Obama in Cairo; Welcome and Worrisome Aspects

Posted on June 4, 2009 In Blog

Today, in Cairo, President Obama delivered his address to the Muslim world in which he called for a “new beginning” for America’s relationship with that segment of the globe.

It must be acknowledged that it was a historic speech which addressed very significant issues including human rights and democracy in the Muslim world and more. The speech is, of course, being scrutinized and praised and criticized across the globe. While some might say that it’s unfair to parse this phrase or that, such a retort to is off-base because for a speech such as this, the President and his team know full well that each phrase will be looked at under a microscope and they choose their words as carefully and deliberately as they can.

Thus, through our parochial lens focused on issues of concern to the Orthodox Jewish-pro Israel community, we note there were both welcome and worrisome aspects of the President’s speech.

This is not a comprehensive analysis of either – there will be plenty offered by pundits of all perspectives – but a thumbnail sketch from us:

First, the welcome passages:

1. President Obama delivered a powerful rebuttal to Holocaust denial – which is all too common in the Arab and Muslim world. He did so in unequivocal terms and linked it to his visit tomorrow to the Buchenwald concentration camp. (The troubling point associated with this, as noted by Shmuel Rosner, is that the audience sat silent when the President spoke against Holocaust denial.)

2. The President challenged Arab states to not just speak of their interest in the peace process with Israel, but make concrete contributions to that effort. Importantly, because the Arab League often views their initiative as a “take it or leave it” offer, the President stated “that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities.”

3. The President denounced “Palestinian violence” in clear terms.

4. President Obama challenged Iran to answer “what future it wants to build” and stated his determination to prevent a nuclear arms race commencing in the Middle East and that doing so is in America’s and other nations’ interests.

5. The President stated the “unbreakable” bond between America and Israel.

Now, the troubling parts:

1. The President alluded to a shared Jerusalem – one that is not physically re-divided, it seems – where “Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together.” As we have long said, this reality has only been true with Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.

2. Despite having insisted that Israel must be able to live in peace and security as a “Jewish state,” today the President instead spoke of Israel as “a Jewish homeland.” This word change might mean something different.

3. Relatedly, as David Horovitz notes, the President spoke of the “displacement” of Palestinians “brought by Israel’s founding” (while making no mention of the Arab world’s rejection of the Arab entity that would have been simultaneously created alongside us). In so doing, he reinforced the very portrayal of Israel as a modern colonial upstart.

4. In his denunciation of Palestinian violence, the President invoked the example of the American civil rights struggle in which blacks got their rights not by violence but by peaceful protest. It appears that he was seeking to use that analog to make the powerful point about “how moral authority is claimed,” and not directly analogizing Palestinians to American blacks – but this should have been said differently.

5. Not surprisingly, the President continued pressing against any nuanced approach to Israel’s settlement policies – something we wrote the President about the other day.