Tribalism in the Jerusalem speech

Israel/Palestine
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Obama after his speech to people of Israel White House photo Pete Souza
Obama after his “speech to the people of Israel,” March 21 (White House photo Pete Souza)

Compare what Barack Obama said in Jerusalem on March 21 with what he said in Cairo on June 4, 2009 and you find many similarities. Both were greetings by a recently-elected American president to a people who had come to doubt the worth of such a communication. In both cities, the improbable event was made credible by words expressing the most generous good intentions, and concluding with a proclamation of large hopes.

The Cairo speech carried two announcements with practical implications. First, “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Second, the president assured his Muslim audience that they would soon see evidence of his determination not to be at war with Islam.  The first promise he failed to keep. On the second, the returns are not all in: the Iraq war is over but drone assassinations, favored by this president, have built up a new kind of war by the U.S. in the Arab world, and Obama’s presidency has done more to increase the likelihood of war than to improve the chances of negotiation with Iran.

Obama’s Middle East speeches of 2009 and 2013 were equally flattering to his audience on the chosen occasion. The ground of his respect for Muslims in Cairo was the authenticity of their religious faith and tribal roots. The ground of his respect for Israeli Jews was their religious and tribal roots and their national success. In the past, American presidents would have made this a secondary concern. The usual point of such a visiting speech is to admire the presence of liberty and basic political rights in the host nation (to the extent that these exist) and to ask the leaders and the people to advance the cause. Obama, in a cultural emphasis that was new, admired the Muslims in Cairo for being Muslim. Four years later, he admired the Israeli Jews in Jerusalem for being Jewish.

In fact, Obama went further in the case of Israel. He said in his speech of March 21: “while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea.” Many  apparently free but—-as our president has now judged—-actually not truly free American Jews will wonder what could have been in his mind when he committed himself to this straightforward endorsement of the Zionist idea. Can we imagine the president of the secular United States saying anything comparable about an Islamic nation? Pragmatic considerations aside, what prevents him from saying that “Shiite Islam found extraordinary success in many parts of the world but its dream of national realization has attained its full expression in Iran”?

When you look back, the strain of blood-and-belonging tribalism is strong in both the Cairo and the Jerusalem speech. In Cairo, Obama freely scattered such locutions as “The Holy Koran teaches that” and “As the Holy Koran tells us.” Liberal Muslims in his audience must have wondered why the president of a free country without a state religion was regarding with such careful deference the priestly authorities who oppress them. But the tribal and religious lures of the earlier speech could be treated as adventitious details. In Cairo, Obama envisaged the future of Israel and Palestine as a peaceful multicultural entity with political borders. The “Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own,” he said in 2009, was “legitimate,” just as the Israeli settlements in occupied territories were not legitimate. The president pledged himself “to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims.”

By the time Obama arrived in Jerusalem in 2013, this dream of the city had almost been cancelled. New housing units are evicting Palestinians from the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. His subject, however, in this speech to young people—-a welcome change of subject from the Israeli point of view—-was not the obstacles to Palestinian justice but the magnificent success of the Israeli aspiration. And here came the interesting new emphasis; new, that is, in Obama’s rhetoric but new also in the approach of the United States to cultural identity as a basis for national integrity.

Benjamin Netanyahu has long wanted to hear other countries acknowledge that Israel is “the Jewish state.” In his Jerusalem speech, President Obama granted those terms of identification. The land of Israel, he said in other words, belongs to the Jewish people, and to Israelis as the most essentially Jewish people; it is a land to which they own the title by faith, suffering, long habitation, and the history recounted in the Bible. By contrast, in Cairo, Obama had mentioned suffering but placed in the background claims of original and historical connection and tribal loyalty. But here is his formulation now, in words chosen with care: “Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.”

His words say “people deserve” but what Obama’s audience will have heard is “a people deserve,” and in truth “a land of their own” more than splits the difference. Everybody needs a homeland, this speech affirms, and what is true for the Israelis must hold for the Palestinians also. Accordingly, Obama in Jerusalem also said: “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” So the Palestinians too will be a people with their own land, some day.  In both halves of the formulation, the president has put the imperative of political rights in the background. Yet it was the lack of such rights for stateless persons that made the most irrefutable protest in the Palestinian cause, in the days before an Islamist sect took control of Gaza. Now the language of secular statehood and political rights has been replaced by the language of peoplehood, exclusive land, and tribal belonging.

Broadly speaking, Obama in Jerusalem revived his appeal for negotiation while paying the deepest respect to the blood-and-soil ideology of the right-wing Israeli government that makes negotiation impossible. (The next moves toward peace Obama says he now expects to come from civil associations, commercial partnerships, and other technocratic substitutes for politics.) But it may turn out that the pliability of Obama’s rhetoric has weakened the hand not only of secular Jews but of liberal Palestinians, who care more about political rights and the equal treatment of persons than about the land in which those rights are observed, or whether it happens by the change of Israel toward one large state or two smaller ones.

Politics once seemed a ground of possible conciliation between liberal Zionists and liberal Muslims. They were united, it could be said, by a common belief in the natural equality of mankind at large. If credence is given to President Obama’s explanations of the title to statehood in the Jerusalem speech, unity of that sort will lose much of its warrant. The title to statehood itself on this view is established by cultural identity and affiliation. You are free, and you deserve eventually to have political rights, by virtue of your membership in a tribe which can claim lands of its own.

Whether such a “dream” of belonging will fare better than compacts based on non-tribal constitutions, it may be too early to tell, but the history of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s, of Iraq after the U.S. assault of 2003, and of the Arab Spring in its second phase, might have tempered even the gentle enthusiasm of Obama’s Jerusalem speech. But we are dealing here with the peculiarities of a person as well as the strangeness of a non-political basis for politics. President Obama’s species of endorsement may only be possible to an educated modern, of an abstract turn of mind, who longs for a faith the character of which he can only surmise from a distance. The dream of identity always had a special incandescence for the author of Dreams from My Father.

About David Bromwich

David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.

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