Putting words in Obama’s mouth

President Obama’s Cairo speech has drawn lots of criticism, some of it quite harsh. Anne Bayefsky’s post today on The Corner is among the harshest I’ve seen.

Obama deserves some of the criticism he has received. However, some of it is, I think, wide of the mark.

For example, Bayefsky says that “Obama equated the Holocaust to Palestinian ‘dislocation.'” But Obama did no such thing. Here is what he said:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

Obama does not state or imply that the suffering experienced by the Palestinians is equal or comparable to the Holocaust, and when Tom Brokaw later tried to equate the Holocaust with the experiences of Palestinians, Obama corrected him.

In the Cairo passage quoted above, Obama simply argued that Palestinian suffering is sufficient to create legitimate Palestinian aspirations for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. And he urged the Muslim world to stop denying the Holocaust, to stop repeating vile stereotypes of the Jews, and to stop threatening Israel with a destruction that brings to mind the Holocaust. The relationship between the Holocaust and the possibility that Israel might be destroyed is, in fact, the closest Obama comes here to positing an equivalence.

Bayefsky also complains that “Obama analogized Palestinian ‘daily humiliations . . . that come with occupation’ to the ‘humiliation of segregation’ of black slaves in America and the ‘moral authority’ of ‘people from South Africa.'” Here is what Obama said:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Here, Obama is arguing in favor of non-violence and citing the usual examples to support his thesis that peaceful measures are more effective. He is not taking any position as to how the humiliations Palestinians experience on the West Bank compare to those African-Americans experienced during the days of segregation. He is, however, comparing the conduct of the Palestinians unfavorably to the conduct of the African-Americans of yesteryear.

Given Obama’s association with the likes of Jeremiah Wright, among other problems, I don’t believe he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt in construing his statements about Israel. But I don’t see anything in his Cairo statements that supports the claim that Obama equated Palestinians dislocation with the Holocaust, or life on the West Bank with life in Selma, Alabama in the 1950s.

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