Judging from his itinerary, when Obama arrives Wednesday for his first presidential visit to Israel, he hopes to correct the impression that he failed to grasp what drove the Jewish dream to re-establish a state 65 years ago in the biblical land of Israel.
In a tightly-packed, 48-hour schedule, space has been carved out for a visit to the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed, as well as a visit to the grave of the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.
In a part of the world where heritage and history are bitterly contested and symbolism carries weight, Obama’s visits to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Herzl’s grave appear designed to send a clear message.
Previewing the trip, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes made sure the significance of the former stop in particular was not missed, noting that the Dead Sea Scrolls “are a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel.”
Speaking on Israel’s Channel Two television on Saturday, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren also made the point, noting that the manuscripts were “written more than 2,000 years ago, by Jews in Hebrew in their homeland, the land of Israel – this sends a message to the world about the Jewish state’s deep roots in this region.”
“This is not a country that fell from the sky after the Holocaust, this is a state that is truly rooted in the region, and is a permanent and legitimate,” Oren added, in comments reported by The Jerusalem Post.
In Cairo in 2009, Obama suggested that the Jewish aspirations leading to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 were “rooted” in a “tragic history” of anti-Semitic persecution that culminated in the Holocaust.
An argument often cited by Israeli critics is that Jews had no legal or historical claim to the land of Israel, but that Europe alleviated its “guilt” over the Nazi genocide by giving the surviving Jews a homeland, at the expense of Arab inhabitants. (Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ 1982 thesis at a Soviet college, later published in book form, was subtitled “The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism.”)
At the same time Palestinian leaders frequently reject Jewish historic claims to the land, disputing for example that King David ruled the kingdom of Israel from Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, or that the Temple built by his son, King Solomon, was located in the city, on the site now home to the al-Aqsa mosque.
In a speech in Israel ten days after Obama spoke in Cairo, Netanyahu acknowledged that the Holocaust underlined why Jews needed a homeland where they could be protected, but said the link to the land ran much deeper.
“The right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel does not arise from the series of disasters that befell the Jewish people over 2,000 years – persecutions, expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, murders, which reached its climax in the Holocaust,” he said.
“The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people.”