U.S. President Barack Obama’s participation in the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony held at the Israeli Embassy in Washington on Wednesday was an extraordinary gesture in and of itself, but his speech bordered on the historic. Obama lauded the brave men and women who saved Jews in the Holocaust, described anti-Semitism as the scourge of humanity, proclaimed “We are All Jews” and ended with “God Bless the State of Israel.” The claim that Obama harbors malicious intentions toward Israel and the Jewish people may not disappear, but it never sounded more ridiculous nonetheless.
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The crowd of Washington bigwigs, Israeli diplomats, Yad Vashem officials and families of both saviors and survivors greeted Obama rather coolly when he arrived but bade farewell with deep-felt gratitude when he departed. No one could doubt the sincerity of his words or that they were much more than just diplomatic diversions or political tactics. Obama feels “a true emotional connection and concern for the future and wellbeing of the Jewish people,” one participant told me. It was that kind of evening, when hackneyed clichés sounded pertinent and precise.
Many people viewed Obama’s participation in the ceremony as part of an effort to “thaw relations with Israel,” as U.S. headlines noted. Ambassador Ron Dermer, whose relations with Obama consisted of downs rather than ups, can certainly take credit for making Obama the first American president ever to address a forum at the Washington embassy. When Dermer said that the president’s attendance was a “powerful tribute to the memory of the victims” and a “testament to the unique relationship” between Israel and the U.S., that too seemed to ring truer than the usual diplomatic parlance.
Dermer and his boss, Benjamin Netanyahu – who also thanked Obama by video from Jerusalem – can claim, perhaps justifiably, that Obama’s gesture belies the doomsday predictions of a rupture that would be caused by their handling of the confrontation with the administration over the Iran nuclear deal.
There’s no doubt that Obama’s apparent willingness to let bygones be bygones will not be viewed kindly by Israeli politicians who have been describing an irreparable breach between Jerusalem and Washington. Of course, there was the other side of the coin, as heard from the American side: Obama is truly committed to Israel and to American Jews and he is not going to let Netanyahu or Dermer or anyone else get in the way. One indication that tensions still run high might be found in the fact that Obama sent warm wishes for Shimon Peres’ speedy recovery, praised his successor Reuven Revlin’s efforts to improve relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs, but made no mention of you know who, the prime minister.
Moreover, it’s not inconceivable that Obama is seeking to replenish his credit with American Jews in advance of a major diplomatic move that might upset them as well as Netanyahu. The publication of the Memorandum of Understanding between Israelis and Palestinians that was nearly concluded but never signed during Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2014 diplomatic mission is one possibility. Another is that Obama is keen to shore up Jewish support for his designated Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, who is most closely identified with his policy and what will be his legacy, in advance of the official start of the primary season at the Iowa caucuses on Monday.
Some of Obama’s words seemed to address the current American political climate: “Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give into a base desire to find someone else – someone different – to blame for our struggles,” he said, in what sounded like Donald Trump and his agitation against Muslims.
At other times, he seemed to have Israelis in mind: The lesson of the Holocaust "means cultivating a habit of empathy, and recognizing ourselves in one another; to make common cause with the outsider, the minority, whether that minority is Christian or Jew, whether it is Hindu or Muslim, or a nonbeliever; whether that minority is native born or immigrant; whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian.”
But not all the speech was devoted the “universalist” view so often rejected by Israelis, especially on the right, who think the Holocaust’s lessons should be reserved for Jews. At the same time, Obama said that the fight against anti-Semitism is at the top of humanity’s agenda “Because anti-Semitism is a distillation, an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil."
Obama differentiated between “criticism of a particular policy of Israel” – of which he has an ample amount himself – and denial of its right to exist, which the U.S. will fight tooth and nail. He alluded to the heroic story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, a U.S. prisoner of war held by the Nazis together with a thousand other American soldiers, who was ordered in 1945 to instruct all the Jews to present themselves before the camp’s German command. Instead, Edmonds ordered the entire camp to come instead and when asked to identify the Jews, he said “We are all Jews.”
“I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, I, too, am a Jew.”, Obama noted.
Obama has often described the impact that the Holocaust had on his general world view and his attitude toward the Jews. He mentioned his uncle who returned traumatized from the liberation of concentration camps in Europe; the Holocaust played a major role in the outlook of Obama’s early friends and backers among Chicago Jews as well. In fact, Obama’s deep feelings toward the Holocaust created one of the early stumbling blocks in his relations with Israelis and Jews: In his 2009 Cairo speech, detractors claim, Obama cited the Holocaust and ignored the Jewish people’s historic ties when justifying Israel’s existence. Then he went on a visit with Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald rather than coming straight to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu.
“We stand up forcefully and proudly in defense of our ally, in defense of our friend, in defense of the Jewish State of Israel. America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains, now and forever, unshakeable. And I've said this before – it would be a fundamental moral failing if America broke that bond,” Obama said, though that won’t make any difference to his detractors, apparently.
They view such proclamations of ironclad commitment as nothing more than camouflage for Obama’ sinister intent. Even those who acknowledge Obama’s deep-seated ties to Israel and Jews say that these are confined to a liberal Judaism and a naive Israel that wouldn’t last long in the Middle East. Obama can love Israel with all his heart, but he remains a liberal president, a “leftist” in Israeli, terms at a time when the overwhelming Israeli preference is for conservative, hawkish and Muslim-distrusting presidents who, if there’s no other choice, can even be anti-Semitic themselves.