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Last Updated: 09/23/2011
Obama, Israel, and Palestinian Statehood
Marc H. Ellis

An open letter to US President Barack Obama following his speech to the United Nations on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Let’s face it, President Obama, your speech to the United Nations this week was all fluff, domestic political gist for the 2012 American election cycle.  I refer here especially to the issue of Palestinian statehood. 

Mr. President, you have been accused of being too professorial.  I know that politicians have to be elected, or be reelected to be successful.   Thoughtful people sitting on the political sidelines have to cut politicians some slack.  Still, I bemoan your lackluster performance on a variety of issues.  You seem to be unwilling to play political hard ball on the debt and so many other issues.   

Yes, I know things could be worse.   Yes, I can imagine one of the Republican front-runners, Rick Perry, giving that same speech after being elected in 2012.   Yes, I remember President Bush.  I live in Texas.  I can imagine President Rick Perry.  I hear you loud and clear.  I should be careful what I criticize.

Still, I have a basic question for you.  And I ask you this as a Jew.  Even factoring in the political spin necessary to navigate the American political scene, do you really believe your own word on Palestine statehood?

I am fascinated, Mr. President.   Your discussion about Palestinian statehood mostly revolves around the state of Israel, Jewish history and the Holocaust.  Why is that?   I listened to your words with interest:

But understand this as well: America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.

admit all

Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel's citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel's children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, look(s) out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that 6 million people were killed simply because of who they are.

Those are facts. They cannot be denied.

The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.

I read the rest of your speech as well.  Closing my eyes for a moment, I pictured you in your professorial mode.  In my imagination, I heard you giving a lecture, from the Jewish perspective, about why Israel is important to Jews.  You recited, of course, what has almost become rote in my community.  You are right when you speak about centuries of exile and persecution, the devastation of the Holocaust and the return to our ancient homeland. 

Then you turned to the Palestinians.  I listened with anticipation.  But Mr. President, I was disappointed.  It seems that in your historical rendering Jews, the Holocaust and Jewish history simply landed on the Palestinians.  Or rather there is Jewish history and then there are Palestinians who also deserve a state.  

That Jews dislocated Palestinians and took their land seems incidental.  In fact, you never mention this.  You don’t use the term “ethnic cleansing,” - what happened to the Palestinians in the creation of the state of Israel. 

For you Mr. President, Palestinians and Palestine is a problem to be dealt with.  I don’t get the sense from your lecture that there is a flesh and blood issue that needs exposure and redress.  Like what was necessary for Jews.  Like what is still necessary for Jews. 

It seems your presidential chalk board is filled with Jews and Jewish history.  When you come to Palestinians, you turn to the board and write – “Problem.”  Since you came back to the “problem” several times, in my mind’s eye you circle it as well.  Then you return to your main subject - Jewish history.

Rockets falling into Israel from Gaza.   Mr. President, have you forgotten Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s invasion of Gaza just after you were elected president?

Arabs demeaning Israel.  You should accompany me on one of my lecture tours.  Then, you would hear what Jews and non-Jewish American audiences have to say about Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians.  In unguarded moments and often in public, have you listened in on the discussion about Palestinians in the only democracy in the Middle East, our great ally, Israel?

Mr. President – and with all due respect – may I say clearly as a Jew that you do not speak for me or many other Jews who don’t think that “something” happened to Palestinians as a byproduct of Jewish history.  We don’t think that Palestinians exist without a history or without destiny in their own land.

Indeed, as you say, it could be worse, Mr. President.  But perhaps it already is.  When I heard your words I thought that the end had come.  I held my head in my hands - Jewish history couldn’t have to come to this. I wanted to shut your words out.  I wanted you to speak about other things that you know more about or at least are closer to your heart.  I wanted something other than the political spin cycle. 

I imagine a Palestinian listening to you and thinking their end has come as well.  Perhaps in that mutual end is a beginning.  It is a beginning, Mr. President, you seem oblivious to, as other presidents before you and perhaps ones to come. 

Yes Jews do carry centuries of exile and persecution.  European Jews did suffer six million slaughtered.  I know this as a Jew.  I grew up with these memories.  But Mr. President, as a child learning of our history, I never imagined that Jews would use these centuries of exile and persecution, our six million dead, as a blunt instrument against another people.  Never.  Not even in my wildest imagination.  No!

Hearing you I thought of how things end. How Jewish history has ended – in ethnic cleansing and occupation.

But, Mr. President, this can also be our beginning. That beginning will only come when the truth is told by Jews and Palestinians together. And yes, perhaps one day, by the President of the United States of America.

Marc H. Ellis is University Professor and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation and Judaism Does Not Equal Israel. His latest book, Encountering the Jewish Future, will be published in the coming months.