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Obama's Palestinian problem

By Hamid Dabashi (first published by Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt)

In his 4 June speech to the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama betrayed the hopes that had been invested in him, writes Hamid Dabashi

Barack ObamaThe evening of Tuesday 3 June 2008 will go down in history as one of the most electrifying moments in American political culture -- changing the normative landscape of its racial imaginary beyond anything anticipated before, and only dreamt of in a euphoric moment of myth almost half a century ago when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his prophetic "I have a dream" speech.

The historic air of expectation was so voluminous that night that CNN and MSNBC were happily competing in their sharp wits and technological wherewithal as to which one could cut thicker into the historic forays and call Senator Barack Obama the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party before the other. The jigsaw puzzle of boxes and colours and numbers and statistics on the bottoms of their screens competed for attention with their anchors and pundits and their excited words and wide-eyed amazement at the momentous occasion: History in the making.

Even the AIPAC-seasoned and marinated Wolf Blitzer of CNN had to concede his championing for Golda Clinton Meir to the historic moment and let the events roar, as the delegate count got closer and closer for Obama to clench the nomination for the Democratic Party ("he only needs 12 more, 11 more, 8 more, . . ."); while at the same time not even the sharp-shooting wit of Keith Olberman of MSNBC could keep pace with the enormity of the occasion.

It took Tim Russert (1958-2000), the gifted American journalist of unsurpassed integrity and intelligence -- who died suddenly of a heart attack soon after the primaries were over -- to remind everyone of the scale of what we were all witnessing.

A certain Barack Hussein Obama, a first generation African-American, born to a black Muslim African father and a white Christian American mother, and a community activist with Malcolm X as his youthful hero and a prophetic visionary of a liberation theologian like Jeremiah Wright as his pastor, had succeeded in defeating one of the most powerful and vicious political machines, code-named "Clinton," to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for the next presidential election in the United States.

Older generations of African-Americans were awe-struck in disbelief, while the younger generation of American idealists of all races and both genders were euphoric. Happy, so happy and blissful, were those who could witness this momentous occasion. Dinner time had to be moved in anticipation of Hillary Clinton's concession speech (which she refused to make until days later), and Barack Obama's victory speech (which came not a moment too soon); the evening chores of families, children's bath-time and bed-time, had to be rearranged accordingly; their homework rushed, dishes left in the sink, the volume on televisions raised, camera and camcorders readied.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Dabashi's latest book is Iran: A People Interrupted

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Parents took pictures and videos of their young children against the background of their television sets -- for posterity: "This is you when Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party in the 2008 Presidential Election" -- mothers whispered into their children's ears in voices that echoed decades into their futures; fathers held back tears as they tried in vain to keep a critical distance. Pride -- yes, even pride -- was possible in what was still George W. Bush's America. It made you blink and be bold to think you had lived in this country long enough to see this night, and to look at the face of your children with a sense of relief, resolve, happiness, content -- that they have a claim on this land and that there were reassuring reasons to be American.

Not even Machiavelli's posthumous guru Hillary Clinton could rain on Obama's parade on that magnificent evening, in that synergy of hope and happiness, when history was made, when Barack Hussein Obama climbed the stage in that hall in St Paul, Minnesota, and claimed rightful victory -- when millions upon millions of young Americans, joined across races, genders, and religions, made their mark on their country, their culture, their history: claiming it, owning it, hoping to change it, returning hope and humanity to it, entrusting it to a young, progressive, charismatic, charming and loveable hero.

Barack Obama rose to the occasion and spoke with a command over his eloquence that he had all but lost over the past few weeks under the heavy load of the nitty-gritty of a grueling campaign. "America," he roared in that syncopated voice resonant with John Coltrane's sax cadences and Billie Holiday's sonorous certainties, "this is our moment. This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past. Our time to bring new energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new direction for the country we love."

And everyone, even the most battle-fatigued sojourner of hope made hopeless by what this country does to the world, believed him -- in that moment believed him -- yearned to believe him. "The journey will be difficult," he assured everyone, "The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment -- this was the time -- when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals."

And we were all there and ready to believe him -- we ordinary folks, men and women, sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, lovers and partners, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Pagans, Muslims and Kafirs, native or naturalised, old and new (legal and illegal) immigrants -- we were all there and we all believed him. This was our privilege, and his burden -- a promissory note he had signed, sealed and handed to us.

