundamentalism in regards to a sentence of 10 lashes on a woman who was driving? We’re also dealing with a mentality of a thousand years ago. With so called friends like these, Israel is being appropriately prudent. Let’s see how long you’d fare in one of these countries.

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