Jewish political commentators’ paranoia

Wild misreadings of Barack Obama’s statements could spell danger


By Marc Saperstein, July 16, 2009
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"Have Americans unknowingly elected a pro-Islamist President?” This is how Richard Baehr concluded a recent article in the American Thinker.
The term “Islamist” designates a militant anti-democratic ideology, characteristic of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, using Islamic texts to justify holy war and terrorism. As President Obama is committing 17,000 additional American troops to combating Islamist forces in Afghanistan, Baehr’s rhetorical question appears patently absurd.

On June 16, US special envoy George Mitchell, when asked to explain “natural growth” — a critical term in current Israeli West Bank settlement policy — responded: “I think the most commonly used measure is the number of births.” From this, Baehr concluded: “American policy can now be described as ‘thou shalt not have any new babies’.” Evoking anti-baby policies of Pharaoh and Auschwitz, he later mentioned “Obama demands to stop having babies in West Bank settlements”.

The rhetoric continues with metaphors of violence: “Obama still has Israel in its (sic) sights” (alluding to the sighting mechanism of an assassin’s gun), “Obama and Hillary Clinton are cracking their whips trashing Israel”. Contrasting this with the “go-soft-with-killers approach” to Iran, and the “non-stop fawning attention to the Muslim world since his inauguration”, led Baehr to his “a pro-Islamist President” question.

The same characterisation turned up in Melanie Phillips’s June 26 JC column, no longer a rhetorical question but an affirmation: “America has a pro-Islamist President.” The evidence for this staggering statement was drawn primarily from Obama’s Cairo University speech.
Let’s see. Obama said in the Cairo speech: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” Phillips’s exegesis: “Airbrushing out. . . the Jews’ 3,500-year connection to their ancient homeland . . . he thus effectively denied that Jews are in Israel as of right.” This despite Obama’s unambiguous statement in the speech that “Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied”.

Obama said that Jerusalem should be “a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together”. Phillips claims to have detected that, through an unspecified Koranic reference, Obama “subtly implied Jerusalem should become Muslim”.

Citing Obama’s commitment to fight negative stereotypes of Islam, she asks rhetorically, “Did he not have a similar responsibility to fight against the negative stereotypes of Jews or Zionists?”, ignoring his insistence that denying the Holocaust “is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction — or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews — is deeply wrong.”

The Internet is filled with vitriolic condemnation of the Cairo speech from the far right of the Jewish spectrum: Obama is “throwing Israel to the international wolves”, Obama “threw Israel under the bus” or “over the cliff”. Such hyperbole suggests an obsessive inclination to interpret what the President says — and fails to say — as malicious hostility toward Israel and Jews, hostility especially dangerous because the his deeper message is not apparent and needs to be “revealed”.

Metaphors of violence have led to actual violence against political leaders in the past. Describing an American President as “pro-Islamist” may have unintended implications. God forbid that someone lurking in the US, or in the UK, takes such verbal assaults too seriously.

Rabbi Prof Marc Saperstein is principal of Leo Baeck College

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010