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Put Yourself In Their Shoes: Taking Obama Seriously for Nakba at 65

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By Robert Cohen

Put yourself in their shoes,” said President Obama. “Look at the world through their eyes.”

Good idea. And easily the best lines in his Jerusalem speech deliveredon 21st March.

Put yourself in their shoes.

It was a direct challenge to Jewish Israelis (and Diaspora Jews too).

Look at the world through their eyes.

But how hard is it to imagine the world of the Palestinian ‘other’?

Today – May 15 – marks the 65th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba – ‘Catastrophe’. The date follows one day after the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. What better moment to take seriously the Obama shoe-swapping challenge.

I thought I’d try the experiment by revisiting that speech in Jerusalem since it contains a near pitch-perfect rendition of the Zionist telling of Jewish history.

Here are a few sentences that now demanded revisiting.

“For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations.” said Obama.

So how does that familiar statement seem to me now as I walk around in my borrowed shoes?

Well, I can’t help but spot the verbal sleight of hand as God’s “promise” gets retrospectively upgraded from a biblical homeland to a modern State.

But then I shouldn’t blame Obama for getting confused about this. After all, my fellow Jews from across the globe have also become muddled on the topic. We have happily accepted the fusing together of religious concepts of ‘exile’ and ‘return’ with 19th century ethnic nationalism and then happily bolted on our own special take on European colonialism and justified it all through a clumsy reading of our own prayer book liturgy. With my Palestinian outlook, the consequences of all this start to look much clearer.

Then there was this: “Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home.”

But as a Palestinian would I not question how much ‘return’ actually took place during all those centuries of ‘longing’? My Jewish learning could give my Palestinian alter-ego the explanation for this historical discrepancy.

Wasn’t exile rather more than a geographical condition? Wasn’t ‘return’ a messianic concept that meant even a physical presence in the Holy Land did not guarantee the end of exile. Isn’t that what our rabbis taught us over two millennia, until Zionism took hold of our thinking?

Never mind, Obama was on a roll by now: “…the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland.”

With my Palestinian eyes this too might jar with me. I might want to ask the president where he thinks this leaves the six million American Jewish citizens who consider the United States to have fulfilled the “dream of true freedom,” giving them self-determination unparalleled in 2,000 years of Jewish history. Why have the vast majority stubbornly stayed there, apparently against their best interests?

After so much flattery about the achievements of the State of Israel (business, cultural and scientific), I would have been pleasantly surprised that Obama finally got around to mentioning the Palestinians.

However, I would have noticed that, unlike the Jewish story, the Palestinians were not accorded the grand sweep of history in the telling of their narrative. And the president’s description of the birth of Israel itself made no mention of terror tactics and murder, the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of families, the deliberate destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the blatant grab of Palestinian land – all carried out under the fog of war and the justification of Jewish national liberation.

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