Did Obama say anything to “delegitimize” Israel?

Yesterday, I took issue with Charles Krauthammer’s statement that President Obama’s Cairo speech contained statements that “delegitimize” Israel. I also promised to explain the basis for my disagreement.

In the video clip I’ve seen, Krauthammer doesn’t specify the parts of Obama’s speech that he believes “did more to delegitimize the state of Israel” than any previous president has done. However, I think I can identify at least some of the candidates.

Anne Bayefsky complained that “Obama equated the Holocaust to Palestinian ‘dislocation'” and that he 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.'” I explained why I disagree with Bayefsky here.

Other commentators, while not asserting that Obama equated the Holocaust to Palestinian dislocation, have complained about what they take to be Obama’s suggestion that Israeli Jews are responsible for the dislocation. I responded, in an add-on to one of Scott’s posts, that Obama spoke only of the “displacement” (or “dislocation”) of Palestinians, which is undeniable, and that he took no position as to what caused the dislocation.

In fairness to Obama’s critics, this isn’t the only possible reading of the speech, Obama said that “it is easy for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding.” Obama’s formulation is ambiguous. Palestinian displacement was brought about by Israel’s founding in the sense that the displacement probably wouldn’t have occurred but for the founding. But it also took a war started by Arab states (in response to the founding) to cause the level of displacement that occurred. So Obama would have been more honest if he had said that the displacement was brought about by Israel’s founding and the Arab reaction to it. However, his failure to put it this way does not, in my view, tend to delegitimize Israel.

There is also the complaint that Obama, in emphasizing the connection between the Holocaust and Israel’s founding, failed to mention the connection between the Jews and the Holy Land — a connection that reaches back to Biblical times and has, I believe, been continuous since then. As I read his speech, Obama took it as a given that Israel is a legitimate state (“Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied”) and did not purport to explain the reasons for its legitimacy.

Obama did, to be sure, invoke the history of persecution of the Jews (“the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied’). For many Jews, the case is rooted in a promise from God, rather than in a tragic history. However, Obama is not a Jew, and his references to the tragic history do not tend to delegitimize Israel — quite the contrary. Nor does his failure to mention the continuous Jewish presence in the Holy Land. That presence helps explain why the Jewish state is where it is, but Obama did not need to invoke it in a portion of a speech where, again, the legitimacy of Israel was treated as a given.

In disagreeing with certain specific criticism of Obama’s speech as it relates to Israel, I do not intend to convey that Obama is sound when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. My view is quite the opposite, as I will argue later today.


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