As Barack Obama prepares for his trip to Israel on March 20th—his first as President—he might consider taking the opportunity to correct common distortions about the Jewish state that his administration has, on occasion, helped to promote. Clearing away some of these persistent misunderstandings on the part of both policy makers and the public could strengthen America’s connection to its closest Middle Eastern ally, but also help the president make the peace process progress he clearly craves as a goal of his second term.
For instance, President Obama should acknowledge that too many Americans currently believe the following myths about Israel’s present and past:
*That Israel is a uniquely dangerous nation facing appalling levels of violence, and will only improve security by making major concessions to the Palestinians. In fact, Israel is one of the safer societies on earth with a murder rate much less than half that of the United States (2.1 vs. 4.8 per 100,000 population). Since cracking down on Palestinian militants and building a security barrier beginning in 2003, Israel has experienced less than 190 homicides a year (including terrorist incidents), in a national population of 8 million. President Obama’s home town of Chicago suffered 535 murders last year—three times the killing, with barely one third the population. Moreover, the improvement in Israel’s domestic security has everything to do with smart policing and effective anti-terror strategies and nothing to do with appeasing Palestinians. Major Israeli concessions—like the Oslo Accords of 1993, the unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, and the evacuation of Jewish communities from Gaza in 2005—produced only spikes in violence, not periods of enhanced calm or quiet.
* That the Palestinians constitute one of the most wretchedly oppressed, destitute populations on earth. The truth is that Palestinian economic progress has been impressive by any standards: with a reported growth rate (in both the West Bank and Gaza) of 5.7 percent, compared to 2012 GDP growth of just 2.2 percent in the United States. Yes, too many Palestinians still languish in poverty but the percentage below the official poverty line in the West Bank (23.5 percent) corresponds almost precisely to the situation in nearby Egypt, recipient of nearly two billion dollars in annual American aid. The educational achievements among Palestinians also far exceed those in neighboring nations with an illiteracy rate (7 percent) generally acknowledged as among the lowest in the Arab world. Moreover, long before the vaunted Arab Spring, Palestinians chose their own local leaders in West Bank elections (since the 1970’s) while electing representatives to a national parliament since 1994. The difficulty in staging new elections after 2006 stemmed from the bloody split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, not Israeli intervention.
* That Israel emerged as a Jewish state and won international recognition as a direct consequence of the suffering of the Holocaust. Actually, the 52 nations of the League of Nations voted to endorse “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and to support “reconstituting their National Home in that country” in July, 1922 – a full 11 years before Hitler’s rise to power. At the beginning of World War II, well over half a million Jews already made their homes in the future state of Israel. The rapid population growth that saw more than a million Jewish immigrants in the first twelve years of the new nation’s independence came primarily from Jews fleeing Islamic countries (Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and so forth) rather than refugees from Hitler-ravaged Europe. These “Oriental Jews” soon comprised the Israeli majority, outnumbering Holocaust survivors more than two-to-one.
* Jewish settlers displaced the indigenous Palestinian population and practiced ruthless ethnic cleansing to wipe out a distinctive, well-established civilization. Far from driving Arabs away from the contested territory, the return of Jews to their ancient homeland drew tens of thousands of new immigrants from neighboring Islamic countries and saw massive increases in Arab population. Between 1919 and 1939, the Jewish population increased by 470,000 while the non-Jewish population (almost entirely Arab) soared by 588,000. Despite the undeniable suffering of Palestinian Arabs during major wars in 1948-49 and 1967, their numbers steadily increased. At the time of Israeli independence, 1.3 million Palestinians lived between the Jordan River and the sea; 5.5 million live in the same space today, including 1.6 million in Gaza under the rule of Hamas, 2.5 million in the West Bank under the rule of the Palestinian Authority and 1.4 million Arab citizens of Israel. For the first time in history, Palestinians have established an independent identity distinguishing them from their fellow Arabs. Prior to the establishment of the modern state of Israel, no one served as King, Viceroy, Sultan, Prime Minister, governor or Emir of a principality of Palestine, and no one other than Zionist Jews claimed the title “Palestinian.”
* Israel is a desert, a parched, desolate land that struggles to support its teeming population. The most stunning revelation for most first-time visitors to Israel involves the green fields and lush pine forests that cover surprising stretches of territory, particularly in the north of the country. Since 1910, the Jewish National Fund has planted an amazing total of nearly 300 million trees in Israel, altering the landscape and even the climate. Jerusalem, at a mountainous elevation of close to 3,000 feet above sea level, receives average precipitation of 22 inches—well in excess of the 15 inches of Los Angeles. The economy’s wildly successful agricultural sector not only feeds the Israeli population but ships millions of tons of fruits and vegetables to the European Union.
If Barack Obama showed the courage and vision to depart from the standard itinerary of visiting dignitaries, he might make his own startling discoveries when he travels to the always surprising nation that Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl described as the “Old New Land.” Instead of spending all his time meeting with big-shots, or making expected stops at the Holocaust Museum and sacred shrines of three great religions, he might explore less publicized portions of an unexpectedly spacious, varied landscape and even visit one of those well-established, peaceful Jewish communities that much of the world derides as “settlements.” Aside from informing a more effective American policy in the Middle East, an unconventional trip to Israel by our tourist-in-chief could help shatter the notion of the Jewish state as a perpetually embattled war-on-terror theme park and convey the more accurate picture of a place of hope, happiness and relentless progress.