President Obama’s itinerary for his upcoming visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank contains messages both direct and subtle. And one of the subtler messages seems to be embedded in his decision to visit the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit in Jerusalem.
In case the intended message passes you by: When President Obama spoke to the Arab world in his June 2009 Cairo speech, Jewish leaders watched warily, and then issued their complaints. Most had to do with the fact that Obama chose to give his first major international speech in Egypt and did not make a stop in Jerusalem while in the region. Others took issue with the President’s strong language against Israel’s settlement activity, and some were bothered by what they saw as Obama’s attempt to ignore Jewish historical ties to the Holy Land.
This argument was based on Obama’s reference, in his speech, to U.S.-Israel ties being cultural and historical in nature and on Obama’s recognition “that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”
By invoking the Holocaust as the root rationale for Israel’s creation, argued Obama’s critics, the president ignored the claims of the Jewish people to the land as something going back to the time of Abraham. Some even claimed that by not mentioning this historical tie, Obama was, in fact, supporting the anti-Zionist narrative, which views the Jews as outsiders who came to Palestine after being chased out of Europe only to make the Palestinians pay for the crimes of the Nazis.
In his visit, starting Wednesday, Obama will make sure this impression is rectified. He is expected to address the Jewish people’s roots in the land of Israel in his speech and public comments. And he will do so in a symbolic way through his visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.
As Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor explained in a Thursday press conference call, the famed ancient scrolls, which date back to Roman times, “are a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel.” He added that Obama “very much looks forward to the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Also at the Israel Museum, Obama will tour an exhibit of Israeli technological developments. According to Rhodes, this too carries a symbolic value. “Seeing the ancient connection through the Dead Sea Scrolls and then the future that is being forged in Israel through the technology exposition I think will be a very powerful experience.”
Obama will not pay a visit to the Western Wall in this tour, because of the difficulty in securing such a tour, his aides said, and so the Dead Sea Scrolls will be his only opportunity to see ancient Jewish landmarks during the three day visit.
Symbolism will be the key to another stop Obama will make on his trip, this time on the Palestinian side. On Friday Obama will visit the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the most important holy cites for Christians around the world.
“There’s been a very difficult series of challenges for Christian communities in the region – not just in the West Bank, but in places like Syria and Egypt and Iraq,” said Rhodes. “And recognizing the very deep and ancient Christian communities in that part of the world I think is an important thing to do, because in these transitions, we’ve underscored the need to protect the rights of minorities and we’ve underscored the need for pluralism. And I think the visit to the Church of the Nativity is intended to send that signal.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman