A decade ago, in a speech in Cairo addressing the Islamic world, President Barack Obama issued a call to understand Israel’s importance in the context of the Holocaust — and it started a political firestorm in the world of Jewish politics.
Not so this week.
A nonbinding resolution on Holocaust education introduced recently by three Republican lawmakers essentially echoes Obama’s call, but it has barely evinced a peep.
Why the differing reactions?
First, people tend to pay more attention to the leader of the free world making a signature foreign policy address than a pack of backbenchers introducing your everyday nonbinding resolution. It’s also understandable to chalk up any inconsistency to our political culture of selective outrage.
In this case, however, a third possibility should be considered: Maybe there was nothing wrong with what Obama said in the first place? Or, more to the point, maybe the president never said what his critics say he said.
Here’s what Obama said in a 2009 passage blasting the prevalence of Holocaust denial in Muslim societies:
“America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.
“Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction — or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”
Obama’s clear message to the Muslim world was to cut out the Holocaust denial and threats against Israel. But the execution upset some prominent Jewish organizations and Israeli commentators.
“The President implied that the Holocaust was the primary reason for Israel’s creation,” the American Jewish Committee’s CEO, David Harris, said at the time. “That is unfortunate — and factually incorrect.”
“While he made strong statements against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, it should have been made clear that Israel’s right to statehood is not a result of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust,” the Anti-Defamation League said then.
Aluf Benn, who at the time edited Haaretz, wrote in The New York Times that the speech was especially offensive to Israelis.
“Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle — not guilt over the Holocaust — brought Jews a homeland,” Benn said.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the Israeli-American writer, said in The New Republic that Obama “inadvertently reinforced Muslim misconceptions regarding Jewish indigenousness. The Holocaust helps explain why Israel fights, not why Israel exists.”
Obama’s spokesmen endeavored afterward to make clear that he was not tying Israel’s founding directly to the Holocaust, nor was he saying that the Holocaust was the reason Israel existed. A close reading of his speech showed that he was noting the way the Holocaust shapes how Jews and Israelis view the world, and not setting up a causative sequence or an exclusive justification for Israel’s creation.
Sort of the same way organizations that blasted Obama always make a stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, on their Israel tours.
The resolution introduced this week by Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina and two Jewish lawmakers, Lee Zeldin of New York and David Kustoff of Tennessee, encourages Holocaust education as a way of stemming anti-Semitism, itself not noteworthy; there are a number of efforts on the state level to get Holocaust education into the curriculum.
It ends, however, on an Obama-esque note, encouraging “public schools throughout the country to design and teach a curriculum about the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and the historic importance of the creation of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948 that served as a refuge for Jews all over the world to escape persecution following the Holocaust.”
When the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked the congressmen about the resolution, each replied with a vehement affirmation of ancient Jewish claims to Israel, which did not obviate the message of the resolution — that the meaning of Israel to Jews is wrapped up in the persecution that Jews have suffered.
“Of course, Israel has been the historic homeland of the Jewish people for thousands of years,” Budd said. “The resolution was simply intended to highlight that the State of Israel has also served and continues to serve as a refuge for Jews around the world to escape any form of persecution. That is why the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization of America endorsed this resolution.”
“The Jewish homeland has existed for thousands of years, and the modern charter governing the State of Israel was no doubt made possible by the struggle and determination of the Zionist community,” Zeldin said. “It is thanks to these countless years of Zionist resolve that Jews from around the world were able to seek refuge in their rightful homeland during one of the darkest periods of our people.”
Kustoff said, “Israel has been the historic, rightful homeland of the Jewish people for thousands of years. Thanks to years of determination by many in the Zionist community, Jews from around the world were able to seek refuge in the State of Israel during times of persecution, including the Holocaust.”
We asked the ADL and the AJC for comment on the resolution — and how it does or doesn’t echo Obama’s Cairo speech. The AJC did not reply to multiple requests for comment, and the ADL said it would get back to the JTA, but had not by press time.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a fierce Obama critic, said he did not have a problem with that passage in the president’s speech (although other parts, in which Obama recognized Palestinian grievances, angered him at the time), and he had no problem with the resolution.
“To say Israel serves as a refuge — it does serve as a refuge,” Klein said in an interview. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
JTA asked the Republican Jewish Coalition, which like the ZOA had looked over the resolution before its release, for comment. The RJC said the relevant congressional staffer was gone for the day.
One factor mitigating controversy this time around might be that it has become consensus in recent years among Republicans and some Democrats, as well as some centrist Jewish groups, that bashing Israel is equated with anti-Semitism. Joining Holocaust education with Israel’s founding makes sense in that context.
The resolution lists a litany of recent violent attacks and then also notes the boycott Israel movement, calling it a cause of “rampant” anti-Semitism.
None of the violent incidents listed in the resolution, including the deadly attacks in Pittsburgh, Jersey City, New Jersey, and Poway, California, have had any link to the boycott Israel movement.