President Obama’s June 4 address in Cairo to the Muslim world has by now been thoroughly parsed, analyzed and critiqued with Talmudic intensity. Stunning and significant, the address also left some listeners wanting more — more about their pain and others’ responsibilities. Some complained about things that were in the speech, and some complained about things that were missing.
Many Jews have expressed a justified concern that Obama linked the founding of Israel entirely to the Holocaust, omitting any reference to decades of Zionist thought and advocacy, never mind the hard work of building the land that has been our spiritual and physical home for millennia. Whether that was an intentional misreading of history, or an unintentional slight, probably depends on one’s view of the president.
In the rush to note what wasn’t in the speech, however, an important point may have been overlooked. For an African-American president to bring up race in the context of a major speech to the Muslim world was brave and risky. Obama did it anyway.
“Palestinians must abandon violence,” he said. “Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.”
Violence, he went on to say, “is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”
For years, many have wondered why Palestinians have not adopted the tactics of nonviolence from the American civil rights movement, and here Obama gave public voice to that point, without qualification.
The two struggles are not analogous; the comparison can go too far. But though history never precisely repeats itself, it serves us up lessons and challenges. “Pure nonviolence could tell Israelis that Palestinians are willing to live next to them,” Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg wrote recently. “Sainthood can work. Britain abandoned India; Montgomery’s buses were desegregated.”
Wondering why “there is no Palestinian Gandhi,” Gorenberg imagines an elaborate scene of Palestinian nonviolent protest and Israeli reaction, all leading to possible negotiation. Fantasy, he acknowledges. But now, thanks to the speech in Cairo, someone else has given voice to such imaginings, too.