Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Echoes of Mary Robinson

One of the most controversial parts of Barack Obama’s Cairo speech was the portion in which he appeared to draw a moral equivalence between the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and the Palestinian “dislocation” and “occupation” arising from the wars against the Jewish state in 1948 and 1967.

It is worth revisiting that portion of the Cairo address in connection with the continuing Mary Robinson controversy. Here is what Obama said in Cairo:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. . . .

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians— have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. . . . They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation.

The “on the one hand/on the other hand” character of Obama’s discussion of the Holocaust caused an adverse reaction among the Israeli public as well as among a significant portion of American Jews and helped create the widespread lack of trust in Obama that now exists in Israel. In a Tel Aviv University poll released this week, Israelis by a margin of 60-38 percent expressed a lack of trust in Obama, and the poll found no differences among the Israeli political parties, “even among the left-wing parties, the rate of those who do not trust him is higher.”

In “The Durban Debacle: An Insider’s View of the UN World Conference Against Racism,” Tom Lantos (then the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee and founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus) recorded his experience as a U.S. delegate at Durban. The critical moment at Durban came after the Organization of the Islamic Conference presented a “compromise” document that included slurs and distortions against Israel that would require the U.S. to leave the conference:

After this document appeared, I met twice with Mrs. Robinson over the next 12 hours-the second time at her request-and urged her publicly to denounce it in order to salvage the conference. . . .

Mrs. Robinson’s intervention with the assembled delegates later in the same day left our delegation deeply shocked and saddened. In her remarks, she advocated precisely the opposite course to the one Secretary Powell and I had urged her to take. Namely, she refused to reject the twisted notion that the wrong done to the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East. Instead, she discussed “the historical wounds of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust on the one hand, and … the accumulated wounds of displacement and military occupation on the other.” [Emphasis added]

Thus, instead of condemning the attempt to usurp the conference, she legitimized it. . . . Robinson was prepared to delve into the arcana of a single territorial conflict at the exclusion of all others and at the expense of the conference’s greater goals. . . .

It was clear to me that Mrs. Robinson’s intervention during the Geneva talks represented the coup d’ grace on efforts to save the conference from disaster.

Robinson’s endorsement of the equivalence of Palestinian “displacement and military occupation” to the Holocaust was echoed eight years later—in almost precisely the same terms—by Obama’s “on the other hand” description of Palestinian “dislocation” and “occupation” after his own reference to the Holocaust.

Robinson’s remarks (and other actions) led to the disaster at Durban. Obama’s speech, employing the same trope, contributed to the dramatic drop in Israeli confidence in his ability to serve as a fair broker in the dispute with the Palestinians. And tomorrow he will officially present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson.


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