The Passionate Attachment

America's entanglement with Israel

NY Mag: “Jewish” Obama’s more pro-Israel than Netanyahu

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A kippah-wearing Barack Obama adorns the cover of New York Magazine under the title “The First Jewish President.” Inside, John Heilemann wonders why Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies don’t seem to understand that President Obama is “the best thing Israel has going for it right now”:

The premise of Obama’s approach to Israel all along has been straightforward. Given the demographic realities it faces—the growth of the Palestinian population in the territories and also of the Arab population in Israel itself—our ally confronts a fundamental and fateful choice: It can remain democratic and lose its Jewish character; it can retain its Jewish character but become an apartheid state; or it can remain both Jewish and democratic, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, alleviate the international opprobrium directed at it, and reap the enormous security and economic benefits of ending the conflict by taking up the task of the creation of a viable Palestinian state—one based, yes, on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

The irony is that Obama—along with countless Israelis, members of the Jewish diaspora, and friends of Israel around the world—seems to grasp these realities and this choice more readily than Netanyahu does. “The first Jewish president?” Maybe not. But certainly a president every bit as pro-Israel as the country’s own prime minister—and, if you look from the proper angle, maybe even more so.

Many Jewish supporters of Israel are looking from a different angle, however. In attempting to explain Obama’s apparent “Jewish problem,” Heilemann gives a rare mainstream insight into the key role Chicago Jews played in getting him to where he is:

The sources of that problem are many. In a way, history has been cruel to Obama, forcing him to succeed the wrong Bush—the one whose support for Israel, unlike that of his father, was uncritical to the point of blindness. Obama’s team has made its share of errors in the conduct of its diplomacy and in allowing misperceptions to take hold: that its tough-love approach to Israel has been all the former and none of the latter; that its demands on the Palestinians have been either negligible or nonexistent. And many Jewish voters, like those Wall Street financiers (and, to be sure, the overlap between those groups isn’t trivial) who flocked to Obama and were then chagrined when he called them out as “fat cats,” have all too often focused more on the president’s words than his deeds—and come away with the impression that he doesn’t seem to “feel Israel” in his bones.

For Obama, such assessments would be funny if they weren’t so frustrating and absurd; and for the Jews who know him best, they are simply mystifying. In the last days of the 2008 campaign, the former federal judge, White House counsel, and Obama mentor Abner Mikva quipped, “When this all is over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” And while that prediction has so far proved to be wildly over-optimistic, there is more truth in it than meets the eye.

In attempting to apply tough love to Israel, Obama is trying to make a stalwart ally see that undertaking the painful and risky compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians is the only way to preserve the Zionist dream—which is to say a future as a state both Jewish and democratic. His role here is not that of the callous assailant but of the caring and sober brother slapping his drunken sibling: The point is not to hurt the guy but to get him to sober up.

The suspicions regarding the bone-deepness of Obama’s bond with Israel were present from the start, and always rooted in a reading of his background that was as superficial as it was misguided. Yes, he was black. Yes, his middle name was Hussein. And yes, in his time in Hyde Park, his friends included Palestinian scholars and activists, notably the historian Rashid Khalidi. But far more crucial to Obama’s makeup and rise to prominence were his ties to Chicago’s Jewish milieu, whose players, from real-estate powerhouse Penny Pritzker to billionaire investor Lester Crown, were among his chief supporters and financial patrons. In 2008—after herculean efforts by his campaign to reassure the Jewish Establishment that he was, er, kosher and stamp out the sub-rosa proliferation of the lie that he is a Muslim—he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, four points higher than John Kerry’s total four years earlier.

This background meant that, although Obama was hardly an old hand on Israel when he became president, he was well attuned to the Jewish community and its views. “With the kind of exposure he had to Jewish backers, Jewish thinkers, in Illinois,” says deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes, “he came into office with a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and Jewish thought than, I would argue, any president in recent memory.”

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Written by Maidhc Ó Cathail

September 21, 2011 at 9:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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