The morning after that historic night people and papers were jubilant in New York, on that gorgeous spring day of Wednesday 4 June 2008. HISTORY, one front-page headline proclaimed in bold and confident letters over a handsome picture of Obama; DESTINY decreed another over an equally beautiful shot. The New York Times was more subdued; Hillary Clinton had managed to diminish the size of Barack Obama's picture, as well as the size of the font proclaiming his victory and the diction of the headline: "After Grueling Battle, Obama Claims Nomination": What ignominious words to usher a city into history!

New Yorkers, though, walked taller that morning to pick up their daily doses from the Afghan émigré selling them coffee and confidence from a pushcart on the corner of Broadway, picking up their daily papers from the Bengali couple selling newspapers from a kiosk on the other side of the same street and on their way to ask for their bagel and tofu from the Mexican labourer at a place that could only be so named in New York: "Nussbaum and Wu." This was located right next to the Lebanese falafel joint called Amir, a couple of stores away from the hardware store run by a band of brothers from the Dominican Republic, adjacent to a supermarket all of whose tellers relentlessly speak Spanish and exchange notes from Puerto Rico -- on that Wednesday morning of 4 June 2000 hope and Obama were on everyone's mind: fresh coffee cups steaming with joy over his pictures on the front pages of the New York dailies. Ella Fitzgerald was singing in the air of that early spring morning, when the Hudson went quietly down pretending to hide its joy and wonder.

Even if you had heard that Tuesday evening that Obama would be addressing the AIPAC the following day you had happily managed to repress it -- a deliberate amnesia, maybe, an unconscious and desperate attempt to savour a moment in history without a reality check -- self- delusional denials are the winding ways of hope. But by Wednesday afternoon, not even intentional blindness could have prevented you from getting a glimpse of Obama's picture with the acronym of AIPAC flaunted over his podium, from which he yet again addressed another gathering of the American Israeli Political Action Committee. You needed to know in what particular words and gestures he had managed to destroy every iota of hope he had managed to generate in millions of human beings just the night before.

OBAMA BEGAN HIS SPEECH in front of AIPAC by falling right into the oldest trap that the American Zionist cabal has in its bag of tricks -- dispatching its lunatic fringe to spread rumours (via emails) of facts and fantasies: Obama is an anti-Semite; Obama is soft on Hamas; Obama's Pastor is pro-Palestinian; Obama's wife is trouble; Obama was a friend of Edward Said -- and above all, horribile dictu, Obama is a Muslim (being a Muslim is an accusation in the United States of Israel; like being a Jew in Hitler's Germany; people have to defend themselves, Obama has defended himself, against the "accusation" that they are Muslims, that he is a Muslim).

When confronted by these "accusations," people have to up the ante, and Obama upped the ante to prove that he was "a friend of Israel," so on top of everything else he made an executive decision right there and then that Jerusalem was the "eternal capital of Israel": "Any agreement with the Palestinian people," the now presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party promised his AIPAC audience (to their uproarious applause), "must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognised and defensible borders." Then he went for the big prize and declared: "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

People listened aghast, people who cared -- so what has happened to: "This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past"? What had happened to: "this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth"? You speak that language on Tuesday evening and then on Wednesday morning you give Jerusalem to a band of white European colonial settlers and the pack of their billionaire American supporters?

Jerusalem, of course, is not Obama's to give to anyone, least of all to a military garrison that has stolen another people's homeland at gunpoint and forced them into exile and refugee camps. Like the rest of Palestine, Jerusalem belongs to Palestinians -- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Palestinians, and any other shade of agnosticism they care to entertain in their midst. So the problem with Senator Obama's remarks is not with his unwarranted and gratuitous largesse and a promise he cannot deliver. His problem, and ours for having invested hope in him (as he said we should) on that Tuesday evening, ought to be seen as coming from somewhere else.

Continuing with his magnanimous offerings to the Zionist gang of billionaires he thinks indispensable to his campaign for the White House, Barack Obama further added that he would start his relationship with his Israeli friends "with ensuring Israel's qualitative military advantage. I will ensure that Israel can defend itself from any threat -- from Gaza to Tehran. Defense cooperation between the United States and Israel is a model of success, and must be deepened. As President, I will implement a Memorandum of Understanding that provides $30 billion in assistance to Israel over the next decade -- investments to Israel's security that will not be tied to any other nation... And I will always stand up for Israel's right to defend itself in the United Nations and around the world." This is where we need to pause and ask ourselves what in the world has happened to all those promises -- those beautiful but evidently shallow words -- that the good Senator from Illinois has kept spinning ever since his campaign started in 2007.

