Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is President Obama's defining rhetorical strategy. For every contending thesis and antithesis -- Islam versus the West, Iran versus America, Palestinians versus Israel -- he is the synthesis. All sides possess a shiny shard of the truth. Obama assembles the mosaic.

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Discounting for gush and swoon, Newsweek's Evan Thomas' reaction to the Cairo speech was revealing: "I mean, in a way, Obama's standing above the country, above -- above the world, he's sort of God." Here is an American president so Olympian in his perspective that he is "above the country." Obama seldom chooses to be a participant in ideological struggles. He aspires to be history's referee.

There was, however, a notable exception to this approach during his recent overseas tour. In Obama's rhetorical universe of mist and fog, divided between gray and deeper gray, he drew one vivid line. Holocaust denial, he said, is "baseless," "ignorant" and "hateful." He talked about the "evil" of genocide, repudiated "lies about our history" and challenged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Buchenwald.

Obama's intensity and clarity on this issue were unexpected -- and needed. Holocaust denial has long been a staple of Middle Eastern anti-Semitism. But it has grown more pervasive since the 1990s -- not merely due to the manias of Ahmadinejad but in service to a broader strategy.

The political purpose of Middle Eastern Holocaust denial is to delegitimize the state of Israel. Since Israel, in this view, was created by the West out of Holocaust guilt, disproving the Holocaust removes the reason for Israel's existence. "The entire Jewish state," printed one Jordanian newspaper, "is built on the great Holocaust lie." Iran's minister of foreign affairs, Manouchehr Mottaki, argues that if "the official version of the Holocaust is called into question," then "the nature and identity of Israel" must also be questioned.

This conception of Israel's history is itself a distortion. The Holocaust is important to Israeli identity; it is not identical to Israeli identity. Zionism existed well before the European genocide. The ties between Jews and the land of Israel reach back for millennia. Israel does not exist merely because of Holocaust guilt. It exists because of its own tenacity, sense of purpose, and national success.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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