Buchenwald vs. Balfour

Two days after his historic Cairo speech, President Obama made an appearance at the ruins of the German concentration camp Buchenwald, calling the chilling site the “ultimate rebuke” to Holocaust denial, of which Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been the most insidious recent example.  It seemed a brilliant rhetorical move: take the cultural capital and good will he earned among the worldwide Muslim community and put it to use debunking one of the worst mythologies now making the rounds in the Middle East, and earn the appreciation of the worldwide Jewish community at the same time. He was the first U.S. President to pay his respects at this camp; he brought the eloquent and universally admired Elie Wiesel with him.  So why are many in the Jewish media so upset?  I was surprised to hear of the Anti-Defamation League’s problems with the Cairo speech, articulated in a widely disseminated op-ed piece by ADL’s National Director Abraham H. Foxman. The gist of it is: making a causal connection between the Holocaust and the creation of Israel is dangerous, misinformed, and anti-Semitic, because that connection has been taken up as a call to arms by Middle Eastern anti-Israel factions who argue that the Middle East should not have to atone for Europe’s historic crimes.

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post said much the same thing two days later in response to the Buchenwald appearance.  Earlier this year the British playwright Caryl Churchill’s controversial work Seven Jewish Children was condemned for similar reasons: it made Israel’s legitimacy rest on atonement for World War II wrongs.  (Read my commentary here.)

It’s true that the movement for a Jewish state, Zionism, officially began in the late 19th century, not 1945.  Some even say that had the infamous pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration been fulfilled in 1917, far fewer Jews would have died at the hands of Nazis.  But it’s also true that momentum to form the state of Israel really took off after the atrocities of the concentration camps became known.  So which origins should Israel hearken back to? How should Obama justify America’s historic support for the country?

The ADL argued that Obama should promote a different origin story: the Jewish people’s “historic connection to the land.” That is, he should start the story way before 1945, way before 1917, back 2,000 years. The Jerusalem Post elaborated on this “indisputable” ancient bond between Jews and “their land.”

By 1000 BCE, the Twelve Tribes had formed a united monarchy. Then, when in 586 BCE the Jews were defeated and exiled, “By the rivers of Babylon… we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” We returned and rebuilt our commonwealth – only to be defeated and exiled again, in 70 CE. As early as the 9th century, Jews had reestablished communities in Tiberias; and, in the 11th century, in Gaza.

SO YOU see, Mr. President, long before Christianity and Islam appeared on the world stage, the covenant between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel was entrenched and unwavering. Every day we prayed in our ancient tongue for our return to Zion. Every day, Mr. President. For 2,000 years.

I want to understand this argument. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the tendency of Jewish identity to rely on a history of victimhood.  My own Jewish ancestors arrived in the United States in 1906 (refugees, it’s true, from Russian pogroms), and, remarkably fortunately, I have no known relatives who perished in the Second World War. But I’m even more uncomfortable with the “historic connection” origins.

To me, it really sounds like a religious connection, supported by shaky, partisan archaeology.  Drawing Biblical boundaries is dangerous: translations differ, place-names change.  Using 2,000 years of prayer for “Zion” as an argument for secular nationhood is an unfortunately literal interpretation of Jewish theology.  Who’s to determine the geographic boundaries of prayer?  This line of thought leads straight to the zealots who form “entrenched” settlements on disputed territory against international prohibitions.

It also intersects neatly with the Christian fundamentalist theology which may have informed President Bush’s uncritical support of Israel’s militarism.  Many evangelical Christians (with notable exceptions) believe that in order for the Second Coming of Christ to take place, Jerusalem must be securely in the hands of the Jews. (They will then have to convert to Christianity, but that’s another story.)

Moreover, if historical connections of people to land were enough to build a nation on, the world map would look very different than it does today.  Kurdistan, anyone?

The MM is a secret pragmatist.  Important as origin myths are, I wish that Israel’s highly contested past would fade away, so that we could go about ensuring a peaceful, two-state future.  Israel, no matter its origins, is here to stay.  So is Palestine.

Obama has already taken a strong stand against new West Bank settlements, which has cost him some political capital with the Netanyahu government.  Perhaps this Buchenwald connection is an effort to build himself some rhetorical space for further efforts at peaceful compromise.

Despite the risks, it makes much more political sense for Obama to emphasize a modern atrocity that deserves atonement than to rely on shifty interpretations of religious texts.

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