Yesterday, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published a wide-ranging interview with President Obama on the Middle East. Naturally, much of the ensuing commentary has focused on the president’s defense of his Iran diplomacy and his administration’s handling of the fight against ISIS. But in poring over Obama’s comments on these big ticket issues, one of the president’s more remarkable statements has largely been overlooked: his equation of denying Israel’s right to exist with anti-Semitism.
In the latter part of their conversation, Obama and Goldberg turned to the subject of Israel. The president began by making a spirited case against those in the pro-Israel community who equate his criticisms of Israeli policy with an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic outlook. “I completely reject that,” he said. On the contrary, the president argued, by standing up for the shared liberal values of the U.S. and Israel—and pointing out when either falls short—he is ensuring both countries will endure and thrive. “I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium,” he said. “I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in that fight for what I believe to be true.”
But having defined what sort of critiques of Israel don’t constitute anti-Semitism, the president then proceeded to outline those that do. And this is where he broke new ground. Asked by Goldberg to delineate the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, Obama answered as follows:
I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism—that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current—if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology. If you acknowledge those things, then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake, you should be able to align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not held to a double standard in international fora, you should align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not isolated.
Essentially, Obama defined anti-Zionism—as distinct from sharp, public criticism of Israel and its policies—as anti-Semitism. In his construction, denying Israel’s right to exist (i.e. Zionism) is to deny the lessons of history and betray a deeply flawed moral outlook. In making this case, Obama joins other world leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls—both, like him, critics of Israeli settlements and advocates for a two-state solution—who have pointedly labeled anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Likewise, Obama’s words accord with the U.S. State Department’s official definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.”
Obama’s articulation of this position, however, is far more eloquent and rich than any of these antecedents. His explanation for why opposing Israel’s existence is bigoted is simultaneously moral, historical and structural. To consign the Jews to statelessness, in Obama’s view, would undo the painful progress made by the world towards treating them as equals and protecting them from prejudice. It would turn back the clock to a much darker time, when Jews had no national home to stand up for their rights and offer them refuge. It would be an abdication of moral responsibility for the persecutions of the past and a willful ignorance as to their implications.
Or, as the president put it to Goldberg: “I think it would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States, and a moral failing for America, and a moral failing for the world, if we did not protect Israel and stand up for its right to exist, because that would negate not just the history of the 20th century, it would negate the history of the past millennium.”
(Notably, Obama’s detailed denunciation of anti-Zionism also accounts for—and includes—anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox sects and principled anti-nationalists. The president’s point is not that such people are personally prejudiced whatsoever towards Jews, but that the structural consequences of their views are undeniably anti-Jewish. Like other forms of racism, he argues, anti-Semitism can persist structurally while being perpetuated by individuals who are not bigoted in their own interactions.)
Obama’s declaration also explains why he is such a passionate advocate for the two-state solution: he views Israel’s establishment as a moral triumph against historical injustice, and seeks the same for the Palestinians. His answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not to undermine the legitimacy of one of the parties but to ensure that each has a home of their own. To do anything else would be to reverse moral progress, rather than advance it.
Beyond offering insight into Obama’s worldview, how much does his insight here matter? For one thing, it has pressing relevance to debates that are happening on college campuses over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. As has been well-documented, the BDS movement’s leaders and founding principles call for not simply the end of the occupation, but the effective abolition of Israel through an influx of millions of Palestinians, abrogating its Jewish character and returning Jews to statelessness. As Omar Barghouti, one of the movement’s founding fathers, put it, Israel “was Palestine, and there is no reason why it should not be renamed Palestine.” Where Obama seeks to build two homes for two peoples, the BDS movement—like their Israeli mirror image in the settler movement—seeks to impoverish one at the expense of the other. College students debating Israel and Palestine, then, might consider whose vision they find more morally appealing.
Likewise, Obama’s thinking also suggests a way forward for campus Hillel houses dealing with the thorny issue of where to draw the line on hosting speakers and groups that are critical of Israel. Here, the president’s perspective offers a straightforward standard for enlightened discourse: harsh critics of Israel and Israeli policy, yes; critics of Israel’s existence, no.
Call it the Obama test.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.