(December 4, 2020 / JNS) Dov Lipman’s recent JNS piece on “Obama’s revisionist ‘Promised Land’ ” powerfully demonstrates that the former president’s just-published memoir seriously misstates the facts about the founding and subsequent history of the State of Israel. Lipman’s article deserves the widest possible readership, and so it is good to see that, in addition to its appearance here, it has been republished on numerous other websites.
But there is more to be said about Barack Obama’s Israel narrative. When read in the context of the other 760-plus pages of A Promised Land, it comes as a truly shocking deviation in tone and substance. The rest of the book is a highly readable, thoughtfully presented account of the 44th president’s early life, political career and first term in the White House—there is to be a second volume, completing the account of his presidency. One reads along, struck among other things, by how much reflection and self-questioning it includes along with straightforward narrative, making it clear that the author brings a high level of self-awareness to his writing. And then you get to the Israel story, where it dissolves into not just an inaccurate mess but an inaccurate mess of a very particular sort—a propagandistic mis-telling that systematically supports the irredentist “Palestinian” version of Israel’s history.
Obama’s account of Israel’s history is dramatically at odds with his own account of what his purposes were in writing the book. In an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published as part of the book’s rollout, under the title “Why Obama Fears for Our Democracy,” the fear he particularly stressed is that the line between historical truth and historical inaccuracy is in danger of being erased. He told Goldberg: “If we don’t have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then … our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering an epistemological crisis.” The Eraser-in-Chief, he contends, not surprisingly, is his successor-in-office. In a 60 Minutes segment also promoting the book, he described the Trump years as ones of what he called “truth decay” in which “not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t matter.” The clear implication was that he, unlike Trump, is a man to whom the truth does matter, and that his book—whose “ideal reader,” he had told Goldberg, “is some 25-year-old kid who is starting to be curious about the world”—can be relied on to respect the difference between what’s true and what’s false.
Yet Obama’s ideal 25-year-old reader—presumably a recent graduate of a college where history courses are no longer required and, to a shocking extent, no longer offered except through the lens of an “ethnic” or “post-colonial studies” curriculum—would “learn” from his former president the following: that the roots of the Jewish state lie in a unilateral declaration by imperialist Great Britain issued while it was “occupying” “Palestine”; that the subsequent growth in the territory’s Jewish population was the result of “mobiliz[ation] by “Zionist leaders” who “organized highly trained armed forces” to protect their “settlements”; that the U.N. resolution calling for the creation of Jewish and Arab states in the territory was rejected by the Arabs because “they were just emerging from colonial rule”; that the resident Arabs were “driven from their lands” by the Jews; that after the British withdrawal, the Jews and Arabs “fell into war” and that “[f]or the next three decades, Israel would engage in a succession of conflicts with its Arab neighbors”; and that the formation of the PLO was the “result” of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel took control of the West Bank from the Jordanians.
The ideal 25-year-old reader will not learn, among other things, that Britain’s Balfour Proclamation was promptly enacted into international law as part of the reshaping of the Middle East by the victorious Allies following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I and subsequent collapse, first at the San Remo conference in 1920 and then in a League of Nations mandate in 1922; that Jewish settlement in the British Mandate territory, specifically authorized by the League of Nations, was driven by a continent-wide flight of European Jews from mounting anti-Semitism and the closing of the United States to Jewish immigration by legislation adopted in 1924; that the Jewish immigrants were relentlessly attacked by murderous Arab anti-Semites, and built their military capacity as a matter of communal self-defense; that upon the declaration of the Jewish state the Arab countries—led by Egypt, which had never been colonized—attacked and invaded the new nation, which is how the two sides “fell into war”; that, prior to the Arab attack on the new state, there was no plan to transfer or expel the local non-Jewish population, and it was the Arab-instigated war of extermination that resulted in large numbers of them leaving the new state, many by choice, many out of fear, some by force; that it was ongoing Arab military and terrorist aggression in the following decades that produced the “succession of conflicts” in which “Israel would engage”; and that the PLO was organized in 1964, three years before the Six-Day War occurred, with the active support of the Arab countries that had been trying to destroy Israel since its birth, long before any supposed “occupation” of the West Bank.
Talk about “truth decay.”
The reader of A Promised Land, coming upon this propagandistic “history” after 600-odd pages of thoughtful and self-aware narrative, has to ask what explains the author’s sudden swerve into tendentious inaccuracy? There is no way to know for sure. But given his prominence and the respect that his words command, it is well-worth speculating as to the reasons.
