On 25 March, President Obama released the standard pre-holiday message to Jewish Americans as preparing to celebrate Passover that night. These sorts of messages are released for just about every major religion’s holidays, and as such are generally a bland sort of affair, wishing people a meaningful celebration and good tidings. This time, not so much:
Last week, I visited the state of Israel for the third time, my first as President. I reaffirmed our countries’ unbreakable bonds with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres. I had the chance to speak directly with young Israelis about the future they wanted for their country, their region, and the world. And I saw once again how the dream of true freedom found its full expression in those words of hope from Hatikvah, lihyot ‘am chofshi be’artzeinu, “To be a free people in our land.”
Let’s get the more general issue out of the way first: By tying the celebration of Passover to suport for the State of Israel, the President has effectively excluded me and a great many other Jews in America and around the world who do not support the State of Israel, and in fact see the holiday as a reminder of all of the reasons we cannot. But this is standard-level offensiveness for U.S. politics; certainly not fodder for a blog post.
No, what bothers me in particular about the President’s message is the quotation from HaTikva, Israel’s national anthem. According to President Obama, the Zionist dream of an exclusively Jewish state is “the fullest expression” of “the dream of true freedom.”
Unintentionally, the President here obliquely references one of the darkest legacies of European anti-Semitism: the Jewish Question. Stated in its broadest terms, the Jewish Question (sometimes called the Jewish Problem) asked whether Jews could ever truly be part of the nation. Jews in Europe were inherently the subject of suspicion, either because they could not be assimilated into a nation that defined itself as Christian (Great Britain, Germany) or because their status as an “alien nation” meant they could never be more than a community apart from the nation (France). Regardless of the reason given – and there were many – European anti-Semitism held that Jews were incapable of being full citizens of the nation-state, at least as long as they remained Jewish.
It was in this context that political Zionism took hold. In 1896, Theodor Herzl explains
The Jewish question still exists. It would be foolish to deny it. […] The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized–for instance, France–until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of Anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.
[…] I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.
We are a people–one people.
For Herzl, the Jewish Question is interminable. Even when things seem like they are going well, Jews inevitably carry with the them the seeds of anti-Semitism that will inevitably sprout, even in the seemingly tolerant United States. It’s an argument you still hear today when people talk of Israel as their “insurance policy,” just in case their own country’s politics begin resembling 1930s Germany. And it is the argument that inspired Naftali Herz Imber to write the line quoted by the President in his Passover message.
So when the President quotes that line from Hatikva he is, I’m sure unintentionally, telling Jews that they cannot truly be free in America. They cannot really be American. They can only realize their true collective project by emigrating. A any good community organizer ought to know, it is the unintentional messages that often do the most harm. That is not the sort of message that a President ought to be giving to any of his citizens.