President Barack Obama's enormous self-regard was on display during a meeting with 20 Jewish community leaders last Tuesday.
"Obama reportedly boasted about his knowledge of Judaism, telling the leaders that he thinks he knows more 'about Judaism' than all past presidents," said the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
This would have been impolitic to say if it were true. It isn't. John Adams and James Madison knew Hebrew. Harry Truman. who recognized the state of Israel in 1948, had since before World War II supported a homeland for the Jews. Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school for years, and was very interested in religion.
The evidence suggests Mr. Obama knows less about the Jews and Israel than have most modern presidents. In his much ballyhooed speech in Cairo in 2009, the president said the U.S.-Israeli relationship: "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 Zionist movement -- Zion is the name of a hill in Jerusalem -- to restore a national homeland for the Jews began in 1897, and figured prominently in Allied discussions of how to divide up the lands taken from the Turkish empire in World War I. In the Balfour Declaration (1917), the British government declared its intent to provide a national homeland for Jews within its mandate of "Palestine," which then included what is now Jordan as well as what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"Here [in Israel] we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle -- not guilt over the Holocaust -- brought Jews a homeland," wrote the editor of Haaretz in response to the Cairo speech.
May was "Jewish American Heritage Month." The White House issued a proclamation honoring, among others, the writer Gertrude Stein, a Nazi sympathizer who thought Adolf Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A president who knows more "about Judaism" than any of his predecessors should have known that. Mr. Obama, said Richard Landes, a historian at Boston University, "is ignorant of history."
The president demonstrated that yet again within hours of his meeting with the rabbis. Hosting a ceremony to honor Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who brought news of the Holocaust to the outside world, Mr. Obama spoke of "Polish death camps." This was, alas, worse than a slip of the tongue. He was reading from a teleprompter.
"It's bad the president doesn't know his history very well, but the fact his staff doesn't is even worse," Mr. Landes said.
Poles were mightily offended. A feel-good event became an international incident.
"The words uttered yesterday by [President Obama] concerning 'Polish death camps' touched all Poles," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusks. "We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II."
"It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble," said cowboy humorist Will Rogers (1879-1935). "It's what we know that ain't so."
Much of what Mr. Obama thinks he "knows" about Israel comes from Jew hating Arabists such as his longtime friend Rashid Khalidi. The president's speech in Cairo "infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies," wrote Haaretz editor Aluf Benn.
It isn't only about Israel that the president knows a lot that "ain't so." This is much worse than ignorance. When you think you know everything, you're less willing to learn. And when you make a mistake, you're loathe to acknowledge it. Instead of apologizing to the Polish prime minister, Mr. Obama dispatched a lowly aide to correct the record -- without acknowledging error.jackkelly
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://old.post-gazette.com/trypress/ Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476.