Barack Obama’s brilliant Philadelphia speech on race has been eclipsed by his complete break last month with the man he was trying to explain and avoid breaking with, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Yet, for all the Philadelphia speech’s brilliance and wisdom, one aspect of it left me profoundly sad and troubled. Early in the speech, as Obama recited a list of questions raised about him as a result of the Wright video snippets, he said: “Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely-just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.” Obama is too smart and his campaign too efficient for the omission of any reference to Islamic clergymen-“your imams,” perhaps-to have been accidental. That it wasn’t became clear just a few sentences later when Obama characterized Wright’s as “a profoundly distorted view of this country,” and included among his distortions “a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.” With all due respect-and I think Obama is due a lot of it-if that is to be his approach to the nation’s most difficult, persistent, and intractable foreign-policy challenge, then we might as well not bother to change leadership. I want to believe that Obama was simply doing what a Democrat must to win the party’s nomination: pledge undying support for Israel to avoid getting crosswise with Jewish voters. He could not afford to do less in a contest with Hillary Clinton, who never misses a chance to underscore her support for Israel. Witness her recent pledge to “obliterate” Iran if that nation staged a nuclear attack on Israel. John McCain has done much the same by attempting to tie Obama to Hamas. Obama probably also figured that, with a substantial chunk of the electorate still laboring under the misimpression that he is a Muslim, speaking kindly of Muslims and Islam while defending himself in the Wright matter would have been like trying to put out a fire by dousing it with gasoline. Still... Part of the promise that people see in Obama is that, as a nontraditional president from a nonwhite minority background, he may enable the rest of the world to look at America in a different way from the one it has become accustomed to doing during the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-neocon era. I first heard this hope expressed by a high-school classmate, Kathy Alexander, over dinner at her home in Terre Haute, Indiana, last September. Since then I’ve heard it numerous times from Americans of all racial and political stripes. But Obama won’t do that if he enters the White House committed to the view of the situation in the Middle East he expressed in Philadelphia. No, Israel is not the root of all evil in the Middle East, and the U.S. commitment to its security must remain nonnegotiable. In a succession of speeches and interviews over the last month, Obama has gone out of his way to underscore his belief in that commitment. But if Obama seriously believes that Israel’s forty-plus-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is not an open sore constantly oozing pus into this country’s relationship with virtually every Islamic country in the world...well, he’s not half as intelligent as I think he is. The fact of the matter is that the condition of the Palestinians is that of serfs: they effectively have no rights that any Israeli is bound to respect. Rev. Wright may have overstated the matter when he characterized Israel’s occupation as “state terrorism,” but it certainly bears a strong resemblance to some of the more morally egregious human-rights violations in the world. Yes, Iran is under the sway of homegrown Islamic theocrats. Al Qaeda and its adherents certainly subscribe to a “perverse and hateful” species of “radical Islam.” And without question, Hamas officially clings to an implacable opposition to Israel’s very existence as a nation. But the majority of Palestinians seem to me to be intent mainly on getting the boot of Israeli military occupation off their necks, gaining control of their own territory, eliminating the daily insults of checkpoints and settlements on their land, and of Israeli settlers occupying land that, legally, isn’t Israel’s to give. It would be interesting to see how soon a peace could be concluded if we had a president with the gumption to be evenhanded in the Israel-Palestine dispute and to give the impression he genuinely cares about the Palestinian people. If Obama sees only “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam” as the source of unrest and violence in the Middle East-and not also the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people-then, at least in this key area of foreign policy, he’ll be no improvement on the current regime. It would furthermore be interesting to see what a Palestinian-Israeli peace would do to all the other conflicts in the Middle East. How much venom and anger would be drained if there were not a daily diet of images of soldiers shooting at rock-throwers and of homes being bulldozed? How much harder would it be for Islamic radicals to fill their ranks without such provocations? Obama’s Philadelphia speech-especially the part in which he spoke of the racial resentments of whites-showed him to be a careful listener with an understanding heart. I hope he has listened to the Palestinians and understood their complaints. Some of his recent remarks suggest that he has. I hope he has listened to his own speech, and understood how worrying his remarks about the Middle East were. And I hope the view of things he expressed in that speech was not fully reflective of his understanding of the forces at play in that region.

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Published in the 2008-05-23 issue: View Contents
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