columnIsrael at War

Obama’s moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel encourages hate

The former president’s belief that both sides are wrong isn’t “complexity.” It’s amoral and a reminder that his appeasement of Iran means that there is Jewish blood on his hands.

Former President Barack Obama. Source: Facebook/Barack Obama.
Former President Barack Obama. Source: Facebook/Barack Obama.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In times of crisis, the public looks to its most revered leaders for insight and wisdom. But in the case of Barack Obama, the man who is, although nearly seven years into retirement, still America’s most popular living public figure, politician and Democrat, what passes for wisdom is not only unwise but amoral.

After weeks without saying much of anything about the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel on Oct. 7, the 44th president has weighed in on the subject while appearing on a podcast hosted by former staffers Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vieter. In the wake of the greatest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, the most brazen example of terrorism on the international stage since 9/11 and amid a shocking spike in antisemitism, it’s likely that many among the nearly two-thirds of American Jewry who were faithful supporters of Obama were hoping that he would say something to bring them comfort or at least take a strong stand in support of the Jewish state.

If you were looking to Obama for moral clarity, however, you came to the wrong shop. According to the former president, the main takeaway from Oct. 7 is that as bad as Hamas is, Israel is just as bad. “You have to admit that nobody’s hands are clean, that all of us are complicit to some degree,” he declared. That means acknowledging, he continued, “that what Hamas did was horrific and there’s no justification for it. And what is also true is that the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is unbearable.”

In Obama’s moral universe, Israel’s alleged sins are as grievous as those of Palestinian terrorists who were cheered by their own people and their foreign enablers for depraved acts, including rape, torture, the murder of entire families and the kidnapping of as many as 240 men, women and children who were dragged back to Gaza. No stern judgments about terrorism or its backers from Obama. He thinks what’s needed is “an admission of complexity.”

Fueling pressure on Biden

While the comments of former presidents can often be dismissed as irrelevant to present-day discussions, the same cannot be said for anything uttered by Obama. He remains enormously influential among Democrats, especially among the large number of his former staffers who hold positions of influence in the government of President Joe Biden. Whether or not that amounts to Obama pulling the strings in his former vice president’s administration, there can be no doubt that when he speaks, everyone in the White House listens.

What’s more, it comes at a time when Biden’s stance in support of Israel and its goal of eliminating Hamas is under fire from his party’s base, causing both the president and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to try to balance that with demands for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting that would benefit Hamas. Polls show Biden losing to former President Donald Trump in key battleground states largely due to his losing support from minority and young voters who are more likely to be hostile to Israel. In that context, Obama’s proclamation of neutrality in the war between Israel and Hamas sends a message to the White House that if Biden wants another term—and withdrawing from the 2024 race is anathema to the president, even if many Democrats are hoping for it—then he will have to start distancing himself from the Jewish state.

Seen in that light, Obama’s podcast comments should be viewed with trepidation by supporters of Israel. Should Biden heed Obama and choose to use the leverage of U.S. military aid to put the brakes on the Israel Defense Forces’ operations in Gaza, it would allow those who perpetrated the crimes of Oct. 7 to both escape justice and maintain their despotic rule over the Strip.

The statement about the war was classic Obama in that his words were the usual mixture of high-flown rhetoric, faux intellectual gravitas and an appeal to a higher morality that when weighed against the truth and genuine ethics are pseudo-intellectual claptrap. Above all, it revealed his deep-seated inability to tell the difference between right and wrong, all the while proclaiming that he has unique insights to offer on this and any other question. That is especially true when he speaks of Israel and those who wish to destroy it.

This, after all, is not his first statement about moral equivalence with regard to Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama’s Cairo speech

In June 2009, during his first trip to the Middle East as president, Obama—who had pointedly decided not to include Israel in his itinerary—gave a speech in Cairo that he hoped would mark a “new beginning” in America’s relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. At its core was an apology for past American policies towards Muslims and Iran, as well as an admission that the United States should not presume to tell other nations what to do. Another priority was a demand for Palestinian statehood, the lack of which he described as “intolerable.”

In the Cairo speech, he said calls for Israel’s destruction reminded Jews of the Holocaust. But in his next breath, he balanced that by saying that it was “undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years, they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation.”

