By Shaul Magid
June 9, 2009
Rush Limbaugh may be wrong in claiming that Obama spoke of a moral equivalency between the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering, but he’s right that Obama suggested that the two phenomena were in the same universe of pain. In Cairo, Obama was interceding in a history of Jewish thought that has decided that there are no parallels and rejected it as a legitimate negotiating position.
So much has been said about Obama’s historic speech in Cairo last week that I wondered what more could, or should, be said. Then I heard Rush Limbaugh’s comment claiming it “unconscionable” that Obama would make a “moral equivalency” between the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering. Rush’s comment was covered by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s The Situation Room and quickly refuted on that program by former Bush speechwriter David Frum (who thought the speech was a disaster). Yet I think Rush’s comment requires serious attention.
While not repeated with Rush’s bravado, the “equation,” as it were, has been mentioned by many in the American Jewish community. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was quoted in the New York Times Friday June 5, saying “’I understand Palestinian suffering, it is terrible… But it is not on the other hand to the Holocaust” It is to this other hand that I would like to draw our attention.
To begin with, what if Rush is right? What if he is right precisely where he is wrong? “On the one hand/on the other hand” could surely be a phrase introducing moral equivalency—though it could just as easily recognize two unequal realities, both of which must be taken into account when trying to understand a complex situation. Moral equivalency needs more evidence than “on the other hand,” which is why David Frum discounted it when it could have served his purpose.
But there is more. What I want to argue is that Rush saw an equivalency that is, by its unstoppable allusion in Cairo, signalling a seismic shift in the United States’ attitude toward Jews, the Holocaust, Israel, and the Middle East crisis. And here I think he is right. Obama made three comments about the Holocaust worth rehearsing: First, Holocaust denial is unacceptable. Second, that the United States has “cultural and historical ties” to Israel that make the bond with it “unbreakable.” Third, that the Jews have a right to a Jewish homeland in part because of the Holocaust.
Let us take each of these as independent claims. First, while the United States has always refuted Holocaust deniers, its commitment to free speech has often tested that commitment. At issue, in part, is whether Holocaust denial should be an exception to the right of free speech. Obama’s comment, geared largely toward the Arab world pervaded by Holocaust denial, made it clear that the United States will not accept Holocaust denial in any form. As a matter of US policy, the Holocaust has been named a non-negotiable fact.
Second, while not explicit, I would suggest part of America’s “cultural and historical” ties with Israel are linked to the Holocaust. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that the United States decided to erect a Holocaust museum on the Washington Mall indicates that America has adopted the Holocaust as part of its history. While some American Jews understandably may resist this claim, the resistance may be precisely what Obama wanted to address.
Third, connecting the Holocaust to the Jews’ right to a homeland seeks to put to rest Arab claims denying the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. If the Holocaust is history and it is part of the Jews’ legitimate claim to a homeland, Israel’s existence is also now unassailable.
So what is “on the other hand”? One of the ways the Holocaust is deployed by some Jews is as a sign of their exceptionalism. This is not always conscious and often, when conscious, not overt. It is based, in part, on the Holocaust. There is ongoing debate among scholars whether the Holocaust was an unprecedented event in Jewish or human history. Stemming from Emil Fackenheim’s book God’s Presence in History (1970), the claim went that the Holocaust was described as an expression of human evil that is different in kind from any previous event of Jewish suffering. Fackenheim intended this as a theological claim, arguing that a radically different event required an equally radical theological response acknowledging the need for a paradigm shift in Jewish life and thought. Now that we can only hear “the voice of Sinai through the voice of Auschwitz,” everything had to be different.
Taking a different strategy, Steven T. Katz, in his multi-volume The Holocaust in Historical Context, argues that the genocidal Final Solution against the Jews is a unique event in human history. Through archival labour rather than theological postulations, Katz works through hundreds of examples of genocide, and claims that the Final Solution was categorically different than any other case of genocide (and also, by the way, categorically different than any previous violence against Jews). For my limited purposes here I suggest this attitude, be it theological (Fackenheim et. al.) or historical (Katz) often translates culturally as a claim of exceptionalism (though I do not think Fackenheim intended that; whether Katz does or not I do not know).
Such research, correct or mistaken, cultivates the attitude among some Jews that they have suffered in ways categorically different than other peoples, and that their claim to a homeland is exceptional. This is how I understand Foxman formulating “on the other hand” so axiomatically. “I understand Palestinian suffering, it is terrible….But it is not on the other hand to the Holocaust.” Rush is wrong that Obama offered a locution of moral equivalency. But he is right that Obama suggested that the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering were phenomena in the same universe of pain. Obama was interceding in a history of Jewish thought that has decided, consciously or not, that there are no parallels. Obama stood at the podium in Cairo and rejected that stance as a legitimate negotiating position.
This is why I understand Obama’s claim as a proposal to the Jews that gives as it takes. Here is how I would formulate it:
I am giving my pledge that I will not tolerate any discourse that denies the Holocaust (in the Arab world and anywhere else) and I am affirming that the right to a Jewish homeland is, in part, a result of your suffering at the hands of the Nazis. And I am asking you to give up the exceptionalism that is sometimes used regarding Israel that stems from your understanding, right or wrong, of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I don’t know whether the Holocaust is a theologically or historically unique event. That is an internal matter. But while the Holocaust makes a Jewish state legitimate and our bond “unbreakable” (our “cultural and historical ties”) it does so as part of, and not as an exception to, Palestinian suffering. That is, I will treat the Jews’ right to a homeland and the Palestinians right to a homeland as two legitimate claims on equal footing. Both people have suffered. Who has suffered more is not ultimately my concern, nor should it be yours.
This is not moral equivalency but it is subverting the exceptionalism that permeates some Jewish attitudes toward Israel and the peace process. Where would we be if we could no longer use exceptionalism as a claim to public politics?
In my estimation, this is a brilliant and necessary move. In essence he is saying to the Jews, “The United States is giving you full support in making sure the Holocaust is remembered as a war against the Jews. But you must abandon using that event as an excuse to circumvent your responsibilities as a nation who is occupying another nation, preventing them from the very same rights you are claiming for yourself.”
Rush was wrong (as he so often is) that Obama was making a neat argument of moral equivalency. But he was also right: in this speech there was a radically new message to the Jews. As a Jew I celebrate that message, as it can only serve to enhance the spiritual and physical well-being of the Jews and the Palestinians. Our consciousness should be shaken. May it yield a better world.