Obama and Palestine’s Forgotten Past

Mugs with pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama wearing a keffiyeh, displayed in a souvenir shop in Gaza City, on 9 November 2010. (Photo: AP -Adel Hana)
 
Published Monday, April 1, 2013
 
In George Orwell’s 1984, the Party had the power to reach into the past and decide whether or not a particular event had ever happened. The Party slogan declared that “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” President Obama’s recent visit made it abundantly clear that Israel has a stranglehold over the past, the present, and the future.

In the three days of his official visit to Israel, Obama made a series of speeches, visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Holocaust Museum. This carefully orchestrated tour tied together past, present, and future.

From the moment he stepped off Air Force One, President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu drove home the message that this is “our historic homeland” and that Jerusalem is “our ancient capital.” There were frequent references to Israel’s biblical heritage, with Peres proclaiming that Obama would “see the hills and mountains where our prophets preached. Where the soul of the Jewish people was born. Where the State of Israel was created.” The skilfully crafted rhetoric effortlessly connects the ancient past to Israel’s present and its claims to sovereignty over the land and Jerusalem.

One of the key sites that Obama visited was the Shrine of the Book housing the Dead Sea Scrolls. The visit’s significance was made clear in Netahyahu’s opening remarks: “You will see the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls, the world’s oldest text of the Bible, written in Hebrew here 2,000 years ago, scrolls that bear witness to the timeless bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.” Obama was being presented with what Netanyahu wanted him to believe are the title deeds to the land.

If the Shrine of the Book presented the title deeds, then Obama’s visit to the Holocaust Museum showed that the control of the past guarantees the future. The theme here was the threat to the survival of the Jewish people. It was used to justify US military support for Israel and its use of force. In the words of Peres: “You support us as we rebuild our ancient homeland and as we defend our land. From Holocaust to redemption.”

Obama was keen to reciprocate and reinforce the message of his hosts that Israel’s roots are set firmly in the biblical past. He talked of walking on “the historic homeland of the Jewish people,” and that “the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.” Like Peres, his use of the word “redemption” ties past and present together. It echoes George W. Bush’s remarks at the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel that “what followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David – a homeland for the chosen people of Eretz Yisrael.” Obama reinforced the connection between past and present with the phrases “a nation of museums and patents” and “timeless holy sites and ground-breaking innovation.”

Given this was the run up to Passover, Obama used the theme of biblical exodus to link Israel’s origins and future with those of the US. This powerful story of liberation from slavery and persecution, immigration and the gift of a promised land, provides a foundation narrative for both nations. Yet the exodus story is also a tragic tale of dispossession of an indigenous population slaughtered and driven from its land.

In keeping with the failure to mention this side of the story, Obama’s fleeting visit to Ramallah and Bethlehem ignored Palestine’s past. President Abbas spoke of “a people proud of their history, heritage, culture, and symbols” continuing “the path of their ancestors, extending since the ancient times over this land – their land.” But unlike his visit to Israel, Obama did not reciprocate or reinforce this message. Strikingly, he did not mention Palestine’s past nor did he visit any major archaeological sites, such as Jericho. His brief visit to Bethlehem was designed to appeal to an American Christian audience rather than suggest that Palestine had roots in the past.

Although Obama referred to “a viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people,” the term “historic” was conspicuously absent. The Palestinians were made to appear as though they have only shallow roots set in modern soil. Three millennia of history are ignored as though they have no connection to its modern inhabitants. If Palestine has no control of the past, then it has no control of the future.

Israel’s territorial claims are underpinned by its appeal to a biblical past; powerful images that resonate with an American audience that funds the military and economic aid so vital to Israel’s control and occupation. This foundation narrative has been undermined by historians in recent years who have questioned the biblical account of events.

Yet a coherent history of Palestine stretching from the ancient past, including the biblical periods, to the present has not yet emerged to challenge the powerful images used so effectively by Peres, Netanyahu, and Obama. The cultural struggle for a history of Palestine that ties these centuries to the present is crucial in the struggle for self-determination.

Palestine is denied a present because there is no political will on behalf of Obama or successive American governments to force Israel to negotiate meaningfully; there was no mention of the 1967 borders or illegal settlements. As long as the past belongs to Israel, Palestine has no future.

Keith W. Whitelam is Emeritus Professor and former head of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past and The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar’s editorial policy.

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