A winter flurry of “Dear President Obama” letters – in the forms of op-eds and paid advertisements – have swirled around the public square in the days since the 44th president of the United States was sworn into office.
Some of the open letters have concerned Mr. Obama’s economic stimulus plan; others, United States relations with Iran; others still, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether the President pays any attention to the multitudinous missives is anyone’s guess. But if I had his ear (or his BlackBerry contact information), I think my own message would consist of a simple video clip.
Broadcast on an Egyptian television channel on January 26, barely a week into Mr. Obama’s presidency and on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the clip addresses the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War – but in a very different way from most Holocaust commemorations.
The video is a sermon offered to the public by an Egyptian Muslim cleric, Amin Al-Ansari; it was translated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The gist of Mr. Al-Ansari’s teaching is that the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, since they had been “killing Germans, kindling civil strife, inciting the people against the rulers and corrupting the peoples.”
The cleric offers a similarly creative history of Zionism (turning Theodore Herzl, for instance, a lifelong journalist and writer, into the inventor of a new type of explosive that he offered the British government – evidence of how “annihilation underlies [the Jews’] ideology”); explains how the “rulers of America” themselves hated and feared Jews (impelling them to try to “give [the Jews] a place of their own”); and asserts that the destruction of European Jewry was a just and proper response to the crimes of Jews throughout history.
What is particularly remarkable about the sermon – similar ones, after all, are routinely offered by Islamist clerics – is its employment of Holocaust footage to make its case, so to speak.
“Let’s watch what Germany did to Israel – or, rather, to the Jews,” the preacher invites viewers – “so we can understand that there is no remedy for these people other than imposing fear and terror on them.”
And with that the screen shows archival film footage of horrific concentration camp scenes – no less wrenching for their having been in the public domain for more than a half-century. Piles of skeletal remains are bulldozed like so much refuse, emaciated Jews hobble along before Nazi soldiers, a man is prepared to hang… and more. And as the scenes are displayed, Mr. Al-Ansari’s voice begins to show a certain enthusiasm, even excitement. “Watch this,” he urges the viewer. “Look… This child awaits his turn. Watch their humiliation. They are corpses, Allah be praised…”
And then, with barely disguised glee, as the viewer is shown an elderly Jewish woman kneeling on the ground, clutching the hand of a German officer, putting it to her face, begging, it would seem, for her life, Mr. Al-Ansari suggests with satisfaction that we “Notice what humiliation, fear and terror have struck her… See how much she is kissing his hand…”
“This is what we hope will happen,” the cleric then assures viewers, “but, Allah willing, at the hand of the Muslims.”
We live in a complex world, filled with competing interests and “narratives.” President Obama was wise to tell his interviewer on Al Arabiya television that “the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world,” and no less wise to offer “a hand of friendship” on behalf of America to “the broader Muslim world.”
His wisdom showed, too, in his assertion during that same interview that the ideas of radical Islamists “are bankrupt” and that their path leads to “no place except more death and destruction.”
And both wisdom and principle were abundantly evident in his straightforward statement to an Arab audience – and, in effect, to the Arab world – that “Israel is a strong ally of the United States… [and] will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount.”
There is something more, though, that is vitally important for an American leader to recognize about our world. I suspect that Mr. Obama knows it well, even if he may not choose to articulate it as bluntly as did his predecessor.
That something is the lesson of the clip I would send him: The contemporary world, like the world of yesteryear and before, back to the beginning of human history, harbors not only challenge and opportunity, but evil – unqualified, unbridled and unbearable.
© 2009 Am Echad Resources
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]