What this additional largesse -- $30 billion dollars in military assistance, no less -- in effect means is that Obama will continue to exacerbate the transmutation of the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland into a military fortress that aids and abets the imperial project of the United States in the region. To understand this simple fact we must reverse the clichéd, anti-Semitic, conspiracy theory that "Jews control American foreign policy" and instead see how the reverse is true: that it is the American imperialism (which is written into the DNA of this country's political culture and for which Obama now intends to provide a new face) that abuses the perfectly legitimate post-Holocaust fears of Jews the world over in order to maintain Israel as a major part of its gargantuan military machinery.

Delusional American Zionists might be fooled by the idea that "Israel has a special relationship with America" -- or else it might be in their lucrative business interests to think so (for the "War on Terror" is a very lucrative business). But the willing participation in transforming a misbegotten dream into a massive military base for the whims of an incompetent empire does not require much of a "special" relationship. The people who actually pay for this perilous hallucination are Palestinian and Israeli parents, on a daily basis and over the last sixty years, and certainly not the American Zionists living in the suburban mirage of American fantasy. For them, for the American Zionists, Israel is not a terrorising reality, for some sixty years now the source of despair, death, and destruction for living and breathing human beings -- Israeli and Palestinian alike. For them, Israel is a dyslexic Biblical exegesis, a vicarious avocation, a profitable business deal, a dangerous delusion, a Jewish apartheid state that they simply refuse to see as the mirror image of an Islamic Republic, a Christian empire, and Hindu fundamentalism.

There is something else about this $30 billion that Barack Obama -- Mr. Change and Hope -- promises for Israel to help keep its military edge. $30 billion dollars? How is that different from George W. Bush's America? And what happened to all those eloquent speeches about universal healthcare, public education, college affordability, and reconstruction of the infrastructure of this dilapidated country? Not even for 24 hours did AIPAC allow this country to breathe a sigh of relief from the Nakba that has afflicted it since the fanatical Zionists targeted it and heavily invested in it to protect their racist apartheid state -- an apartheid state that a United Nations resolution, to individuals from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Obama's own pastor Reverend Wright to his own Democratic predecessor President Jimmy Carter to every decent human being around the globe, have identified and acknowledged as such.

$30 billion spent on keeping Israel's already Goliath-like military edge is $30 billion less spent on making universal healthcare possible, $30 billion less spent on public education, on job training for single mothers, on school lunches for starving children suffering from malnutrition, on preventing a catastrophe like Katrina from happening again, on research on alternative sources of energy, on saving the planet from the dangerous delusions of a predatory capitalism, on helping more than 35 million Americans who live under the poverty line, and even more millions who can scarce keep themselves above it -- and then, if something is left, on the myriad other deadly deficits in the moral fabric of this country.

$30 billion spent on an additional arsenal for a colonial outpost of American military barbarism, and Barack Obama -- flaunting a dismal double-whammy American/Israeli flag pin on his lapel, when he was known for not even wearing an American pin before--thinks he is standing on the shoulders of W. E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X?

OBAMA'S SPEECH AT AIPAC cannot be looked upon at face value and will have to be seen as symptomatic of a rare and psychopathological disease. What this speech more than anything confirms is yet another extraordinary fact: the number of times that AIPAC members and the Zionist constituency that it represents are in dire need of hearing from powerful people, or about-to-become powerful people, that they are "friends of Israel." This is quite curious for an organisation and the colonial settlement that it represents, given that together they fancy themselves so powerful.

In Senator Clinton's speech in front of the same body the word "friend" appeared eight times, all variations on the theme of "and let me be very clear. I know that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel." In Senator McCain's speech to the very same AIPAC the word "friend" appeared six times, all variations on the theme of "the people of Israel . . . would always have a friend and ally in the United States of America." Meanwhile, Senator Obama, not to be held back, came up with mentioning the word "friend" five times, all on the theme of "I want you to know that today I'll be speaking from my heart, and as a true friend of Israel." But Prime Minister Olmert of Israel, again addressing the same session of AIPAC, topped them all by using the word "friend" in his speech no fewer than 14 times, all variations on the theme of "the traditional bonds of friendship between Israel and America will continue to be nurtured and strengthened."

For a colonial settlement sitting on more than 150 nuclear warheads (according to President Jimmy Carter), Israel is very conscious of its own moral weakness and political illegitimacy and thus seems to be in urgent and insatiable need of powerful friends, who will assure and reassure it that they are its friends and will protect it. Does any other legitimate state on the planet need to be protected by friends in such high places? The Jewish apartheid state is in need of such robotic reassurances of its "friends" only because it knows better than anyone else that it has been an illegitimate operation from day one of its colonial creation. Sixty years of "Independence"? Independence from whom? From the British? The British invented that colonial nightmare. Since when has stealing another people's homeland been called "Independence"?

