Obama’s European tour has a strong human-rights message. Just now at a press conference he said of his meeting with Pope Francis, “His Holiness is very interested in the Israel-Palestine issue.”
Yesterday I watched his stemwinder to European youth, laying out the principles that defy the Russian occupation of Crimea. The ideas were stirring. Time and again the president invoked democracy, self-determination, human equality, territorial integrity and dignity — principles the U.S. has nullified in its policy in Israel and Palestine.
First, he outlines his theme like a constitutional scholar. Emphasis mine:
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle — through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution — that a particular set of ideals began to emerge: The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. And those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonialists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men — and women — are created equal.
But those ideals have also been tested — here in Europe and around the world. Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign. Often, this alternative vision roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others, and that individual identity must be defined by “us” versus “them,” or that national greatness must flow not by what a people stand for, but by what they are against.
But the governed in Gaza and the West Bank have no voice in the government that controls them. And the Jewish state has constituted itself with an unequal definition of citizenship, with Jews having more rights– in an “older, more traditional view of power.”
Notice his thrilling narration of the age of decolonization, unfolding in the Third World and the U.S.:
the ideals that came to define our [North Atlantic] alliance also inspired movements across the globe among those very people, ironically, who had too often been denied their full rights by Western powers. After the Second World War, people from Africa to India threw off the yoke of colonialism to secure their independence. In the United States, citizens took freedom rides and endured beatings to put an end to segregation and to secure their civil rights. As the Iron Curtain fell here in Europe, the iron fist of apartheid was unclenched, and Nelson Mandela emerged upright, proud, from prison to lead a multiracial democracy.
But there’s apartheid all over the West Bank, and Palestinians in Israel are second-class citizens. Not to mention the growing understanding that Israel is a settler-colonial state in which European immigrants have higher status.
He opposes ethnic cleansing.
Young people in the audience today, young people like Laura, were born in a place and a time where there is less conflict, more prosperity and more freedom than any time in human history. But that’s not because man’s darkest impulses have vanished. Even here, in Europe, we’ve seen ethnic cleansing in the Balkans that shocked the conscience.
But Israel continues to “Judaize” East Jerusalem, the Negev, parts of the Galilee, and Area C, by demolishing Palestinian homes and villages to make way for Jews.
He opposes militarism:
[W]e are confronted with the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way — that recycled maxim that might somehow makes right.
And states that self-determination is at the basis of western progress:
So I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world… And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine today. Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident — that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.
And “annexation” is an evil, around the world. Including the Middle East:
Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation. But that kind of casual indifference would… allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.
But annexation is alive and well in Palestine, and everyone knows we support it.
He honors nonviolent resistance in the name of human rights:
look at the young people of Ukraine who were determined to take back their future from a government rotted by corruption — the portraits of the fallen shot by snipers, the visitors who pay their respects at the Maidan. There was the university student, wrapped in the Ukrainian flag, expressing her hope that “every country should live by the law.” A postgraduate student, speaking of her fellow protestors, saying, “I want these people who are here to have dignity.”…
Their voices echo those around the world who at this very moment fight for their dignity…
I am confident that eventually those voices — those voices for human dignity and opportunity and individual rights and rule of law — those voices ultimately will triumph. … because these ideals that we affirm are true; these ideals are universal.
But the nonviolent resistance movement in Palestine is opposed by an occupying army that the U.S. supports with billions every year.
More on human equality and dignity:
And, yes, we believe in human dignity — that every person is created equal, no matter who you are, or what you look like, or who you love, or where you come from. That is what we believe. That’s what makes us strong.
He cites the UN and human rights law, the very institutions that his administration undermined in the aftermath of the Goldstone Report on the Gaza slaughter.
And our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people — a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; international law and the means to enforce those laws.
He cites sovereignty and territorial integrity, when Palestinians have never had either, and are losing lands to Jewish settlers with every tick of the clock:
Russia’s violation of international law — its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — must be met with condemnation. Not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up…
What we will do — always — is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies.
But Obama vetoed a resolution against Israeli settlements in the UN Security Council.
He addresses the problem of the rights of ethnic minorities, in this case ethnic Russians inside of Ukraine.
Moreover, many countries around the world face similar questions about their borders and ethnic minorities abroad, about sovereignty and self-determination. These are tensions that have led in other places to debate and democratic referendums, conflicts and uneasy co-existence. These are difficult issues, and it is precisely because these questions are hard that they must be addressed through constitutional means and international laws so that majorities cannot simply suppress minorities, and big countries cannot simply bully the small.
But Obama continually refers to Israel as a democracy, when Palestinians have limited rights.
He faults the American invasion of Iraq but says we didn’t want to permanently occupy it or annex its land:
I opposed our military intervention there. But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain.
Yes, and what about SodaStream and Ahava, using Palestinian resources under occupation for their gain?
Again: self-determination, as an “irreducible” ideal for all human beings:
on the fundamental principle that is at stake here — the ability of nations and peoples to make their own choices — there can be no going back. It’s not America that filled the Maidan with protesters — it was Ukrainians. No foreign forces compelled the citizens of Tunis and Tripoli to rise up — they did so on their own. From the Burmese parliamentarian pursuing reform to the young leaders fighting corruption and intolerance in Africa, we see something irreducible that all of us share as human beings — a truth that will persevere in the face of violence and repression and will ultimately overcome.
Palestinians have had never had the right of self-determination, though they’ve affirmed that they are a people for 100 years.
He emphasizes that human rights and rights of sovereignty are universal. If they’re destroyed one place, they’re threatened everywhere.
we must never forget that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. Our democracy, our individual opportunity only exists because those who came before us had the wisdom and the courage to recognize that our ideals will only endure if we see our self-interest in the success of other peoples and other nations.
The man who vetoed a UN resolution against settlements.
And imagine someone in Gaza or the West Bank reading this:
Do not think for a moment that your own freedom, your own prosperity, that your own moral imagination is bound by the limits of your community, your ethnicity, or even your country. You’re bigger than that. You can help us to choose a better history. That’s what Europe tells us. That’s what the American experience is all about.
I say this … as the son of a Kenyan whose grandfather was a cook for the British, and as a person who once lived in Indonesia as it emerged from colonialism. The ideals that unite us matter equally to the young people of Boston or Brussels, or Jakarta or Nairobi, or Krakow or Kyiv.
No Palestine on that list. The president never mentioned Israel or Palestine. And you can see why. People might say he’s a hypocrite.