In 2009, President Barack Obama traveled to Cairo in order to reset his country’s relationship with the world’s Muslims.
In the speech he gave there, which the White House titled, “A New Beginning,” Obama made a powerful statement in support of the Palestinian cause: “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” he said. “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”
Notably, he didn’t avoid the touchy subject of the U.S. bond with Israel, which he called “unbreakable.” He said this knowing that such a statement would not fill his Muslim audience with joy. “Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust,” Obama said, by way of explaining U.S. support for the Jewish state. “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.”
Obama’s statement came at a moment when many Israelis believed he was preparing to dismantle the special relationship between his country and theirs. His aides hoped his words would serve to allay Jewish fears of a new president whose middle name is Hussein.
It didn’t work as planned. Why, you ask? Why would a moving declaration of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust -- and a robust denunciation of Holocaust denial -- alienate Israelis, and many of their friends in the U.S.? Well, welcome to the Middle East, where every tribe and creed has its own code, and mastery of these codes doesn’t come easy.
One of the reasons Obama is traveling to Israel next week - - the first overseas trip of his second term -- is to correct the impression, partly created in Cairo, that he doesn’t understand Israel’s history, and has no feeling for the underlying justice of its cause. This isn’t only the impression of many Israelis. According to a recent poll conducted by the Hill newspaper, 39 percent of Americans said the president isn’t supportive enough of Israel; only 13 percent said he’s too supportive.
How did Obama leave this impression? At home, this view was cultivated partly by cynical Republicans who have been eager to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue.
With Israelis, it’s more complicated. The Cairo speech had a chilling effect because, to Israelis, the Holocaust alone doesn’t justify the existence of their state. “The Holocaust doesn’t explain why we’re here,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “The Holocaust explains why we fight as fiercely as we do to stay here, but it doesn’t explain our rootedness.”
In Cairo, Halevi said, Obama failed to acknowledge “Jewish indigenousness in the region,” the idea that history -- the uninterrupted Jewish presence in the lands of ancient Israel for more than 3,000 years -- justifies the modern Jewish claim to a state there. “In Cairo, Obama was asking the Arab world to feel sorry for the Jews,” he said, “and by doing so, he inadvertently played into the hands of those whose response is, ‘Well, if there was a Holocaust, let the Germans pay for it, not the Arabs.’ That’s a reasonable response if you don’t believe that Jews are from here.”
The absence of Zionist thought in the speech was unhelpful, though not thematically inexplicable (after all, it was a speech meant to woo Muslims, not Jews). But Obama is clearly acquainted with the ideas that energized Jewish nationalism. During his first campaign for president, in 2008, I spoke to him at length about the Middle East, and he told me of learning Israel’s story early in life, from a Jewish camp counselor who explained to him the “idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home.” Obama went on, “There was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted.”
In his first term, the president thought that he shouldn’t travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories until a negotiating process was well under way. But his thinking shifted last year, when he realized that reintroducing himself to Israelis, and conveying to them that he understood their situation, could serve to build trust and create more space for an American-guided peace process. (The president, it is fair to say, also grew tired of being asked why he hadn’t yet visited Israel.)
The Palestinians are only getting a few hours of his time - - a quick visit to Ramallah, the capital of their West Bank rump state.
But on this trip, at least, Obama will have some highly symbolic encounters with the pre-Holocaust Jewish past. He will visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, a trip meant to suggest to Israelis that he recognizes not only the reality of the Jewish presence in Israel, but the validity of that presence.
And he will visit the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, which is home to the Dead Sea Scrolls, evidence of a Jewish connection to the land that predates Christianity and Islam. (The Israeli government, never shy about trying to gild the lily, wanted Obama to view a model of the Second Temple, which once stood where the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine, now stands, but the Obama administration’s Middle East experts thought it best to keep the president out of at least a couple of minefields.)
Since Obama’s visit is focused on Israel’s future, and on the deep past, will the Israeli government encourage him to skip Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial? Of course not, I was told by one Israeli official who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely. There’s no way he could come to Israel and not visit Yad Vashem. But wasn’t the complaint the last time around that he talks too much about the Holocaust? The official gave me a knowing smile and asked this question: If he didn’t visit Yad Vashem, what would the Republicans say?
Everyone has a code, apparently. If Obama manages to crack the Israeli code on this visit, he might finally be able to convince them that he really does understand them. Then he may have the space to speak to them bluntly -- over the head of their prime minister, if necessary -- about the difficult choices their country faces.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.