Barack Obama's Palestinian problem is not the Palestinians' problem. Palestinians have struggled for their inalienable right to resist the colonial occupation of their homeland for over sixty years, and they will continue to have the support and sympathy of every decent human being on Earth. Obama's Palestinian problem spells out the particulars of his own moral depravity and political cowardice, his having succumbed to the oldest, most racist, anti-Semitic, cliché on Earth -- that you cannot win the US presidential nomination or election "without the Jewish vote," and that fatal failure negates every single oration of "change we can believe in" that Barack Obama has delivered to his sincere and trusting young audience. He has already betrayed that trust.

W. E. B. Dubois once famously said that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." Well, not after Collin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and now Barack Obama. Imperialism (just like the capitalism it seeks to serve) is colour blind and gender neutral. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, George W. Bush -- if they serve its interest, they are welcome aboard.

What does it exactly mean for Barack Obama to opt judiciously for his father's colour (but not his religion), and for his mother's religion (but not her race) -- and call himself "African- American"? What kind of claim could he possibly have on visionary black intellectuals and activists? From W. E. B. De Bois's monumental intellect and universal learning and struggles to Malcolm X's expansive revolutionary universalism, generation after generation of African-American visionaries of emancipation and revolt have mapped out manners of connecting the fate and future of African-Americans to the larger universal struggles around the globe. With one obsequious speech at AIPAC Barack Obama has cut himself loose from any connection whatsoever to that noble and ennobling tradition and become the personification of what Frantz Fanon clinically diagnosed as "Black Skin, White Masks," and for which Malcolm X had an even more accurate, though less flattering, epithet.

It took an entire history of slavery in this country, and then a civil war, and then a civil rights movement, and in the process the making of a W. E. B. Du Bois, a Martin Luther King, a Malcolm X, and then generations after generations of struggle to demand and exact the inalienable rights of a people -- all to produce a Barack Obama? Not really. At this point the question is no longer the similarity of Barack Obama to Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. At this point, and after his speech at AIPAC, there is very little difference between McCain saying that the US will be in Iraq for another one hundred years and Barack Obama saying that "we need to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in." They are both talking about the same thing -- though they may differ in their words.

The problem with Barack Obama's speech in front of AIPAC is not simply an aspect of the American foreign policy that will come our way should he become the next president of the United States, for Palestine is not just a gaping colonial wound. Palestine is also a metaphor for the larger robberies that European colonialism and American imperialism have perpetrated upon the world, from one end to another. There is a globality to the Palestinian predicament -- and trampling on the broken backs of its people has far worse implications than just one single issue could warrant.

Obama is the absolute best that American politics has made possible -- and precisely for that reason, when all is said and done, still the American Zionists would like nothing better than to see him defeated and McCain (preferably with the Israeli military attaché, Senator Joe Lieberman, at his side) elected president. With Obama, dialogue is still possible, even if he has sold his soul, for he used to have one. That is not the case with McCain (or would have been the case with Hillary Clinton). In Obama, the best of America is implicated, invested, hopeful -- and should he start dropping bombs on people around the globe, or giving them to his Israeli friends to do so on his behalf, it would no longer be the degenerate country club of George W. Bush and Co. that would be implicated. The best of America would also be implicated.

Obama is no George W. Bush. He is not the nightmare of American politics. Obama is its dream -- and inside that beautiful dream dwells an ugly reality: The fear of Obama and of what he might be able actually to unleash in this country. Cornered by AIPAC and the American Zionist cabal, he refuses to see and dares not fathom that in point of fact millions of young, progressive, committed and idealist Americans -- chief among them young, idealist and progressive Jewish Americans -- are rooting for him, and that he need not appear so sycophantic in front of a band of banality just because they have managed falsely to project an overwhelming image of power.

They are not powerful. We, the people, are powerful. Just add up the millions of dollars Obama has collected from our $25.00 contributions to his campaign. No billionaire Zionist can match that -- and then ask him to remain true to the hope and elation that he has brought to this country. AIPAC brings Obama down to the lowest common denominator; we, the people, raise him to his own highest aspirations. Obama is meant to be (and he is) a breed apart, the writer of a new chapter in American politics. But he will be his own undoing, if he does not truly believe in his Tuesday evening version and instead allows his Wednesday morning mutation to undo his own promises. Here is what he said, to which we the people hold him responsible:

"The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment -- this was the time -- when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals."

* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

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