In this way, he treated the slaughter of 6 million Jews as comparable to the political longings of Palestinian Arabs. Indeed, Palestinians had suffered. But unlike the Jews of Europe who were murdered by the Nazis, their problems stemmed from an Arab refusal to compromise over the future of what had been the British Mandate for Palestine. Rather than accept the U.N. partition of the country into a Jewish state and an Arab one, they chose to wage a war to ensure that there would be no Jewish state.

By 2009, the Palestinians had already rejected subsequent Israeli offers of statehood that would have given them control over Gaza, Judea, Samaria and a share of Jerusalem. And if they were enduring “daily humiliations” due to the existence of security checkpoints to guard against suicide bombers, it was because of their decision to respond to those peace offers with the murderous Second Intifada that cost the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis while they rode buses to work and ate lunch in restaurants.

The quest for a two-state solution to the conflict between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel would be at the heart of Obama’s foreign-policy agenda in the White House. He would continue to ignore the fact that even the “moderate” Palestinians of the Fatah Party that ran the Palestinian Authority refused to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders would be drawn. But not even his consistent efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction could ever persuade Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to make peace.

Yet Obama learned nothing from this, and he continues to see the two sides as moral equals even after Hamas exceeded the death toll of the intifada in a single day on Oct. 7. The contrast between Hamas terrorism and Israeli efforts to end the ability of these terrorists to continue their depredations, which does great harm to the Palestinians and to Jews, is not a matter of “complexity.” It is simply the difference between good and evil.

It is to the credit of Biden that, for all of his efforts to hamstring the Israeli offensive into Gaza, he recognized that difference Obama seems incapable of articulating.

Still, the implications of Obama’s appalling statement go beyond his own inability to rise above his always-simmering hostility to the Jewish state.

He has failed to understand that attitudes such as his are doing more than encouraging the chorus of criticism of Biden coming from left-wing Democrats. While he told his audience that they should recognize that Israelis and Jews remain haunted by the memories of the Holocaust, no Jew living in 2023 needs to consult with an elderly relative to know what it is like to live in a time of rising antisemitism. The mobs of left-wingers and Muslim-Americans marching in the streets of American cities in defense of Hamas and calling for Israel’s destruction—not to mention those roaming neighborhoods tearing down posters showing the images of Jews kidnapped by the terrorists—provide more than enough evidence that Jew-hatred is alive and well in our own time.

That Obama could speak of this topic and not condemn those demonstrations is telling. But as with his counsel to the Arabs in 2009, he views Jewish suffering as nothing more than an impediment to pressure the Israelis to make themselves more vulnerable to those who wish to commit genocide.

Appeasing Iran helps Hamas

The events of Oct. 7 can also be directly linked to the signature foreign-policy achievement of his presidency. His 2015 Iran nuclear deal did nothing to prevent Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon since it merely postponed that possibility. What it did do was to enrich and empower Iran, enabling it to maintain and expand its status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. It takes no leap of imagination to understand that this facilitated Iran’s support for Hamas in Gaza, as well as its Hezbollah auxiliaries in Lebanon.

In this way, we can see even more clearly now than before that Obama’s decision to pivot away from traditional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and towards what he hoped would be a rapprochement with Iran was not merely wrongheaded. It was a disaster that would eventually be paid for in the blood of the Israelis slaughtered on Oct. 7.

Rather than acknowledge that his policies contributed to a situation where Iran and its allies felt they could escalate the conflict without fear of American retribution, Obama remains determined to treat Israel and those determined to destroy it, like Iran and Hamas, as morally equivalent.

His statement strengthens those who think they can force a weakened Biden to betray Israel and force it to allow Hamas to survive in power in Gaza. What’s more, his stance also provides antisemites who support Israel’s destruction on the streets and college campuses with the sort of legitimacy they don’t deserve.

A decent American Jewish leadership, which has belatedly recognized that its traditional left-wing political partners have betrayed them in the wake of Oct. 7, would condemn Obama’s statement. But so far, groups like the Anti-Defamation League, led by former Obama staffer Jonathan Greenblatt, have said nothing in response to it.

The decline of the American left into hatred for Israel and Jews is a tragedy. It is a moral catastrophe, however, that didn’t arise out of a vacuum. It was made inevitable by both the attitudes and the policies of Barack Obama.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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