When it comes down to it, I am glad, even relieved, not to be president of the United States. That’s not to say there aren’t not some pretty nifty perks that come with the job — no security lines at the airport, no running out of laundry detergent or pita chips, no traffic jams, first-run movies on demand, and also “Hail to the Chief,” plus lots of ruffles and flourishes.
But there’s a high price to pay for all that. Some significant number of people will pretty much despise you no matter what you do, and most others will cut you only so much slack. Sooner rather than later, you have to deliver. And you have to know that every word you utter will be scrutinized, all the more so if you are known for the care you take with words.
Until last week, basketball, President Obama’s favorite sport, was also a fitting metaphor for his rhetoric. He’s an all-purpose forward, sometimes leaping and dunking, sometimes taking and making a mid-distance jump short, sometimes shooting, as they say, from downtown, and a solid defender to boot. Whether he can be Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, let alone Michael Jordan, necessarily remains to be seen — but no question, even this early, that he’s at the very least a verbal prodigy.
Recently, the metaphor shifted to a different sport. There he stood in Cairo, with the whole world watching, and the challenge — essentially of his own making — was to hit a home run. Which is exactly what he seemed to do.
I say “seemed” because there’s a substantial difference between seeing and hearing the Cairo speech as delivered and, later, reading it carefully. The live event was stunning as theater. The venue, the enthusiasm of audience and commentators, the audacity of its candor, its manifest decency — all to the good. An inside-the-park home run, I thought. Little soaring rhetoric, but much, very much, to chew on. Even upon reflection, with the dispiriting realization that there was no one on base at the time and that, as the president himself acknowledged, one speech was not about to change history, this was an address meant to make room for the new beginning it promised.
But to read the speech is to come away with a rather more restrained response. There was something in it for pretty nearly everyone, and that is a handy warning sign. My own reservations are more than a quibble, even if less than a full-blown critique of a speech so honorable in intention, so impressive in scope and so cleansing in substance.
One reservation: For Israelis, as for Jews in general, there was Obama’s “recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” And again, the next day, in Buchenwald, where he said that Israel rose “out of the destruction of the Holocaust.”
The sentiment is familiar; we ourselves have for years now used the “from ashes to rebirth” formula to summarize the relationship between the Holocaust and Israel. We take young Jews from around the world on the “March of the Living,” which starts in Auschwitz and ends in Israel. Foreign dignitaries visiting Israel are routinely introduced to our people’s saga by a solemn visit to Yad Vashem. Want to know where we have come from, in what way Israel is an answer to the sorrows of our past? Come stand silently in the Hall of Remembrance. So we can hardly blame others for adopting the theme we have so regularly put forward.
But the formulation essentially starts the story of Israel in 1933, when Hitler came to power, or in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, or in 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The modern unfolding of the story in fact begins much earlier. It begins with Moses Hess’s “Rome and Jerusalem” in 1862, or with Leon Pinsker’s “Auto-Emancipation” in 1882, or with the beginning of the return to the land in that same year, or with Theodore Herzl’s “The Jewish State” in 1896, or with the First Zionist Congress in Basel a year later or with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and most of all there are the waves of Jews who made their way to Palestine “to build it and be rebuilt by it.”
The history of Israel’s renewal and rebirth is rich, dense — and of course, if one wishes, it is a history that goes back not a century or so but millennia. And when the British left Palestine in 1948 (and India in the same year), they did so for their reasons, not for ours. The Holocaust may have accelerated the emergence of the Jewish state; it was not its source. And — here’s the reason it matters — to suggest, in Cairo no less, that it was its source is to reinforce the Arab complaint that it is they who have had to pay Europe’s IOU to the Jews.
It does President Obama neither service nor favor to regard him as flawless. Admiration and praise, yes; idolization, never. Carefully read, the Cairo speech was, in fact, flawed. Carefully read, it also warrants praise. For whatever its errors of commission and omission, it was wise, humane and timely to say, as the president did, that “if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” That is not, as some have charged, an instance of moral equivalence; it is an assertion of moral imperative.