President Obama’s long-awaited speech in Cairo on U.S.-Muslim relations met expectations. It was passionately read and delivered (except for one stumble: calling a “hijab” a “hajib,” an understandable error), touched all the rhetorical bases and – typical Obama – actually said much less than it read.
What it did say, however, should cause Jews, frivolous worriers, to worry for real. As always, what was said was as important as what not was said, and the audience reaction spoke eloquently about the effect of these words on the Muslim world.
Many will perceive the speech as a success simply by virtue of its having been given, and because Obama was met by occasional applause but never with a shoe or two. But what in fact did he say?
Praising Islam for all its contributions to civilization is admirable and accurate; of course, Obama could have delivered this speech in the year 1200 – by which time all the “contributions” he mentioned had already been made. Islam has been slumbering, in primitivism and occasional barbarism, for 800 years, and but for the discovery of vast oil reserves a century ago would today be completely ignored by the civilized world.
To speak of Islam as a wellspring of “dignity, justice and tolerance” is, at this point in history, delusional, as is the attempt to marginalize Islamic radicals as some fringe element in Islamic society, when in fact their supporters number perhaps in the tens of millions. And terming Islam, as a religion, part of the “solution” for global peace would have been more meaningful had it followed the simple truth that Islam is the only religion sparking violence across the globe today.
But Jews should be most concerned. Speaking of America as “partners” with Muslims and Jews in forging peace is a troubling code that signals that America and Israel – according to Obama – no longer share the special relationship that has always marked the two countries. The implied moral equivalence between the suffering of the Jews historically (especially during the Holocaust) and the suffering of the Palestinians “in their quest for statehood” was obscene.
By avoiding Israel on this trip (instead tossing Jews the bone of visiting Buchenwald), Obama sent Jews the clear message that we are to be best perceived as history’s victims, to be sheltered by the beneficence of a kind world but not at all as national actors with rights, interests and claims of our own. And the comparison of moral offenses committed by both sides – lodging rockets at sleeping babies and blowing up old ladies on city buses (Arabs) vs. building of settlements (Jews) is grotesque.
Whatever Obama’s personal background (rootless, without any real identity, and therefore a citizen of the world who is above the parochial religions that engender strife) and his rhetorical nods to Israel (America will never abandon Israel, etc.), deeds speak louder than words. And his campaign to weaken Israel and force it into making suicidal concessions is now crystal clear. He has decided what will bring lasting peace in the region, and he will impose whatever he has to – despite the fact that the same solution has been tried in the very recent past and failed miserably.
Once again Jews are expected to make concrete concessions, dismember their land and jeopardize their existence – in exchange for a repeat (sixth or seventh time, by my count) of Arab promises not to use violence, not to incite violence, not to indoctrinate their children with the ideals of violence, etc. Same defective merchandise being sold, this time by a new and charming salesman.
The real gauge of the speech was the audience reaction. A State of the Union address, with its constant and insipid interruptions of hand clapping, it was not. Obama’s comments about the Holocaust and the evil of Holocaust denial were met with stony silence. His impassioned declaration that Arabs must recognize Israel’s right to exist generated no applause at all.
And this took place in what passes in the Muslim world for a bastion of moderation – a university setting in which students in the past have participated in pro-democracy riots. But any positive reference to Israel – indeed, any indication that Arabs might have to compromise on anything – was greeted with dead air.
On the other hand, denunciation of settlements, recitation of the “history” of Palestinian suffering (almost all, by the way, self-inflicted), and the grievances of the Arab world against the West all drew wild, enthusiastic applause.
In media-speak, Obama showed great courage in going to Cairo and even giving a speech in which he did, on occasion, challenge his audience to re-think some of their prejudices. But that really seems to be more a matter of drama than courage (which involves the risk of some personal sacrifice), and Obama is an individual who loves a stage and knows how to perform on it.
Real courage would have required him to challenge the audience on their silent reaction to crucial parts of his speech, rather than just move on to the next paragraph.
Real courage would have led Obama to challenge Mubarak on his authoritarian rule and suppression of dissent, much like Condoleezza Rice did in 2005 in Egypt.
Real courage would have inspired Obama to call on the Arab world to join America in arresting Iran’s nuclear program by any means necessary.
Real courage would have compelled Obama to tell the Arab world that Israel is a reality, that it unreasonable to expect any further Israeli concessions when past surrenders have sowed the seeds of future conflict, that it is senseless to further carve up the one small Jewish island in the Arab-Muslim ocean of 22 states in order to create an irredentist, 23rd Arab state, and that the Arabs now dwelling in the Land of Israel should find their nationalistic aspirations elsewhere if they are unhappy in Israel. (Actually, courage of that sort would be welcome in an Israeli prime minister as well.)
Therein lies the confrontation ahead. Obama has paskened the solution to the conflict. It is up to the Israelis to say “No, that has not worked in the past, and there is not a shred of evidence that it will work in the future. We will not betray our heritage and endanger our existence based on your fantasies.”
They will need the strength and political support of American Jews – 80 percent of whom are Obama supporters – to inundate the White House and their congressmen with their concerns and expectations, taking nothing for granted and rallying in support for the right of Jews to settle anywhere in the land of Israel and for a strong hand to be raised against any hint of terror.
If that happens, Obama’s Cairo speech will assume its proper place with other dramatic Obama addresses – rhetorical flourishes, symbols without substance – until this moment passes and strong leadership arises that can address problems in the real world rather than the world of our illusions. In the meantime, we will have to show fortitude, tenacity and real courage.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Geffen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at rabbipruzansky.com.