It was always a safe bet that after months of preparation and hype that President Barak Obama’s ‘New Beginning’ speech to Muslims around the globe was going to make a splash. Unfortunately for America’s telegenic and hyperactively ambitious chief executive, most of the reaction from the pro-Israel advocacy sector and commentariat was less than enthusiastic. No sooner had the White House zapped the 6,000-word text of his speech out on the Internet than everyone from analysts to armchair policy wonks began parsing his words with all the avidity of daf yomi readers.
Obama’s speech was deemed weak on specifics, utopian in its vision, simplistic in its characterisation of the Israel-Palestine conflict and dangerous in its hints at moral equivalence with America’s civil rights movement and the South African struggle against apartheid.
What the punditocracy failed to recognise is that President Obama hadn’t crafted his presentation exclusively for their consumption. No sooner had the cameras captured this living embodiment of an emergent American multicultural exceptionalism stepping up to the podium of Cairo University than the White House’s www.america.gov dispatched the text in 13 different languages, in millions of text messages and made available via Facebook and other new media tools to some 20 million Muslim internet users.
It is precisely this framework that made Obama’s words on antisemitism stand out.
As readers of Obama’s Dreams from My Father will corroborate, a sizeable measure of Obama’s identity struggle and formation was forged from a battle against negative stereotypes, be it white, Black, Muslim or American. Thus there is a ring of authenticity to his plea – early in his Cairo speech – to ‘fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear” and similarly to call on Muslims to refrain from reverting to ‘crude anti-American stereotypes”.
This theme reached its climax when Obama focused on Jews, Israel and Holocaust denial – the most hard-core, virulent and insidious antisemitic stereotype of our age.
Why was his choice of themes critical? Because behind every canard that Jews ‘manufactured’ the Shoah, collaborated in a Holocaust ‘hoax’ or – by way of a conceptual off-shoot – that Israel and its supporters are ‘behaving worse than the Nazis’ today – resides a latent desire that the Jewish state not exist at all.
Obama understands this invidious logic, exemplified by his almost brutal formulation: “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…”
That is also explains why Obama declared he would visit Buchenwald the next day – to bear witness to an ineluctable fact and to direct his message at Iran’s leadership and everyday Muslims who are drip-fed the belief that the course of Israel’s history or trajectory of Jewish nationalism (Zionism by any other name) are an outright lie.
The next day, at one of the gates to what eyewitness Alexander Donat once referred to as the ‘Holocaust Kingdom’ Obama’s words were more pointed still. He referred to his visit as “the ultimate rebuke” to the claim that the Holocaust never happened and “a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.” (Note the use of the possessive pronoun: our history).
Were Obama’s words on antisemitism paradigm-shifting? Perhaps not to Western ears. But on a rhetorical level – and as a future marker by which to measure America’s global commitment to counteracting the world’s ‘oldest hatred’ – they were welcome indeed.
Winston Pickett is the former director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism