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One Rabbi’s Reaction to the “Speech to the Muslim World”

June 6, 2009


In a different context I have told the joke about God summoning the leaders of the world’s three great monotheistic religions to tell them that He has decided to send a great flood in three days to destroy the world. The Pope goes on international satellite and tells the world’s population that they have three days to accept Jesus as their true savior and salvation.  The Ayatollah delivers a similar dire message that the world has three days to accept Allah as the true god of all and to acknowledge that Muhammad is his one true messenger.  And when it is time for the chief rabbi to give his address, he proclaims to the world, “My friends, we have three days to learn how to live underwater.”


In many respects the joke is more profound than it is funny, for it reflects Judaism’s practical outlook and its concern for survival, while subordinating issues of faith. Yet I tell it today because it is difficult to imagine Jews being able to unite or be led by a single leader or rabbi.  I think about that in the context of the notion that a United States President would give a speech to “the Muslim world,” and am somewhat surprised that there have not been more comments on the difficulty of addressing over a billion people as if they were monolithic.  There is much diversity and many competing interests in the Muslim world.  After all, not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab.


Just as I imagine when I give a sermon, there are parts that some people will like, and some parts people will object to, there were things in President Obama’s 55 minute speech in Cairo that I liked, and there were some things that disturbed me.  While the tone and the overtures were admirable, and there were many positive aspects which I liked, just as congregants usually focus more on the part of my sermon they dislike, I would like to be a congregant, and address those parts of the President’s sermon/speech I found to be of concern.


When speaking about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict the president began with the issue of suffering, which was wise and important. Healing can only come about in any conflict or dispute, be it a domestic squabble or an international quagmire when each side begins to understand the pain of the other.  It is remarkable how often counseling situations I have been involved in where merely getting one party to acknowledge the suffering of the other can help dissipate tensions and go a long way towards resolving, overcoming and laying aside differences.


This is one of the reasons why Holocaust denial is particularly upsetting to Jews, and why the President is to be praised for addressing this issue. As Elie Wiesel once said, it is as if the victims are subjected to a second death, the denial of what happened to them.  With the vast amount of Holocaust denial not just in Iran, but throughout the Muslim world, it was praiseworthy that the President went out of his way to remind his audience that, “Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust… 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, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”


It is one of the reasons why Anwar Sadat has such a special place in the hearts of Jews. He not only came and made peace with Israel, he also came and visited Yad va’Shem, a gesture which showed true understanding, and which allowed Israel to trust him enough to cede 1/3 of its land mass in exchange for the promise of peace.  It is why the visit of Pope John Paul II to Yad va’Shem several years ago, and more recently of Pope Benedict II was such an important symbol and step towards healing and reconciliation, as well as the President’s moving visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp the day after his visit to Cairo.  While it is not often mentioned, hopefully Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas has repudiated and rejected his own 1982 doctoral dissertation which denied the Holocaust.  Sadly just a couple of months ago Palestinian authorities condemned a Palestinian youth orchestra and its leader for performing for a group of 30 elderly Holocaust survivors, sealing the studio and barring the conductor from all activity in the refugee camp, for fear that it ”served the enemy’s interests” and could lead to “normalizing” relations with Israel.


So yes, it was good that he spoke out so forcefully about Holocaust denial in the capital of Egypt, a country where most of its citizens, its elite, its intellectuals, academics, clerics and leaders still believe that the Nazi attempts to exterminate the Jews are a fiction made up to justify the existence of the state of Israel.  And truth demands that the role of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem as a close ally and supporter of Nazi Germany also be exposed.  Yet there were several aspects to the reference to the Holocaust which were disturbing.


The uniqueness of the attempt to annihilate the Jewish people and the effort to commit genocide was the result of centuries of insipid hatred and anti Semitism. The apparatus of an entire nation was harnessed to destroy, humiliate, and to confiscate property in order to wipe out the Jewish culture, civilization, language, and to enslave, and ultimately kill anyone with a trace of Jewish blood in them.  Although thankfully they did not succeed, six million of our people were murdered and the vibrant Jewish communities of Europe were wiped out.  But forgive me, Mr. President if I was a bit offended when after speaking so sensitively and forcefully about the horror of the Holocaust and the baselessness of Holocaust denial, in your very next paragraph you said, “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people… have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”  It is not as if the daily humiliations you refer to can compare to the horror of the Holocaust.  It was wrong, and even somewhat offensive, and not constructive to attempt to draw such an equivocal parallel between the two by introducing the Palestinian plight with the words, “on the other hand.”


It is also wrong because it is not as if Jews need to be convinced or persuaded on this issue. Israelis have long recognized and acknowledged Palestinian suffering.  Israeli textbooks teach that Arabs were displaced and bend over backward to come to terms with the guilt felt as a result of the innocents who suffered.  Israeli society, including the press and media are painfully aware and constantly remind Israelis of the price paid by others for the existence of the state of Israel.


In fact, precisely because of this sensitivity Israel long ago came to terms with Palestinian aspirations, and has taken actions to help facilitate that goal.  If not in the speech, then at least in the comments of the Secretary of State, it would be helpful if there were some recognition of this, for Israel has not denied that there has been suffering on both sides.


Hopefully, Muslims will accept the challenge and begin to be equally introspective and share with their people our narrative as well, as this will lead to greater understanding and empathy.  I also object to the implication that somehow Israel is solely, or primarily responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians. When the President says that, “Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society” and refers to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as not serving Israel’s security and calls upon Israel to take concrete steps to enable progress, the comment falls short.


Yes, their suffering is intolerable. That is undeniable.  He said, “Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.”  But who is it who has kept these people in refugee camps for over 60 years, refusing to build housing or settle the people despite having ample resources to do so.  Is it fair to lay responsibility for that suffering upon Israel, especially after the disengagement when 9,000 Jewish residents of Gaza were evicted and uprooted?  As Johns Hopkins Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami has rightly pointed out the Arab world needs to overcome the tendencies to blame its problems on others and on relishing the role of victim for progress to occur.  In a sentence overlooked and not cited by many analyses, the President basically recognized this when he said, “The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems.”


The truth is the suffering would have ended long ago had Arab leaders been willing to compromise and to accept any of the many generous offers put forth by each and every successive Israeli government. It would have been helpful if he would have reminded his listeners that Israel has already shown its willingness by making painful sacrifices and has made significant territorial concessions in the interest of peace instead of making it seem as if the onus for the suffering is on Israel.


The Holocaust is not the only tragedy perpetrated on the Jewish people. There were plenty of atrocities committed against Jews before, as well as since World War II.  The Holocaust is not an aberration or blip in history.  Mentioning the Holocaust as the primary instance of persecution ignores the anti Semitism Jews experienced in Arab lands.  I did not expect the President to remind his hosts that in addition to Arab refugees, there are an equal number of Jewish refugees who were forced to flee Arab lands due to pogroms, anti Semitic riots and seizure of Jewish property.


Finally, Arabs often appropriately take umbrage when it makes it seem as if they have to pay the price for European crimes. The Holocaust was not the only reason for the creation of the state of Israel.  In 1917 the British government recognized the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Jewish people to a homeland of its own in the Balfour declaration.  Several decades before the Holocaust, in 1922 the League of Nations adopted this position.


One of the reasons the Camp David peace talks were doomed to failure was because Yasser Arafat flatly expressed the notion widely held in the Arab world, that the Jews never had a Temple in Jerusalem and that there was no historic precedent for their presence there. Israel exists for many reasons.  The lesson of the holocaust and of anti Semitism shows the need for a haven and place of refuge for the Jewish people, but it is only one of the reasons there must be a Jewish state.


There is a historic tie of the Jewish people to the land of Israel which precedes Arab claims to the land and which spans the millennium.  I will not comment this morning about the complex issue of settlements, other than to quote the lead paragraph in a front page story in this morning’s NY Times:  “Iran seems to be hurtling toward nuclear weapons capacity, Hezbollah could win Sunday’s election in Lebanon, and Hamas is smuggling long-range rockets into Gaza again.  So why is President Obama focusing such attention on the building of homes by Israeli Jews in the West Bank?”


I was pleased that the President said it was time to say in public what is said in private. For years, Jewish leaders have maintained that peace will come when Arab leaders say in Arabic the same platitudes they recite for a fawning, naïve and unsuspecting Western press in English.


When Henry Kissinger was negotiating the cease fire agreement between Israel and Egypt after the Yom Kippur War a story is told that he told Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir he wanted to visit the Western Wall, the holiest site revered by Jews for centuries.  Standing in front of the Wall, he is told by Golda that he should pray, and that his prayers will be heard by God.  He begins to rattle off all kinds of things he wants God to force Israel to do and to give up in its negotiations.  Kissinger finishes praying, turns to the Israeli Prime Minister and asks, “Nu, Golda?  Did you hear what I prayed for and asked God to deliver?”  She says to him, “Henry, don’t get too excited.  You’re talking to a wall.”


President Obama’s spoke not just to a wall, but to a much broader audience. I sincerely hope that his overtures will have an impact and will be appreciated in the Muslim world.  He spoke out on behalf of democracy, rights for women, economic development and religious freedom and tolerance, all important issues.  He reaffirmed that the United States is not at war with Islam while reaffirming America’s unbreakable bond with Israel, referring to the strong cultural and historical ties at the heart of the relationship, and he called upon the Arab world to recognize Israel’s legitimacy.  I applaud his call to set aside incitement and his walking through the mine field of these difficult issues.


I have often felt that the solution to the Israeli Arab conflict is both so simple and yet so complex. If the President’s speech can help to raise the comfort level in the Arab world and can give its leaders the confidence to make the concessions necessary to resolve the dispute, I am confident they will find willing partners on the other side.  I say this because I know the longing for peace on the part of the people and leaders of Israel is so great.  The desire to live in peace with its neighbors is our age old hope.


We read the birkat hakohanim, the priestly blessing in this morning’s Torah portion.  It concludes with the words, Yisa Adonai Panav alecha, veyasem lecha shalom – May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and grant you peace.”  May the people of the Middle East come to know this blessing, and may the words of our president help to bring us closer to that goal shared by all.


Shalom, Salaam, peace. Amen.



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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.