Navigate to News section

The ‘Court Jew’ Controversy Re-Erupts

New reality for an old phenomenon: How Obama and Israel changed the stakes of Jewish power

Lee Smith
June 16, 2015
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the Adas Israel Congregation May 22, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the Adas Israel Congregation May 22, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last week an issue that has simmered for some time in private conversations burst out into the open—in a very unpleasant way. At the Jerusalem Post conference in New York on June 7, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew offered a stirring defense of the White House’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran—and was nearly booed off the stage mid-speech. It wasn’t civil or nice of the audience to do this, as many pundits have already noted.

Then again, many would say it’s not very nice of the Obama Administration to keep trying to sell the currently configured Iran deal to the pro-Israel community as if it’s good for Israeli security, which is what Lew was attempting to do at the conference. Some tried to slough it off as a predictable occurrence in an aberrantly unfriendly venue. “Well, of course U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was heckled at a Jerusalem Post conference,” Tweeted the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “Have you read The Jerusalem Post lately?”

Others, however, saw in it the latest iteration of a centuries-long historical drama, centered around Jews in power. Lew—unlike the secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, or even vice president—has little say inside the White House’s national security cabinet. As treasury secretary he technically manages sanctions on Iran, but this is a job that calls for him to implement this policy—not come up with or even influence it. So, it was hard not to see that, when thinking of how best to go about convincing Jews of Obama’s Israel-related policies, the administration decided to turn to someone that this audience might believe: another Jew. And not just any Jew. A Jew who walks with the stamp of official approval.

“Nearly each assertion drew shouts and boos,” reported the Forward’s J. J. Goldberg. “At one point an audience member shouted, ‘You’re a court Jew.’ ”

The term refers to a particular class of Jews who’ve existed throughout modern history, people who obtain privilege with the ruling authorities and who then take on a dual role: to convince the Jewish community of the beneficence of the ruling authorities, and also to intercede with those authorities on behalf of the community. In some cases, these “court Jews” have protected the Jewish communities in whose name they spoke. In other cases, they are remembered as agents of historical disaster, who helped lead Jews to the slaughter. But what may be most fascinating about the latest iteration of the “court Jew” is the ways in which history—and the dynamics of Jewish power—have radically changed, and what those changes mean for those involved.


Obama’s presentation of himself as “an honorary member of the tribe,” which he repeated almost verbatim in his recent speech at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, echoes the assessment of one of his favorite journalistic interlocutors, Jeffrey Goldberg, who has argued that Obama is the most Jewish president ever. What bothers Obama, the president and his spokespeople insist, isn’t Jews or Israel but specific Israeli government policies, which the president believes are driven by fear. In a recent interview with Israel’s Channel Two, he explained that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fear—fear of losing his coalition and his job; fear of not finding a Palestinian peace partner, etc.—is endangering Israel’s very existence. And if Netanyahu is too scared to take risks for peace, Obama warned, it would be hard for his administration to continue vetoing anti-Israel motions at the United Nations.

Whether Obama is an honorary Jew or not, the evidence suggests that he keenly understands certain peculiarities of the Jewish communal psyche—survival strategies that distinguish the Jews from other American minority groups. The president’s use of Jewish aides and organizations to advance his policies with the Jewish community shows that Obama is correct in believing that Jewish politics are often motivated by fear, which can range from the existential fear of mass extermination to the more prosaic fear of looking shabby in front of the goyim. And Obama isn’t using his energy and inspiring leadership skills to help these people rise above their fear; he is instead capitalizing on it—masterfully, ruthlessly—by manipulating American Jews in ways that other minority groups would find unbelievably insulting.

Consider recent statements from Jewish aides to the president. Netanyahu is the kind of politician, said David Axelrod, “who run[s] for public office because they want to be somebody.” Israel doesn’t know what’s best for it, Obama’s former envoy to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process Martin Indyk told Israeli media last week. “You are an emotional nation, not a rational nation,” he sniffed. “You work from your gut and not your mind.”

It’s very hard to imagine Catholic policymakers helping a U.S. president undermine and insult the Vatican and then defending the president when he says that he understands what the church stands for better than the pope does. During the darkest moments of the AIDS crisis, there were no gay organizations that encouraged U.S. policymakers to cut funding for a cure. There are no transgender activists who argue that the real threat to the community comes not from people who fear and hate transgendered people, but from within the transgender community itself. Eric Holder doesn’t scold people of color that they’re an emotional, not a rational, people, or imply that black officeholders get into politics because they “want to be somebody.”

The issue in America today is clearly not that pro-Obama people or organizations are leading the American Jewish community to destruction. Yet at the same time, it is also clear that two millennia of diasporic dependence and insecurity have left a deep and probably permanent imprint on the Jewish communal psyche. Even in America, a free country in which Jews have never been subject to European-style mass oppression or persecutions, the role performed by “court Jews’ still makes structural and emotional sense to people who like to think of themselves as independent thinkers. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why Obama still has the support of the majority of the Jewish community for policies that from any rational perspective—the perspective of any other minority group—cannot be seen as anything other than detrimental to the Jewish state.

