Most American media have praised President Obama’s handling of the Gaza crisis. It is certainly a relief that Operation Pillar of Defense produced about one-tenth the casualties of Operation Cast Lead four years earlier, though it is small comfort to the 168 Palestinians and 6 Israelis who died, or the nearly 1,600 injured, or the thousands left homeless. Palestinian civilians, about one-fifth of whom were children, were the war’s main victims. Careful observers know that the Egyptian brokered cease-fire is but a stop-gap measure. If anything, the war heightened insecurity in the region, strengthened Hamas’s legitimacy among Palestinians, and, as Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently put it, cemented Israel’s self-image as the victim.
The conflict did not begin with indiscriminate rocket fire from Hamas militants, or the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, or the IDF killing of 13-year-old Ahmad Abu Daqqa. It dates back to 1967 and the occupation—and even that’s not the whole story. A permanent solution will require nothing short of ending the occupation and securing real Palestinian sovereignty or extending full citizenship rights in a single, democratic state.
President Obama knows this, but his decision to unconditionally support Israel’s latest siege reveals a lack of political will and imagination. “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” the President announced during his Asia tour (ignoring U.S. drones strikes on other countries). Even if one believes these principles apply to Gaza, the analogy masks the fact that Gaza is not a sovereign state but under occupation since Israel controls its borders, air space, and sea-lanes—a fact confirmed by our own State Department. He knows that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the source of the region’s immense poverty, is a clear violation of Articles 33, 55, and 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention prohibiting the collective punishment of civilians and requiring an occupying power to ensure access to food, medical supplies, hospitals and public health facilities.
Although President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu insist that the bombing of Gaza was merely a necessary security measure, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai was more forthright when he declared that the “goal of [Operation Pillar of Defense] is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” Obama also knows that these intermittent wars, not to mention IDF attacks and home demolitions in the West Bank, violate our own Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. weapons against civilians. And as Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights has argued, civilians in Gaza are denied the fundamental right to flee the conflict and become refugees. They end up like sitting ducks crowded into one of the most densely populated regions on earth, or as some critics described Gaza, the largest open-air prison in the world.
As the crisis in Gaza unfolded, Abraham Lincoln’s looming presence was unavoidable, especially as Daniel Day-Lewis’s bearded, contemplative profile dominates billboards everywhere, and President Obama continues to fashion himself in the mold of the Great Emancipator—an intelligent and fair-minded executive who believes in the rule of law, willing to reach across the aisle, and committed to a “smart” realpolitik guided by a moral compass.
The point of invoking Lincoln is not to guess what he might do in Obama’s shoes, but to reflect on what he did when forced to balance political calculus, the rule of law, and moral and humanitarian considerations. Lincoln was our first anti-slavery president, but at the onset of the war he thought complete abolition was unimaginable and a multiracial America based on full citizenship rights for all was unthinkable. He first hoped to contain slavery in the South, backed targeted emancipation as a military strategy to win the war, and supported deporting free black people to Africa or South America—a “humane” strategy of ethnic cleansing. Then unexpected things began to happen. The “property” over which Southerners waged war began to flee to Union lines, emancipating themselves, undermining the Confederacy, and forcing the nation—the president included—to reckon with their humanity. The gross stereotypes of black indolence, ignorance, and violence did not disappear, but they were dealt a mighty blow, especially after 186,000 black men joined the Union Army and 40,000 gave their lives for a “new birth of freedom.”
Midway into the war, Lincoln proposed gradual, compensated emancipation (though it was the slaveholders, not the enslaved, who were to be compensated) and continued to support deportation schemes, but black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass persuaded him that one multiracial democracy is not only possible, but the only viable path forward. By the war’s end (and by the time Spielberg’s hero enters the frame) black struggles for freedom, the exigencies of war, and a burgeoning, militant abolitionist movement had transformed A. Lincoln. Indeed, abolitionism had grown from a radical fringe movement in the 1840s and ‘50s to a legitimate, powerful force during the war. This gale force gave Lincoln strength to stand up to pro-slavery Democrats, even as he sought compromise and reconciliation. In his second inaugural, he acknowledged that the men and women once thought of as chattel were on the road to citizenship, and that the men who had taken up arms against the nation were to be welcomed back with dignity and respect.
President Obama has the same capacity for growth as our 16th president, and he has shown some mettle in the past, particularly when pressured by movements. In 2010, he supported easing the blockade following the international condemnation of the IDF’s attack on the Mavi Marmara (part of the Free Gaza flotilla), and his short-lived stand against the expansion of West Bank settlements earned him the ire of Israeli officials—forcing him to retreat. Arguably, the Islamophobic attacks on President Obama accusing him of being a closeted Muslim harboring plans to impose Shari’ah law has compelled him to work harder to demonstrate his support for Israel and fealty to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Then again, Lincoln had to fend off accusations of “favoring Negro equality” and being part Negro, often arguing—as he had in his famous debates with Stephen Douglass—that blacks were morally and intellectually inferior and ought not be granted social and political equality. I do believe both men were sincere—Obama in his unwavering support for Israel, and Lincoln’s initial belief in black inferiority. However, on the question of slavery, Lincoln revealed a level of consistent moral courage that Obama has not shown in his advocacy of human rights. In those same debates with Stephen Douglass, he declared, “I hate [slavery] because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.” President Obama, on the other hand, has been accused of hypocrisy by speaking out against the Assad regime’s murderous attacks on the Syrian opposition, and acting on behalf of Libyans struggling against Muammar Gadaffi, but doing nothing on behalf of Palestinian human rights.
And yet, I am hopeful that President Obama may have his Lincolnesque moment, when the inexorable force of history will push him beyond political expediency into the realm of moral courage. Only then will he be able to imagine a truly democratic, just solution to the question of Palestine. For Lincoln, that inexorable force was the movement—the abolitionists and their allies demanding freedom, the ex-slaves demanding justice, the changing course of world opinion. Absent a powerful movement to end the occupation, for broad-based support for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, to counter the media whitewash of Israel’s war crimes and human rights violations, it is unlikely Obama will make that Lincolnesque leap. Like Lincoln, Obama requires more than political pressure. He needs to come face to face with Palestinian activists, critics, and intellectuals; he needs to visit a West Bank refugee camp or walk the streets of Gaza City and talk to the children. By opening up to other perspectives and discovering what is already happening on the ground, Obama will discover what Lincoln recognized: emancipation had already begun without him, in the development of a rich civil society forged in a bloody war. Palestinians do not need a US- imposed peace process. What they do need is a US willing to stand up to Israel and enforce international law, defend human rights for all, and recognize that the status quo is unsustainable and the source of violence and instability in the region. And that takes enormous courage.
I wonder if things would be different if Sasha was obsessed with photos of Palestinian children, or if Malia begged her mom and dad to spend the summer working in a refugee camp in the West Bank. But that’s just a Hollywood fantasy.
Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of the remarkable biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).