President Obama is scheduled to speak at the UJC/Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly on Nov. 10. As pleasing as this announcement may seem, it’s an unfortunate decision.
The president should be giving a speech that day, but in Berlin, not Washington. Instead of talking to the annual gathering of Jewish communal professionals he should be speaking to those commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Presumably, the White House has decided to hit the “reset” button with the Jewish community and with Israel regarding its current Middle East policy. Funny, but the administration’s efforts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict and bring peace to the Middle East haven’t quite panned out and now, facing somewhat declining poll numbers among Jews, the president and his advisers feel they have to restate their commitment to the security and stability of the Jewish state.
This is a mistaken calculation. If President Obama really wanted to support the State of Israel and help bring peace to the Middle East, a speech from Berlin could be much more effective.
The Berlin Wall was not just a barrier separating two parts of Berlin. It was not just a border between the communist Soviet Union and the liberal rest of Europe. For as long as it stood, the wall was the world’s most famous symbol of tyranny and oppression. In 1989, its destruction at the hands of men and women using sledgehammers and their fists was the most moving expression imaginable of the victory of freedom and individual liberty.
Thus far, the president has a poor record of standing up for these same values and folks have noticed. As Anwar Ibrahim, a champion of Islamic democracy told The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt, “Once you give a perception that you are softening on human rights, then you are strengthening the hands of autocrats to punish dissidents throughout the world.” This is exactly what is happening in places like China, Afghanistan and Iran. Mr. Obama’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama ahead of his upcoming trip to China was powerfully symbolic to the Chinese. And this after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared earlier this year, that “pressing [China] on [human rights] issues can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”
If human rights in China and freeing Tibet aren’t priorities, then what about women’s rights? Well, did you know that according to the Shiite Personal Status Law, Shiite men in Afghanistan have the legal right to starve their wives if their sexual demands are not met and Shiite women must obtain permission from their husbands to even leave their houses, “except in extreme circumstances?”
In April, President Obama called the proposed legislation “abhorrent,” which combined with similar international pressure resulted in Afghan President Hamid Karzai promising a judicial review. “We think that it is very important for us to be sensitive to local culture,” Mr. Obama explained at the time, “but we also think that there are certain basic principles that all nations should uphold, and respect for women and respect for their freedom and integrity is an important principle.”
In July, the same legislation that “violates basic … principles” was signed into law. So far, there’s no word from the White House.
And the silence regarding Iran’s green revolution has been deafening. Did you know that protests against the fraud election and the Ahmadinejad regime continue almost daily? In June, the president was tepid in his response to the post-election protests. Now, it appears, the Obama administration as been defunding almost every effort to promote democracy and freedom in Iran. The Connecticut-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Freedom House and the International Republican Institute, which trains Iranian reformers and tries to connect them to other activists, all had their State Department funding stopped or their funding applications denied. And as Bari Weiss and David Feith recounted in The Wall Street Journal, the Bush administration fiscal year 2009 request for $65 million for the State Department Iran Democracy Fund, has become an Obama administration $40 million request for the renamed Near East Regional Democracy Fund. Instead of money going specifically to Iranian freedom activists, now the smaller pool of money can fund programs in any of nearly two dozen countries.
What President Obama seems not to understand is that promoting women’s rights, the rule of law, individual liberty, democracy and the protection of freedom are not only morally correct but are the true keys to Middle East peace as well. Just as the Berlin Wall was the physical representation of freedom vs. tyranny, so too, is there a black and white divide in the Middle East between free, democratic Israel and the tyranny that makes up the rest of the Middle East.
Mr. Obama has a lot he can accomplish when it comes to peace between Arabs and Jews. If he decides to make his Washington speech about human rights and democracy in the Middle East, he’ll have taken a first step in the right direction.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)