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What Obama didn’t say (and what he did)

Any serious rejection of anti-Semitism will mention the vicious rhetoric that much of the Islamic world now accepts

Some months ago, I traveled to Kathmandu via Istanbul. Between flights, I was shuttled to a five-star hotel, giving me one more reason to love Turkish Airlines. When I re-entered the Ataturk International Airport, however, one of the largest air travel hubs in the world, I noticed something that made me mad.

There was a bookstore in the departure hall that had a display rack outside. Prominently featured on the rack were two books whose titles and theme I could easily surmise, despite the fact that they were in Turkish. One was The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, by Henry Ford, a book which, translated into German in the 1920s and quoted in Mein Kampf, helped set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power. The other book had a similar world-Jewry-controls-the-world theme. Its cover featured a man with a huge bulbous nose, a scraggly beard and octopus tentacles squeezing the globe type, and its title included the name “Rothschild.”

Ever since my first trips to Cairo and to Amman many years ago, I’ve known that virulently anti-Jewish screeds are readily available in the Arab and Islamic world. Far from being the lot of marginalized groups of kooks, conspiracy theories about the nefarious and ubiquitous rule of Jewish power are often featured on mainstream television, and semi-governmental newspapers. But there was something particularly galling in encountering such brazen viciousness at a luxurious international airport.

I thought about the Istanbul airport when I read Obama’s speech at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, on Holocaust Day. I’m not one of those people (they seem to pop up on my Facebook feed) who think Obama is an anti-Semite or wishes Israel harm. I’m for Obamacare (but wish there was a public option), and gun control, and I believe that human beings are responsible for global warming. I also think Obama said something important, even groundbreaking, in his remarks on anti-Semitism last week at the Embassy — I’ll get to that in a minute. But there was a glaring omission in his speech, whose subject, appropriately enough, was anti-Semitism today.

Obama made a point of recognizing Muslims who saved Jews during World War II — and he’s right. He could have added that more Jews were saved by Muslims then killed by them during the notorious riots in Hebron in 1929. But what he failed to recognize and to attack is the mainstreaming of vicious anti-Semitism as acceptable and welcome in large parts of the Islamic world. That’s like making a speech about global warming and not mentioning oil and coal. Islam-related anti-Semitism is the elephant in the room of contemporary Jew hatred.

For starters, Obama could have denounced Ayatalloh Khamenei’s posting of a Holocaust-denying video on International Holocaust Day — or Iran’s despicable “Holocaust Cartoon Contest,” with its $50,000 prize. He could have mentioned the Hamas website, which sources the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the Protocol-inspired Egyptian television series, “Horseman without a Horse.” He could have mentioned the widespread dissemination, in contemporary Islamic fundamentalist teachings, about Jews being the descendants of pigs and monkeys who are destined to be slaughtered by Muslims.

Am I saying that Islam is by nature anti-Semitic? Not by any means. Islam is a huge, civilization-inspiring religion, with many articulations, and with both pro and anti-Jewish texts and epochs — in this regard, it’s like Judaism, which has produced both texts and cultures that are universalistic and humanistic, as well as those that are hostile and dehumanizing towards gentiles. Islam is still developing — as, I hope, Judaism is too. But right now, inspired by the spread of Salafism/Wahabism, a very particular form of Sunni Islam, whose origins are in Saudi Arabia, and by the version of Shiism promulgated by the Iranian Ayatollahs, Islamic fundamentalism has fused a toxic form of Jew-hatred with its religious message, and has been disseminating it en masse for many years.

By ignoring what are by far the fastest spreading, most heavily funded and audacious forms of anti-Jewishness in the world, Obama is doing no one any favors — not Muslims, Jews, Israelis or Palestinians. In ignoring Islamic anti-Semitism, Obama gives the message that Muslims somehow get a free pass when it comes to outrageous hatred. As Brooklyn Imam Tarek Yousef Al Masri, in a remarkable sermon attacking Salafist hatred of the other, including Christians, atheists and Jews, said: “If you have cancer, it won’t help you if I tell you that you have the flu.”

To me, it’s a form of prejudice against Islam that Obama refuses to call out and repudiate the particular forms of Islam from which Islamic terrorism and anti-Semitism spring. It’s as if he doesn’t believe strongly enough that Islam has enough goodness and holiness within it to root out the evil that is being done by some in its name. I believe it does.

What Obama got right was in his implicit association of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is in fact fueled by the strange alliance between radical Islam and the radical left: “When voices around the world,” Obama said, “veer from criticism of a particular Israeli policy to an unjust denial of Israel’s right to exist…we stand up forcefully and proudly in defense of our ally, in defense of our friend, in defense of the Jewish State of Israel.”

This is a statement that needs to be heard. Obama is saying that calling Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state into question is a form of anti-Semitism. That Obama understands this — that singling out one state among all others for de-legitimization is an act that is beyond the pale — is significant and reassuring. It shows that Obama is not just reiterating routine condemnations of anti-Semitism, but is ready to identify its contemporary, and very relevant, forms.

This is why it’s important to be precise when talking, as Obama did last week, about the spread of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in the Middle East and the Islamic world is horrifying, well-funded, and often state-sponsored. Turning a blind eye to it, as much of the left routinely does, gives the hatred of Jews legitimacy while hardening positions in the Israeli and Jewish mainstream, fueling a feeling of having been abandoned by “the world.” We’ve got our own work to do in Israel, and within Judaism, to create the conditions for peace. But when the spread of anti-Semitism in the Arab and Islamic is considered as serious and odious as the spread of other forms of racism and hatred, the Middle East, and the world as a whole, will have made a giant step towards peace.

About the Author
Micha Odenheimer is a journalist, rabbi, and social entrepreneur. Micha founded the Israel Association or Ethiopian Jews, the first advocacy organization dedicated to changing absorption policies, and Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli organization working with impoverished subsistence farmers in the Global South. Micha has written for numerous publications, including Haaretz, the Washington Post, and the Jerusalem Report from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries.
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