Don't Know Much About History

Obama’s repeated flubs of Jewish history suggest he knows less than he says

May 31, 2012

President Barack Obama’s inaccurate assertion that Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland were in fact "Polish" has led to concern among historians and foreign policy experts that the president’s knowledge of Jewish history and Israel is lacking.

During a ceremony honoring a Polish resistance fighter who told the world about Nazi atrocities, Obama referred to a "Polish death camp," a term that incorrectly blames Poland for operating Adolf Hitler’s extermination camps.

Obama’s flub came just hours after the president informed a group of Jewish leaders that he "probably knows about Judaism more than any other president because he read about it."

However, over the course of his presidency, Obama has repeatedly promulgated erroneous notions about the Jewish state and made policy declarations that experts deem either patently false or grossly misleading.

Obama raised alarms among Jewish leaders and others soon after entering the White House in 2009, when he delivered a major speech in Cairo in which he linked the creation of the Jewish state to the Holocaust. That canard is routinely used to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.

The U.S.­–Israel relationship, Obama said, "is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied."

The remarks drew widespread condemnation.

"Here [in Israel] we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle—not guilt over the Holocaust—brought Jews a homeland," Aluf Benn, editor at large of the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote in a New York Times editorial. "Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

The Cairo speech was a revealing moment, experts say.

"It became obvious in the Cairo speech in 2009 that neither the President nor the advisers upon whom he relied, like Rahm Emanuel, really knew all that much about the Jewish community or about Jewish history," Elliott Abrams, a national security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush, told the Free Beacon.

"What they knew well was how to raise money among liberal Jews in the Democratic Party," Abrams said. "That doesn’t give you much insight into the history and emotions of Israelis, nor into Israeli politics, nor into the views of the sizeable minority of American Jews who are not liberal Democrats."

"So you have a president who gives a seder every year, but who doesn’t have much sympathy or understanding of the history being discussed around seder tables in this country and in Israel," he said.

The president also has an inaccurate tendency to regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the catalyst of all Middle Eastern woes.

During a press conference in 2010, for example, Obama claimed that the failure to achieve peace is "costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."

The remark was widely interpreted to mean that the U.S.’s tarnished reputation in the Arab world is a direct result of its support for the Jewish state.

Late last year, the president again tied the peace process to the Democratic uprisings in Egypt during a conference call with rabbis.

"The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation for Israel is if we can actually resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis because that's what feeds so much of the tumult in Egypt," Obama said. "That's what I think has created the deep tension between Turkey and Israel, and Turkey has historically been a friend and ally of Israel's. That's why we think direct negotiations are so critical."

Obama’s multitude of misleading claims show that he is using discredited historical notions to further his political goals, historians say.

"Almost every president or his spokesmen occasionally make an innocent factual error or two about Jewish or Holocaust history; one shouldn't read too much into that," Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, told the Free Beacon.

"But for President Obama to put the Holocaust in the same category as what he called 'the suffering of the Palestinian people', or for then-Senator Obama to compare some American laws to those of Nazi Germany, misrepresented the historical record in order to advance a particular policy or agenda," he said.

During a 2001 radio interview, the future president said that following World War II, the Supreme Court arrived at decisions on race relations that resembled "the doctrines of Nazism, that, that we [were] fighting against, that start[ed] looking uncomfortably similar to what we [had] going on, back here at home."

Obama also misrepresented his family’s involvement in World War II while on the campaign trail in 2008 when he wrongly claimed that his uncle played a role in the liberation of the death camp Auschwitz.

It was Obama’s great-uncle, however, who fought in the war and helped liberate Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald.

The celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM) has also posed problems for the Obama administration.

The White House committed what many considered to be a highly offensive gaffe earlier this month when, in honor of JAHM, it released a statement praising Gertrude Stein, a Nazi sympathizer who recommended that Adolf Hitler be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The May 2009 incarnation of the White House’s statement about JAHM implied that Jews successfully found refuge from the Holocaust in the U.S., which is untrue.

"Jews sought refuge in the United States from the horrors and tragedies of persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust," the statement said, neglecting to mention that while many sought such protections, few were granted such status.

"It's bad the president doesn't know his history very well, but the fact his staff doesn't is even worse," said Richard Landes, a historian and professor at Boston University, who labeled the president as "ignorant of history."

"What he knows and doesn't know is not just a reflection of his partial education, but the people he surrounds himself with and theirs," Landes said. "His awareness of the forces at play is shaped by his personality, in which he is not proactive, decisive, courageous. He can't take advantage of a crisis; he can only hope that if he's nice enough and preaches nonviolence (as in Egypt), it will go away."

"On top of that," Landes said, referring to Israel, "there is the classic narcissistic trait to court your enemies and take your friends for granted—or worse."

Lee Smith, an expert on Middle East affairs, noted that the "Polish death camp" remark speaks to an ignorance that spreads beyond the Levant.

"Let's not leave it at his faulty understanding of Middle East history, the peace process, and the reasons for why the state of Israel was established and how it was founded," Smith said. "Let's expand it a little and see this as an indication of what seems to be his knowledge of European history, which also seems to be thin."