Ok, so I know I’m a few weeks late on this topic, but I just watched Obama’s address to Cairo University in its entirety this morning, and as with most Obama speeches, I’m impressed. He entered the stage to a remarkable ovation, to which he responded “Shukran,” the Arabic word for “Thank you.” He then proceeded to address the audience with the words “al-Salaam Aleikum” which is a common phrase used among Arabs to mean, “Peace be with you.” I could be wrong, but I find this to be an unprecedented moment in politics, where the President of the United States of America reaches out to the Muslim world with such dignity.
The President proceeded to quote the Koran on three different occasions, the final time accompanying quotations from both the Talmud and the Christian Bible. He cited his experiences in Indonesia, as a student in a majority Muslim nation (Indonesia is home to the most Muslims of any country in the world). He also referred to his own familial ties to the religion of Islam, using his middle name as an example.
To many Americans, and particularly, to many American Jews, Obama’s actions may seem like cause for concern. In speaking to fellow Jews throughout the presidential election last November, I heard an inherent distrust among many. There is a common sentiment among American Jews that Democrats are not strong enough supporters of Israel. Thus, you have a historically liberal, Democratic demographic leaning to the right, simply for the sake of Israel. I am by no means discrediting this stance. I myself am a strong supporter of the state of Israel, and find it to be an important issue when I consider my vote. However, I am confident enough in the strength of the American Jewish community through groups such as AIPAC to maintain my sense of Zionism, while critiquing the often flagrant policies of the Israeli government.
Obama is no dummy, however, and spoke directly to this group in his Cairo speech. He affirmed America’s support for the Jewish state and recounted his understanding of the tumultuous past of the Jewish people. He also spoke of the anti-Semitic hate speech that resides in the words of Holocaust deniers. Denying the Holocaust, stated Obama, is “baseless, ignorant and hateful.” Ignorance is not power.
Although Obama’s words were in strong support of Israel, many conservative Jews feel threatened by Obama’s stance on settlements in the West Bank, that being primarily that they must cease to exist (an opinion that I agree with as well, and one that will lead us down a path of peace). An Israeli right-wing group served to manifest these sentiments with their promotion of the sign displayed above depicting Obama as a modern day Arafat. It is fanatical Jewish groups like these that caused the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It is Jews like these who protested the rally celebrating the 60th anniversary of Israel that I witnessed in Montreal last May. It’s Jews such as these who attend Holocaust denying conventions in Tehran among the likes of David Duke. These Jews impede peace as much as Hamas.
In closing, I was obviously quite moved by Obama’s words. While I do not place him on a pedestal, and see him as a cure-all drug for the world’s ills, he has demonstrated to me a unique quality. This quality resides in his capacity to unify disparate groups in times of desperation. He inspires people to behave civilly, and carries a message of unity, rather than of factionalism. When I travelled abroad during the Bush presidency, I was careful about my admission of my nationality. It wasn’t safe to say “I am an American.” Yesterday, I was sitting in a nargileh spot in the widely Palestinian populated East Jerusalem. When asked my nationality, I proudly declared “Ana Amreekee/I am American.”
It’s an interesting time to be in the Middle East. Obama came here, now Carter is here, the elections in Iran… I’m glad to be here, and I’m learning so much about how important it is to have a strong, positive force in the driver’s seat back home in America.