Speaking at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump quoted Theodor Herzl. “Whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind,” Herzl said.
This is not Herzl’s most famous quote, but the words were well chosen. In seven decades, Israel has contributed such an immense amount to the knowledge and culture of the world that Herzl himself could probably not have foreseen it in his wildest imagination – and he had a wild imagination.
The only barrier to the great redounding of which Herzl spoke has been the rejection of Israeli people, knowledge, technology and existence, first by those who would have benefited most – the country’s nearest neighbours in the Middle East – and latterly by many around the world, from the United Nations to college campuses across the West, where boycotting all things Israeli has become almost a rite of passage.
Trump also said Tuesday: “I had a great meeting this morning with President Mahmoud Abbas and I can tell you that he is ready to reach a peace deal.”
The president’s reputation is founded on his deal-making abilities and this is perhaps why he made it his first order of foreign business to travel to the Middle East, site of the world’s most elusive deal. But, telling an audience of Israelis, and global observers who have far deeper knowledge of the situation than Trump does, that Abbas is ready to reach a peace deal displays a degree of naiveté, to say the least.
Herzl’s vision of Israel as an oasis of excellence sharing its knowledge and advancements with neighbours was unquestionably imbued with the colonial attitudes of his era. But it was also founded on assumptions of enlightened self-interest.
“Israel is a thriving nation,” Trump said, “and has not only uplifted this region, but the entire world.” True enough, but it could have done so much more uplifting if others in the region had not rejected most of what the state has had to offer.
When the Arab Spring had its limited expression, it seemed that the peoples of the region might finally be rising up against not just the leaders who oppressed them, but the very scapegoating ideologies and miseducation that kept them down. One by one, most of the oppressors regained the upper hand and the greatest hope for Israeli-Arab peace – that the people and leaders would see coexistence as synonymous with self-interest – faded again.
If Trump thinks he has the magic beans to succeed where so many have failed, may he go from strength to strength.