An Unbalanced Act

According to today’s Ha’aretz, President Obama’s visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp,

was widely interpreted as a direct continuation of the “reconciliation” address he delivered in Cairo just 24 hours before, a kind of counterweight to his “salaam alaykum” speech intended to pacify Israel and its supporters in America, and refute the claim that the president had compared the suffering of the Holocaust to that of the Palestinians.

Let us assume this is accurate. This understanding of balance presents three problems with respect to Obama’s Cairo speech – especially its passages on Palestinian refugees which immediately and causally followed his comments about the Holocaust. The first problem is that the Arab and Muslim worlds need not be convinced “that Nazi persecution and the Holocaust in particular figure centrally in the West’s moral constellation.” They know that very well. Ask Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The problem is not that they fail to see its centrality in Western thinking. The problem is that they object to it and vociferously and often insultingly ask the West to dispense with its memory. Those who accuse the West of supporting Israel out of guilt for the Holocaust do not ignore the centrality of that event in Western thinking. They wish to remove it from that central role. To remind the Arab and Muslim world therefore that America supports Israel because of the Holocaust — this seems to be the operational assumption of the balancing act — is not going to do the trick. It will just strengthen in the mind of people like Ahmadinejad or the Hamas leadership the idea that promoting more of Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry and the Walt and Mearsheimer The Israel Lobby is the right response.

The second problem is that this balancing act seems to suggest that Israel exists because of the Holocaust. Again, there is no disagreement here with Iran’s Ahmadinejad, who’s been saying this all along. That’s why he recommends that Israelis be relocated to Germany and Austria — let the Europeans compensate the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants with their own land.

The third problem is that the balancing act seems to suggest the following: you can count on us to cry over the unmarked graves of dead Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In exchange for that favor, we’ll put living Jews in harm’s way for the sake of a photo-op at the Rose Garden, and hopefully a Nobel peace prize (even if co-shared).

Israel does not need that balancing act. Let’s hope the President really meant both his words and the symbolism of his visit for their own sake, and not for some short term political gain with part of his domestic constituency.