Reporting on a White House conference call the other day laying out Obama’s purposes in Israel, Alex Kane noted the importance to Israel supporters of symbolic actions the president is scheduled to take later this week to affirm an ancient Jewish connection to the land. These gestures, which include laying a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, are aimed at correcting Obama’s earlier political mistake in his 2009 Cairo speech of justifying Israel’s existence only with reference to the Holocaust (seized on by religious neoconservative David Frum at the time.)
This is now a major theme in Zionist appreciation of the Obama itinerary:
From the Jerusalem Post:
At the [Israel] museum, Obama will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, which US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes described as “a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel.”
In his first term, Obama visited Cairo and gave a much touted speech reaching out to the Arab world. Many Israelis, however, were critical of the link he seemed to make in that address between Israel’s founding and the Holocaust, while not providing any reference to Jews’ historic attachment to the Land of Israel.
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the visit to Herzl’s grave both suggest an attempt to correct that omission and assuage Israeli concerns about Obama’s views on the country’s history and legitimacy.
Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, said the White House was still trying to change the negative narrative that the Cairo speech first implanted in the minds of Israelis, and that the unusual stop at the grave of the founder of modern political Zionism demonstrated that intention.
“I don’t recall… a [US] president laying a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl,” the seasoned diplomat noted.
From American Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs writing in Haaretz:
President Obama should affirm the Jewish people’s historic connection with its homeland…
In his remarkable Cairo speech at the beginning of his first term, President Obama eloquently set before the Muslim world the need to accept the legitimacy of Israel and offered a strong statement against Holocaust denial. Yet the absence in that speech of an explicit affirmation of the deep and abiding 3,200 year old connection of the Jewish people with its historic homeland was an omission that disappointed and puzzled those in the Jewish community who know him well and are familiar with his deep appreciation for this connection. His presence in Israel now offers a unique opportunity – in the sites he visits and the words he utters – to convey vividly to the world that appreciation. In that connection, we note the symbolic importance of the President’s decision to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism.
From the Forward‘s Nathan Guttman, on the “messages” in Obama’s itinerary:
By invoking the Holocaust as the root rationale for Israel’s creation, argued Obama’s critics, the president ignored the claims of the Jewish people to the land as something going back to the time of Abraham. Some even claimed that by not mentioning this historical tie, Obama was, in fact, supporting the anti-Zionist narrative, which views the Jews as outsiders who came to Palestine after being chased out of Europe only to make the Palestinians pay for the crimes of the Nazis…
In his visit, starting Wednesday, Obama will make sure this impression is rectified. He is expected to address the Jewish people’s roots in the land of Israel in his speech and public comments. And he will do so in a symbolic way through his visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.
From Jeffrey Goldberg:
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 Halevii, 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.
Gosh what a bath of self-regard! There are two different interpretations of this theme. The “historic connection to the land” is radically important right now because Israel’s justification narrative is tanking globally as it grabs the entire Holy Land for itself. Or, just maybe, Obama is embracing this idea in order to say goodbye to these religious fanatics. Obama knows what Ben Ehrenreich knows, that Israel is spiritually/politically bankrupted by occupation; and it helps to give someone something when you want to break up with them.