By Ronald Kessler,

Reaction to President Obama’s speech to a Muslim audience in Cairo in early June has drawn a range of reaction from many Jewish leaders. Detractors condemned it as a revision of the long and close relationship between the U.S. and Israel. But many who backed Obama were also surprised and dismayed over Obama’s speech. Such reactions from major Jewish leaders have largely remained beneath the surface, exchanged privately among them.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke out. “I have no problem with addressing the Muslim world. We here at the conference have done it for about 12 or 15 years. But the question is, what is the message they get? It’s not so much what he says, but how do they perceive what he says?”

On the one hand, Hoenlein says, “His reference to Israel and the special relationship being unbreakable is important, and references to persecution and Holocaust denial were important.”

But Hoenlein is disturbed that Obama did not mention the Jewish people’s ancient connection with the land of Israel. “There was no reference to the 3,000 years of Jewish connection to this land,” he says. “And that is one of the propaganda lines that the Arabs use: that the Jews are interlopers, that the two Temples never existed, that there was never any Jewish history in Israel. I don’t believe that was the president’s intent, but not making those references is troubling.”

Jews have claimed a connection to the land of their forefathers since 1400 B.C. Even after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., many Jews continued to reside in Jerusalem through the centuries, surviving various invasions. An 1845 Ottoman census of Jerusalem showed Jews outnumbered Muslim Arabs by almost 2 to 1 and were the dominant ethnic group in the region.

In his speech, President Obama addressed the issue of the Holocaust head-on, saying “Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today.” But he quickly changed the subject, comparing Hitler’s genocide of the Jews to the Palestinian struggle.

Hoenlein doesn’t buy Obama’s line of reasoning. “The Palestinian refugee problem, or dislocation as he said, didn’t come about because of the creation of the Jewish state,” Hoenlein says. “It came about because the Arab states declared war on Israel and warned the Arabs that they would suffer the same fate as the Jews if they didn’t get out. And then they kept them as political pawns. The reason the Palestinians don’t have a state is because their leaders rejected every offer for peace. Whether it was in 1937 or 1947 or 1967, or later on, up until Ehud Olmert’s offer and Ehud Barak’s offer, they rejected everything, even when they were getting virtually everything they had asked for.”

That is because, “The problem really is not what Israel does, it’s that Israel is,” Hoenlein says. “And they’re not ready to accept the existence of the Jewish state.”

Obama also failed to mention the other refugee problem involving nearly a million Jews. In 1948, Jews populated the major Arab cities from Baghdad in the east to Casablanca in the west. After Israel saw its rebirth, Jews “were driven out of Arab countries penniless, and some of their families had lived there for a thousand years, and yet there was no reference to them.” Hoenlein adds, “It’s a question of the realities that are communicated to a vast audience in the Arab Muslim world.”

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