For instance, many of Obama’s Jewish supporters are reluctant to criticize his Iranian nuclear deal—even though it is quite clearly the opposite of what he told Jews, directly and through interlocutors, that it was going to be.

Nor is there anything terribly nuanced about the specifics of the administration’s policies that its defenders might use as cover. Threatening to not use the veto at the United Nations is bad for Israel. Demanding Israel make peace with the Palestinian Authority at present—i.e., withdrawing the IDF from the West Bank and leaving the PA to the mercies of Hamas—is very bad for Israel. Refusing to criticize Mahmoud Abbas after he walked out of the administration’s last round of futile peace talks, while heaping all the blame on Netanyahu, does little to contribute to the likely success of future negotiations. Allowing Iran to spread its influence and killing squads through the Middle East while legitimating its quest for a nuclear bomb is the stuff of doomsday fiction.

But what about the Jews who speak for the administration? None of several former high-ranking Jewish officials was willing to speak on the record on this subject, but every single one of them agreed that this moment was an extraordinary one. “No administration will always do what the Jewish community wants or what Jews think best for Israel, just as none will ever always do what Catholics want or Greek Americans or farmers,” said a former Jewish American policymaker who served in high-level positions in several administrations. “When you are in an administration you know this is coming. If the variance is in the particular area you cover, it can be painful. If it gets repeated, you need to change jobs or leave the government. That’s normal.”

But: “The Obama situation is not normal,” he continued, “due to the length and depth of the confrontation with Israel and the harm that’s being done. It should give rise to soul searching by Jewish appointees. In my view they’ve become enablers, in the worst sense of that word. That not one single Jew has left in protest is remarkable considering that relations have not been worse in a long, long time.”

By not resigning in protest, Obama’s Jewish aides have arguably not only harmed their community; they weakened their own position—which was, in a sense, ultimately far more detrimental. In a town where the appearance of power is power, Obama’s Jewish defenders had no idea which way the president was actually going. They got played, and now everyone knows it. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wasn’t in the room when Obama was making Iran policy with Ben Rhodes and Valerie Jarrett. Martin Indyk didn’t know that a central part of Obama’s Middle East policy—without which the Iran deal would be impossible—was to weaken AIPAC, the cornerstone of the pro-Israel community. AIPAC, in turn, didn’t see itself as a target of the Obama Administration. Instead, it kept telling itself that bipartisan support for Israel was the very premise of its power. Had these actors actually participated in helping the president pull a fast one on the Jewish community, at least they’d have showed they had connections to power. The biggest problem with the Jews around Obama is not that they spoke up on behalf of policies that may very well turn out to be harmful to the Jewish state; it’s that they were so clearly out of the loop—a status quo they will now bequeath to future administrations.

In this regard, even AIPAC’s ostensible rival J Street got played. As one senior official in the pro-Israel community told me, he believes that “their standing has diminished a lot. The administration used J Street and included them, and went to their conferences, because they believed they would be a useful tool.” But J Street is weakened not, as the pro-Israel official believes, because it plowed its own field recklessly. If you describe yourself as a pro-Israel organization then your power is directly proportional to how important a role Israel plays in American foreign policy. If your actions, like J Street’s, contribute to making Israel about as important to American foreign policy as Malaysia is, then you aren’t very important either.


The story has one more twist, however. “One has to understand how Jews function differently from other people, the way most other ethnic or religious or minority groups work,” said Ruth Wisse, who taught Yiddish literature for many years at Harvard. “The Jews act differently,” Wisse said, “because their political dependency as a people living in other people’s lands made them perpetually vulnerable.”

The position of the court Jew might make sense structurally in the collective unconscious of the American Jewish community, but in reality it’s now an absurd anomaly: Obama is not going to kill the Jews; he is not even going to oppress them. In fact, he hired lots of Jews in his White House. Moreover, for the first time in two millennia, there is a place for Jews to escape to if or when it gets bad in the diaspora—a Jewish state. That is, the entire landscape of power dynamics, within which court Jews made sense, no longer exists. The only real motivation left to imagine is pretty standard, mid-level careerism.

This explains another mystery—why, as Abe Foxman says, Israel takes the American Jewish community for granted. In the context of criticizing Netanyahu for not staying on Obama’s good side, the head of the Anti-Defamation League said, “There needs to be a lot more sensitivity and education in Israel as to the value of this community beside sending checks or in a moment of crisis, running to Congress.” Foxman continued: “I don’t think Israel understands, appreciates, values, respects this partner, this side of the partner[ship].”

Foxman is almost certainly right. Like Obama, the current prime minister of the Jewish state is also contemptuous of the American liberal Jewish community. From both of their perspectives, these are weak, primitive, frightened people, who can be manipulated from a distance and suck up to power not because their lives depend on it, but their careers do. The difference between Obama and Bibi, as many of these liberal American Jews have so loudly proclaimed over the last year, is that only the former was elected by the American Jewish community. That’s perhaps something for them to think about.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.