A week ago, after Obama’s speech in Cairo, I went shopping in the old Islamic section of the city and Egyptians kept calling out "Obama" at me. They were as pleased as the students who had milled around me inside the hall after the speech, when I was doing interviews, to tell me that the speech was “amazing” and “unbelievable.” Myself I was in denial at the time—I faulted Obama for a lack of specificity about Palestinian conditions—but the Arab street was emphatic. Obama had found a place in the Muslim heart. Even Abdul-Rahman Mahmud, a medical student who was disappointed at the failure to refer to Gaza or the checkpoints or the Palestinian minority, said he was “taken” by Obama’s use of the Koran. Obama had said words not by rote, but as if he had learned from the Koran; and his choices were unusual ones. I remembered that Obama’s first quote, Be conscious of God and speak always the truth, had broken the damburst of silence in the hall, the students had begun to cheer, and soon after the applause had begun in waves, along with the "I love you"s.
The message of Cairo seems even clearer to me a week later, after countless conversations about the speech. Obama had done as I had hoped he would, he had begun to end the dual narrative of Israel/Palestine. Standing in a Muslim place and offering himself as a man of the world, he had said the most emphatic words ever spoken about the Palestinian experience by a (sitting) American president. He had gone beyond the “Palestinians suffer the most” statement, which he retracted after a political mauling in Iowa two years ago, and had described “intolerable” conditions and “humiliation” for Palestinians, and referred openly to “occupation.” By invoking slavery and the civil rights movement, he had recognized the Palestinian struggle as a minority’s struggle for self-determination and civil rights in the face of an oppressor.
And by describing the pain of dislocation 61 years ago, he had referred to the Nakba; and placed it in the context of the Holocaust—in Charles Krauthammer’s pinched view, an unforgiveable act of “moral equivalence,” when there is no equivalent to the Holocaust, and of course never can be, because Jews are so exceptional. Obama had shared pity with the Palestinians, at long last.
In a dozen interviews I did on the “Arab street,” people told me that Obama had spoken fairly. They did not begrudge his emphatic embrace of Israel. They have been living with the fact of Israel for 60 years as a militant neighbor that oppresses a minority. “He is the only hope we have,” a student said. The Egyptians I met were more anxious than either the neocons or the anti-Zionists in the States to get past the ancient narrative of grievances. Think of it: for Krauthammer and myself, this battle is an intellectual feast and a raison d’etre. It makes careers. For an Arab in Egypt the battle shadows his life and keeps the entire Arab world from taking a step forward.
That day I (along with the leftwing intellectuals I met for dinner that night) fought the meaning of the speech, felt that it had fallen short of its “bold” self-assignment; but the Arab street was ahead of us. They had felt the heart of it. Obama mentioned Israel/Palestine near the top of his list of tensions between the west and the Muslim world, and opinion polls say that Egyptians heard it as just that: about Israel/Palestine. Two men who sold me a galabiya, serving me tea of course, and ripping me off, said that the speech was a commitment to bring self-determination to the Palestinians. “We are giving him time. Not one month or two, but two years,” said Sayed. But still, it was a commitment. “We want acts not words now,” I heard several times that day.
It is obvious that Obama’s speech smashes the neocons. Krauthammer hates him, and so do all those drunk and nondrunk kids in Israel. But they are entitled and powermad. They have been licensed through one failure after another, and caused the world to hate us. Now they are afraid that Obama will not underwrite an attack on Iran. In Max Blumenthal’s video, some of these people make death threats against Obama; and more than one Egyptian told me that day that Israel will try and kill Obama.
But from this site’s standpoint the greater potential challenge is to non-Zionists. Can we get past the narrative of injustice to the Palestinians?
We are so righteous on this site, and justly. For 40 years Israel has pursued an illegal occupation, supported by the Israel lobby. Those who despise those policies have been winning the battle of the discourse for the last three years because of Israel’s own behavior, the checkpoints and the siege and the racism and the slaughter of children. These facts can't be wished away, though the lobby and our politicians have tried to do so with endless "propaganda," as the U.N.'s John Ging said in Gaza.
In Commentary and at AIPAC, they talk about the delegitimization of Israel, but the truth is that Israel has delegitimized itself. John Mearsheimer calls the occupation “poison,” and Israel has drunk it. And the more evidence Israel provides that returning to the 1967 border won't happen, the more the ideals of Zionism give way to the new picture of Israel's militarism and ethnic nationalism.
This behavior reopened the door on 1948. Because 1967, and the claim that Israel could somehow reverse the occupation, was belied by the actual conditions, which only got worse, critics were able to question the whole enterprise going back to 1948. The Nakba rose as the central narrative of Palestinian existence, and anti-Zionism replaced Americans for Peace Now on the left of the American debate. I have been full-throatedly in that camp.
Now it seems to me that Obama's speech offers to relegitimize Israel. Before a Muslim audience, he has recalled the moral underpinnings of the existence of Israel—as a response to the Holocaust—and suggested that that moral ground can be recaptured if Israel ends the occupation. The Arab street seemed willing to make that bet with Obama–and even to put the Nakba behind, or to seek to resolve those feelings. When I said that Obama had failed to address the particulars of the Palestinian refugee issue, or even to touch on them, an Egyptian student corrected me. She said that to bring up particulars would get people on one side or another angry and would create distracting emotions. When the overwhelming message of the speech was fairness.
On this ground, of fairness, the students were utterly willing to be led by Obama. The acknowledgement of the Nakba and of Palestinian humiliation was so moving to them that they did not begrudge him his embrace of Israel. It underscored what I have always said here, and Ilan Pappe has said: the Nakba must be openly acknowledged at last.
The challenge to the anti-Zionist movement is to stop nursing these grievances ourselves and to move forward with the world and end this dispute that has divided the region in hatred, the world with suspicion, helped destroy two Arab societies in Iraq and Palestine, and broken families in the United States. I know that we will defer to Palestinian opinion on critical questions, and that we will demand actions not words, and that the battle for civil rights will not soon end in Israel/Palestine. But I wonder, if Obama follows through on his two states, can we also be led?