During his landmark address to the Muslim world last week, President Barack Obama sought to provide an evenhanded account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that emphasized both sides' historic sufferings. Obama appeared to believe that his tone alone would force Israelis and Palestinians to understand each other's pain — an important step in preparing both for compromise.
Yet Obama failed in this pursuit, offering a hackneyed version of Arab-Israeli history that is largely irrelevant to the context of the Muslim world.
Of course, the president deserves credit for speaking out against Holocaust denial in Cairo, where Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion can be found in virtually every bookstore.
But by limiting his discussion of Israeli history to a European genocide, the president reinforced the common Arab contention that Israelis are foreigners — and that Israel is, therefore, a colonial entity. By emphasizing geographic displacement in his account of Palestinian suffering, Obama portrayed the Palestinians as indigenous to the Middle East.
Ultimately, this contrast implies an anti-Zionist narrative: that the Palestinians have paid a tremendous price for crimes committed against a foreign people in a foreign land. This account has long validated Palestinian "resistance" — a word that Obama even used in his speech — and undermined peace efforts.
Portraying Israel as a foreign entity foisted upon a native Arab population isn't merely counterproductive; it's wrong. Israel's emergence is a product of Middle Eastern events, and Arabs have had a profound role in ensuring its existence. Since the late 1940s, virtually all of the Arab world's historic Jewish communities have been uprooted violently, with more than 800,000 Arab Jews fleeing to Israel for sanctuary. These refugees and their descendants comprise roughly half of Israeli Jews today.
In the challenging task of building Muslim public support for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, it is vital to remind Muslims of their responsibility for the anti-Semitism that made Israel's founding a moral necessity. Rather than speaking exclusively of the Holocaust, Obama should have told his Egyptian audience that the biggest synagogue in the Middle East, located in Alexandria, has stood virtually empty for decades because of eviction orders issued by Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime during the 1950s and '60s.
He might have further challenged them to visit the synagogue on Adly Street in downtown Cairo, noting that a constant security detail is required to safeguard the religious rights of the five Jewish women who still worship there.
Finally, Obama might have noted that fewer than 100 Egyptian Jews remain out of a population that once numbered 80,000 — and that approximately 37,000 of these Jews sought refuge in Israel.
To illustrate the anti-Semitism at the heart of the Muslim world's rejection of Israel, Obama might have highlighted the plight of Yemen's Jews. Though numbering a few hundred individuals — down from a population of roughly 60,000 in 1948 — Islamists have repeatedly threatened them with death and have subjected them to frequent violence.
This situation forced 18 Jewish families in Saada — in Yemen's northwest — to relocate to the capital in 2007, where they've been kept in tight quarters under government supervision and subsist on welfare. According to reports, Yemen's Jews are considering immigration to Israel, but are reluctant to leave a community that historians believe has existed since the time of King Solomon.
By noting the horrific mistreatment of Arab Jews during the 20th century — and the continued abuse of Jews in certain parts of the Muslim world — Obama could have emphasized that anti-Semitism was not strictly European.
In turn, he would have provided a rarely heard rebuke to those who see Israel as a foreign entity, reinforcing that its emergence as an answer to anti-Semitism is also the product of its Middle East context. Instead, he chose to focus only on the European story of Israel's birth — one that validates Arab rejection of Israel as a legitimate state, and therefore inhibits peaceful compromise.
Eric Trager is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a 2006-07 Islamic Civilizations Fulbright fellow, based in Cairo, Egypt.