Everwhere But There

Far be it for Caroline Glick to oversimplify Barack Obama. From the very outset of her televised debate with fellow Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin, the American-born pundit made it clear exactly what she thought of the new US President’s … Read More

By / June 8, 2009

Far be it for Caroline Glick to oversimplify Barack Obama. From the very outset of her televised debate with fellow Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin, the American-born pundit made it clear exactly what she thought of the new US President’s recent trip to the Middle East, and his subsequent stop in Germany. Obama had massively rebuked Israel, and had done so in four different ways: First, he visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but did not come to the Jewish state. Second, following his speech in Cairo, Obama visited a German concentration camp instead of Israel. Third, he chose to unveil his Mideast policy on June 4th, not June 5th, the 42nd anniversary of the Six Day War. Finally, Obama asserted moral equivalence between Jews and Nazis by visiting the city of Dresden, as well as Buchenwald. For those familiar with Glick’s brand of Jewish conservatism, her criticisms of the American leader check out. Obama was not only demonstrating overt deference to the Muslim world. He’d gone out of his way to placate it as well by carefully running roughshod over the deepest of Jewish sensitivities: inferring his desire to restore the pre-1967 territorial order in the Mideast and relativizing the Nazi genocide. Of all of Glick’s objections, the President’s visit to Dresden is the only one that merits additional comment, if only because it is the most ideologically complex of his gestures. Over a two day period, in February 1945, US and British aircraft dropped 3900 hundred tons of ordinance on Dresden, killing upwards of 25,000 civilians, triggering a firestorm that literally incinerated 34 square kilometers of the city. For over 60 years, the brutality of the bombing has inspired debate about whether the Allies were justified in carrying it out. Not everyone agrees Dresden was a legitimate military target, with a reasonable number of analysts arguing that the campaign constituted a war crime, that Dresden was in fact Germany’s own Hiroshima, albeit one triggered by conventional weaponry. Needless to say, 12 weeks after the raids, the Nazis surrendered. This is why its important to understand the subtext behind Glick’s concern about the rhetoric of equivalency. Beneath it lies the fear that the President’s decision to acknowledge the possibility of US war crimes might lead to a willingness to give in to "today’s Nazis," the Arabs, and eventually acknowledge claims about Israeli culpability for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If Obama could apologize for the 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government by the CIA, call the US invasion of Iraq a "war of choice," and acknowledge, however carefully, the undeniability of Palestinian suffering, as he did during his speech in Cairo, it would be hard to argue otherwise, at least theoretically. In practice, its another story. The point is what this says about Glick’s anxiety, and how we might see it as an example of that being experienced by the larger Jewish right. Despite frightened reactions to Obama like this, it has been more common than not for Diaspora progressives to condemn Obama’s recent positioning on Israel as having been insufficient. At precisely the time when the President could have elaborated a more radical agenda for the Middle East, instead he chose to still defend Israel, prosecute America’s war in Afghanistan, and continue US support for distinctly non-democratic allies such as Egypt. At no point was any such threat to Israel perceived. Again, it was being sheltered by the US, albeit disengenuously, through a new deployment of liberal rhetoric.

One participant in a discussion list I subscribe to offered perhaps the hardest hitting leftist critique I encountered when he stated that Obama wasn’t trying to destroy Israel, as critics like Glick fear. Rather, he was attempting to revive the notion of a ‘liberal Israel,’ albeit one that could more rationally serve American interests if it were not engaged in a military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and antagonizing Iran. Obama wasn’t trying to solve the problem of Israel itself. He was simply trying to use the country differently than it had been by previous US governments.

With certain exceptions, very few likeminded progressive critics chose to emphasize what Obama did say about Mossadegh, about Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but especially concerning those things which undoubtedly were heard as threatening by Jewish rightists. It was as though conservatives and progressives were listening to two very different Obamas, each of which was equally disappointing, albeit for entirely different reasons. The reason why its important to pay attention to the differences between the way right and left speak about Obama’s approach to the Middle East is that its impossible to get a sense of the President’s actual impact without assessing such disparate responses. Considering that American policy has historically followed a conservative agenda in the region makes it that much more important to hear conservative complaints during such times of policy change, not to mention progressive concerns that he isn’t going far enough in his reforms.

This is where Dresden rears its head again, and why its example so clearly matters. Glick and many like her seem to voice anxieties about Obama’s rhetoric of equivalency because–at least symbolically–he’s trying to revive the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However problematic, such a settlement would mean righting Israeli wrongs, regardless of any Arab responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians.

It would also mean that the Israeli government would have to acknowledge that it was wrong to settle the territories and embark on a program of nation-building that depended on making the Palestinians disappear. Allowing Palestinians to build their own state, however imperfect, means recognizing their right to national liberation as equivalent to that of the Jews. The Israeli right fears that any attempt to portray the Germans as victims leads to a similar appreciation of their Arab other, the Palestinians.

Hence the fear of acknowledging German suffering, in Europe of all places, and of tying all concepts of equivalency to Germany’s example. It highlights the instability of portraying the Palestinians, albeit the Arabs, as Nazi stand-ins, while at the same time alluding to the surplus stereotypes that progressives frequently apply to Israelis. That we actually are the real Nazis, insofar as like them, our concept of a Jewish state by necessity does not allow for the existence of someone else. This is why I welcome President Obama’s recent positioning on the Middle East, and regard it as being constructive. Because it is so deeply upsetting to those who would prefer to maintain the present status quo, because it is a catalyst for reflection on the profoundly complex knots we’ve used to bind ourselves to the situation, which blind us to the distinctions between German and Palestinian, let alone Nazi and Jew, anything that helps tear down these walls, to quote Ronald Reagan, will do.

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