Public Comment

The Silence of Barack Obama

By Osha Neumann
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:30:00 PM

Oh Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. 

—Barack Obama, from 

Dreams from My Father 


The silence of Obama is deafening. Continents of misery are swallowed in his silence.  

On the deaths of Palestinian children, the murder of mothers, the dismemberment of grandfathers, on the pools of blood on the hospital floor, the bombed and mangled ambulances, the screams of terror—he is silent. 

But in fact his silence is incomplete. He is briefed on a daily basis, kept abreast of events. What does he say in those secret conversations? Does he remain silent? Certainly not. He ascents. Yes, Hamas must be crushed. It’s a price that needs to be paid. He does not say, or perhaps he does say, he hopes it will be over before the inaugural balls begin. The mafia don does not wish to have his party spoiled. He has prepared his speech. The soaring rhetoric. The reference to Martin Luther King. 

But should even a drop of Palestinian blood touch those soaring phrases, they will fall to earth like a stone. 

“Change we can believe in”? All the empty rhetoric of the presidential campaign is a gaping maw into which the lives of Palestinians fall without a sound. 

The blood of Palestinians is the touchstone. The slogans touch the stone, shrivel and die. “Yes we can!” Yes we can what? Crush the Palestinians into a bloody pulp?  

Israel can not kill all the Palestinians or drive those who are still alive into yet deeper exile. Palestinians will survive and they will haunt us, and when the next terrorist attack comes who will weep for us, who will shed tears, and who will say we got what we deserved? The chickens will come home to roost. Those terrible, cannibalistic, angry chickens will come home to roost. 

Obama is silent. He must not endanger his legislative agenda. It’s the economy stupid. Remember. But I would rather the engines of the commerce grind to a halt, the shelves of the stores yawn empty, and a terrible gloom descend on Wall Street, than that one more Palestine child be torn to bits. Or live, but clutch her mother in fear, wetting herself, covering her eyes and her ears to block out the terrible racket, or that one more Palestinian mother weep over the grave of her child or weep for the fear of her living child.  

At this point. An interruption.  

“You forget about the poor terrified Israeli children. The rain of rockets from Gaza.” Never for a moment are they forgotten. On the pain of Israelis Obama is voluble. 

Haaretz reports: 

“He expressed his admiration for the citizens of Sderot who remained in place even though their homes had come under fire. ‘Israelis must not suffer a threat to their lives, to their schools,’ he said, adding that ‘if missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.’” 

I do not join in his admiration or extend my hand in sympathy. For three reasons: 

First: I cannot mourn the suffering of Israelis until the suffering Palestinians is mourned in just proportion—100 to 1, 1000 to 1, so much louder should the wails of mourning be for the Palestinians. Second: I refuse to equate the violence with which an oppressed people resists oppression with the violence of their oppressors. That terrible equation—“both sides this,” “both sides that”— is corrupt and pernicious moral algebra. And third: so long as Israel uses the victimhood of Jews as a shield, excuse, and weapon to continue the oppression of the Palestinians, I will not, can not, add my voice to the chorus of sympathy for Israeli dead and wounded, for that chorus will be used to further a terrible agenda which I oppose.  

May there come a time when my grief can flow freely and equally toward all suffering. But that time is not now. I have chosen sides.  

Obama is a complex man, capable of holding ambiguities and contradictions, aware of the vast abundant varieties of experience, knowing otherness, knowing the pain and anger of outsiders, knowing what happens when dreams are shattered. I know he knew these things, perhaps knows them still, because I’ve read his Dreams from My Father. The man who receives dreams from his father, knew—knows—how to hear all sides of himself and others. It is not easy to be angry with him. I want to love him. But I fear that he has signed a terrible bargain with his silence, a pact with the devil of power and empire: His dream for the dreams of the Palestinians. Their death warrant is signed. He is complicit. He has learned what presidents must do. Sign death warrants. For multitudes. For generations upon generations. 

This is his first lesson in killing. After the first, it becomes easier. 


Osha Neumann’s memoir, Up Against the Wall Motherf**er: A Memoir of the Sixties with Notes for Next Time, was recently published by Seven Stories Press.