If you’ve spent any time lately thinking about whether or not Barack Obama is a “natural-born citizen”—or wondering why the issue, with its implicit question of whether Obama is eligible to be president, has re-entered mainstream discourse now, months after Inauguration Day—it’s probably because of a Soviet Jewish emigre named Orly Taitz.
Taitz, whose life’s trajectory has brought her from Moldova to Southern California, has been described as the unofficial head of the West Coast faction of the “birthers”—those who believe, against all available evidence, that there is something fishy about Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate. Her opposite number on the East Coast is Philip J. Berg, a Jewish Democrat and former Pennsylvania deputy attorney general who sued George Bush in 2004 for alleged complicity in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; last summer, he unsuccessfully sued the Democratic National Committee on the grounds that Obama wasn’t adequately qualified to be the party’s presidential nominee.
But earlier this month, when Lou Dobbs, following Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, took it upon himself to re-animate the whole issue—he described a certification of birth posted online and verified by FactCheck.org as “a peculiar little document” that left him “a little annoyed”—he cited his inspiration as Taitz’s recent lawsuit on behalf of an Army reserve major who wants his deployment orders reversed on the grounds that Obama isn’t a legitimate commander-in-chief. Yesterday, the website Politico elevated Taitz to the movement’s ringleader, a sign that the movement has now, perhaps inevitably, become the province of right-wing grassroots activists committed to perpetuating the notion that Obama—invariably referred to by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama—isn’t really American enough to run the country.
“When you allow somebody with allegiance to other nations to become president, that’s extremely dangerous,” Taitz told Tablet in a phone interview from her car. “He can be the Trojan horse; he can be the Manchurian candidate.”
Taitz, who appears in countless YouTube videos, is a pert, peroxide blonde in her late 40s, who expounds quickly, with a pronounced Russian accent, on the various facets of birther doubt; she throws out a steady stream of speculations, from whether Obama’s grandmother procured him a fake Social Security number from a dead person while she was working in a probate court to whether the birth certificate provided by Hawaiian officials could have been digitally altered, that have no basis in documented reality.
She said she was raised in Kishinev (or Chisinau, now the capital of Moldova), but was granted permission in 1981 to leave and join an uncle who had moved to Israel; once there, she learned Hebrew and earned a degree in dentistry from Hebrew University. Her chance to get to America—a place her father had always told her was full of opportunities to reap the rewards of hard work—came in 1987, when one of her mother’s fellow schoolteachers offered to set her up with a software engineer named Yosef Taitz who was visiting from California; on their second date, she said, he proposed, and she accepted. (They got married in Las Vegas.)
Taitz opened a dental practice, which now has offices in the upper-middle-class Orange County enclaves of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, and got a law degree by correspondence from William Howard Taft University; meantime, the pair had three sons, the eldest of whom is now a student at Cornell University.
When the boys were young, she said, she was too busy shuttling them to tae kwon do lessons and the like to get involved with politics, but she said she got involved enough with AIPAC that the whole family—with the boys stuffed into fancy suits—attended the organization’s convention in Washington in 2006. That summer, during the Israel’s Lebanon War, she attended a pro-Israel rally in Irvine, California, where she told a reporter for the Orange County Register, “It is unfortunate that collateral damage happens, but it is necessary to exterminate terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”
Taitz speaks to her husband in Hebrew, and boasts that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed up to be her friend on Facebook (he does not appear in her public friend list, though Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Republican Whip, does). But she demurred when asked whether her involvement with the birther movement had anything to do with opposition to Obama’s policies toward Israel. “I am an attorney,” she said, “so when I see something that is totally illegal, that bothers me, particularly when we are talking about presidents of the United States.”
She said she learned about the “eligibility issue” last summer, after reading a blog item about Obama’s childhood school enrollment in Indonesia under his stepfather’s surname, Soetoro. (One question she posed in our conversation was about whether Obama had ever legally changed his name back from Soetoro, and if not, whether he was inaugurated under the wrong name.) In October, she contacted California Secretary of State Debra Bowen—a Democrat—to ask whether her office had verified Obama’s citizenship status; when Bowen’s office responded that she had not, Taitz retorted with a series of angry letters to local newspapers, earning her an invitation to address a meeting of an anti-illegal immigration group, and, in turn, an invitation to appear on the radio with Wiley Drake, who happened to be running for vice-president on the American Independent Party ticket headed by Alan Keyes—the onetime diplomat and four-time presidential candidate who ran, as a Republican, in the 2004 Illinois Senate race that Obama ultimately won.
By November, shortly after the election, Taitz had been drafted to represent Keyes in a rearguard challenge; she filed suit against Bowen, asking that California investigate Obama’s eligibility to serve. The case was quashed, but not before Taitz took her challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court—and then, in March, showed up at a speech given by Chief Justice John Roberts in Idaho, where she challenged him from the microphone to hear it.
Now she has the military case, and Lou Dobbs’s attention; the Orange County Weekly recently labeled her the “Queen Bee of people obsessed with Barack Obama’s birth certificate.” Taitz insisted her doggedness had nothing to with partisanship; she claimed support from Berg’s wing, “Blue Dog Democrats, Hillary Clinton supporters.”
“People think I’m a right-wing conservative, a Christian conservative—one reporter called me anti-Semitic,” Taitz said, laughing. “Why did she think that? I don’t know.”