It bears emphasis that he has not always subscribed to such a “Palestinian-friendly” version of history. To take just one example among many, when as president he attended and spoke at the funeral for Shimon Peres in 2016, he began his remarks by describing Israel as “a homeland regained” for Peres—and the rest of the Jews as well. He went on: “A bountiful life, driven by simple pleasures of family and by big dreams. … This is the State of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish people over the last century … .” He described Israel as being “surrounded by enemies who denied Israel’s existence and sought to drive it into the sea.” None of this, in tone or in substance, finds its way into A Promised Land. Obama made this generous assessment even though his years in office had seen deep dissension between his administration and the government of Israel, described in detail in Michael Oren’s 2015 memoir of his ambassadorship, ironically titled Ally. Maybe the radically different account in the present book reflects that, as an ex-president, he is free to say what he really thinks, and the earlier words were just politically necessary falsehoods. It may be noted that his early education was in a Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, although in the years in question it was known as a religiously tolerant place and, of course, far removed geographically and politically from the Middle East.
Another possibility is that he is simply ignorant of the real facts of Israel’s history. This seems doubtful. Although he has been surprisingly reluctant to allow the details of his college education to become public, he spent two years at Columbia studying political science with a concentration on international relations. It is next to inconceivable that his education would not have included some familiarity with the Versailles Treaty, and the subsequent agreements and arrangements with respect to the Middle East. Likewise, he was in college during an eventful time in the history of the region, including Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic flight to Israel and the resulting Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and beginnings of the Lebanon War. Nor was he an indifferent student: He stated in a 2005 interview with a Columbia College alumni magazine that “my years at Columbia were an intense period of study. When I transferred [from Occidental College], I decided to buckle down and get serious. I spent a lot of time in the library. … I was like a monk.” Although he has never released his transcript, there are reports that he graduated with a 3.7 GPA.
My own suggestion is that it is not that he is uneducated, but that he was mis-educated—and in a fashion that has become vastly more widespread in the years since his college days. The version of events he puts forward in A Promised Land unmistakably calls to mind the accounts associated with the late Edward Said, who was on the faculty at Columbia during Obama’s years there. Indeed, it was shortly before Obama entered Columbia that Said published his The Question of Palestine, which, as Mideast scholar Martin Kramer has said, “set the parameters within academe for what one could and couldn’t say about the Palestinians and Israel.” Said’s Palestine book appeared just a year after the appearance of his magnum opus, Orientalism, which essentially remade the world of Middle Eastern studies by positioning the Arabs as the victims of their own “ism”—both physical occupation and exploitation and then intellectual despoliation—with the plight of the Palestinians being “Exhibit A” of the existence and extent of this two-fold exploitation. In Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, Joshua Muravchik gives a quote-worthy account of Said’s “achievement”:
“Said rolled American racism and European colonialism into one ball of wax: white oppression of darker-skinned people. … [H]e made a unique contribution in portraying ‘Orientals’ as the epitome of the dark-skinned; Muslims as the representative Orientals; Arabs as the essential Muslims; and finally Palestinians as the ultimate Arabs. Abracadabra, Israel, in conflict with the Palestinians, was transformed from a redemptive refuge from two thousand years of persecution to the very embodiment of white supremacy.”
There are unconfirmed reports that Obama actually took a course with Said; whether he did or not, he could hardly have escaped the pull of Said’s ideas and the glamor of his persona. That this worldview was sympathetic to him is evident in among other ways by the friendship he struck up with an acolyte of Said’s who also combined high academic position and frontline Palestinian activism, Rashid Khalidi—since 2003, perhaps ironically, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia—whose “story of the Palestinian struggle for statehood” is entitled The Iron Cage (guess who keeps the cage locked). And now it has found its way into a best-selling book by a prestigious ex-president, likely to find its way into the hands and minds of people who have never heard of Said and Khalidi, much less read their books.
That Said’s work is deeply flawed in many ways has been repeatedly demonstrated—Muravchik’s book, among many other virtues, details its deficiencies—but that has not prevented it from having a huge influence on the way American universities teach the history and politics of the Middle East. Kramer, in Ivory Towers on Sand, his study of the evolution of Middle Eastern studies in the American academy, credits Orientalism with remaking the field—and inaugurating the process by which those studies and other regional studies have become deeply politicized and of less and less intellectual merit.
What is most deeply disappointing about Obama’s parroting of the Said/Khalidi line in his memoir is not merely that it puts the prestige of a former U.S. president behind its distortions, but that it represents a huge missed opportunity to probe and question a false narrative—one that has caused untold violence and suffering. What might be called the lachrymose version of Palestinian history has left its adherents stuck in a world of grievance, envy, violence and hatred. Nothing remotely like that can be laid at the door of Donald Trump, whatever falsehoods he may be guilty of. For all Obama’s interiority and self-questioning, he somehow couldn’t bring himself to apply that skeptical and self-challenging mindset to this particular subject. It is a perverse compliment to the power of this phony narrative that even a man committed to avoiding truth decay, and who has nothing more to achieve in his political life, could not put it under the magnifying glass, but mindlessly repeated it.
And yet, one may hope that Obama’s volume 2 will not only carry the narrative of his presidency forward, but bring some of his much-vaunted and evident talent for introspection to bear on this topic. Whoever the 25-year-olds are when the sequel appears will be much the better for it. So will the author.
Michael W. Schwartz is of counsel to Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and writes on a variety of subjects.
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