Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Obama, the Jews and Israel

There's a persistent, nasty notion that Barack Obama is bad for the Jews. It crests and falls rhythmically in public discourse, and I hear it expressed by Jews I know. The sense is Obama places somewhere on a spectrum between a latte-drinking, liberal milquetoast and a black anti-Semite. Wherever the dart sticks, it will be bad for Israel.

As someone who has spent years writing about foes of Israel, subtle and overt, and specifically these two types that supposedly bookend Obama, I'd like to go on record saying this is top-shelf, triple-distilled horseshit.

Over the next months, we'll come to see the fullness of Obama's foreign policy vision. We already have a fairly good sense of what it will be like. Some of it strikes me as vaporous, some of it seems groan-inducingly soft. Some of it makes sense. Most of it -- even stuff I don't agree with -- is fair enough after seven years of calamity at home and abroad.

As a policy package, it may ultimately fail, but none of it will be inimical to the Jews or Israel. Understandably, a lot of Obama supporters wanted to brush aside the Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle, but I thought it was fair to ask why the hell he would associate himself with a half-crazy demagogue like that. However, I'm satisfied that Obama was simply trying to shore up his cred with African-Americans, understand their milieu better, and above all find his faith. I simply don't think he has the slightest time for the victimology, the street-scholarship or the Jew-baiting buffoonery of the incredibly selfish man who was his pastor.

Jeffrey Goldberg, the New Yorker staff writer, is one of the more interesting working journalists. He's got a new Atlantic blog that I'll be reading (link added, left). Here's Obama speaking to him about this issue.

Look, we don’t do nuance well in politics and especially don’t do it well on Middle East policy. We look at things as black and white, and not gray. It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, “This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he’s not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush,” and that’s something they’re hopeful about. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security.

Obama also says some considerably heartening things about the complimentarity of the African-American and Zionist narratives. Think about that for a moment. This blog's abiding theme is that for a variety of reasons, utopian politics lead algorithmically to anti-Semitism. Victimology and identity politics are powered off that grid. This is the marrow of Jew-hatred among African-Americans, who can see themselves as domestic Palestinians, preyed upon by owner-Jews or upstaged by the moral legatees of the Holocaust. Obama, however, invokes a classic, American liberalism:

So when I became more politically conscious, my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.

One of the things that is frustrating about the recent conversations on Israel is the loss of what I think is the natural affinity between the African-American community and the Jewish community, one that was deeply understood by Jewish and black leaders in the early civil-rights movement but has been estranged for a whole host of reasons that you and I don’t need to elaborate.

Obama, in his perspicacious and articulate way that is an elixir after 8 years of Bush's cud-chewing, rhetorical chyme, has turned this precisely on its head. This is no accident. If Obama becomes President, his foreign policy might fail, but he's no enemy of the Jews or Israel.

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