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Barack Obama courted American Jews as a candidate, but the relationship is on the rocks

Pejman Yousefzadeh
October 26, 2010
Barack Obama at a May reception honoring Jewish American Heritage Month.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Barack Obama at a May reception honoring Jewish American Heritage Month.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Even President Barack Obama’s fiercest detractors will admit that his term in office has been judged a consequential one. There is, of course, the landmark legislation that he has passed; a $787 billion stimulus package, health care reform, and financial services reform. There is the landmark legislation that he wants to get passed—including a cap-and-trade bill designed to combat global warming. In foreign policy, the president has made his mark, for better or worse, by having pulled some U.S. troops out of Iraq and setting a start date for the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

But presidencies are not judged on legislation alone. Obama’s status as the first African-American president will surely help shape his legacy. But an equally powerful, if less talked-about, aspect of what will be the historical judgment of the Obama presidency is his relationship with various American constituent groups—including American Jews. As a candidate, Barack Obama successfully courted much of the American Jewish community, in which concerns about the appearance of racism may have served to keep many American Jews in Obama’s camp. But upon becoming president—notwithstanding his success in garnering Jewish support—Obama undertook actions and implemented policies that run the risk of losing him significant Jewish support.

As a longtime resident of the Chicago area, and as a Jew, I have had the opportunity to see how Obama relates to the Jewish community here. My synagogue is right across the street from the Obamas’ house, which helps in perceiving the nature of the president’s connection with the Jewish community. The president seems to feel close to our synagogue—or at the very least, he puts on a good show of feeling close to us. When my beloved rabbi—and a strong Obama backer—Arnold Jacob Wolf died, Obama sent a letter of condolence to the synagogue. He did the same after the death of Leon Despres, the longtime dissident Chicago alderman during the reign of the first Richard Daley. During High Holiday services, our rabbi mentioned that she was recently on a conference call with the president, and with other Jewish religious leaders, in which the president spoke fondly of our congregation and of hearing the shofar emanating from our services while at his home. “Nice shout-out,” another conference call participant remarked to our rabbi, she told us.

Obama sought to win Jewish support for his political campaigns by joking that his name could have been “Baruch Obama,” a clever, if obvious, way to try to identify with the Jewish people. During the 2008 campaign, I saw any number of people with lapel buttons and yarmulkes with Barack Obama’s name spelled out in Hebrew. Rabbi Wolf’s enthusiastic support for Obama, and his strong standing in Chicago’s Jewish community, helped protect Obama from suspicion about his politics and policies in general and about his support for Israel in particular. All of this was essential in helping cement good and productive ties between Obama and American Jews.

Absent this political cover, there certainly was plenty in Obama’s record that might have caused American Jews to view him and his candidacy skeptically. There are, of course, various claims that Obama has been uncomfortably close (from a Jewish, pro-Zionist perspective) with figures like Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, and that his closeness to such figures said something negative about the level of Obama’s support for Israel. Whether these charges are fair or not is almost beside the point when contemplating the amount of damage that they might do to a political candidate in a city with a substantial and politically active Jewish population.

In addition to getting significant Jewish religious and political figures to vouch for him, Obama also sought, while plotting his political ascent, to back away from past positions and statements that would not be well-received by the Jewish community. Ali Abunimah, the Chicago-based founder of the Electronic Intifada, a website dedicated to advancing the political rights of Palestinians and detailing what it perceives to be Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people, detailed how Obama initially expressed strong sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people and deep aversion to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians but began to backtrack from his statements in 2004, when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race,” Abunimah says Obama told him when they saw each other while Obama was trying to capture the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat. Obama assured Abunimah that “when things calm down I can be more up front.” As Abunimah describes it, Obama was only doing what was necessary to ensure that he wouldn’t face electoral problems at the hands of a politically active American Jewish community.

Other actions on the part of the Obama campaign served to keep American Jews on board. Throughout the 2008 campaign, and indeed throughout the Obama presidency, there has been the not-so-subtle implication on the part of Obama supporters that a significant number of those who oppose the administration do so because they cannot stand the presence of an African-American president. We have seen the charge of racism regularly issued against members of the Tea Party movement, and while some in that movement have certainly expressed objectionable statements on the issue of race, it is unfair to ascribe those objectionable statements to the entire group, which seems to be mainly exercised by a more generalized anger about the failing economy. Nevertheless, supporters of the Obama Administration have shown little hesitation to accuse detractors of racism, which causes constituent groups in American politics to carefully calibrate their actions in response. Since no one wants to be tarred as racist by a charismatic president who is a gifted orator, it makes sense to assume that opposition to the president and his administration might have been chilled in certain quarters, including among segments of the American Jewish community.

Having secured the support of American Jews in his quest for the White House—support that has traditionally been given to politicians from the Democratic party—the president went about implementing policies that seemed designed to lose that support as quickly as possible. Snubs great and small were dished out against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which served to needlessly alienate the United States’ chief ally in the Middle East and damage America’s role as an honest broker in the Middle East peace process. While American and Israeli interests certainly diverge at times, and while friends must be prepared to speak fully and frankly with one another, the Obama Administration allowed its disputes with Israel to take on a public, melodramatic, soap-operaesque quality that did nothing to advance the cause of peace. While slamming Israel, the United States engaged in a renewal of diplomatic ties with Syria—without any concessions on the part of the Syrian government, which is brutal toward its citizens and a consistent destabilizing force in the region.

It comes as no surprise that Democrats like Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a likely contender to lead the Senate Democrats if Harry Reid loses his re-election bid, has taken the White House to task for its treatment of Israel, calling Obama’s Israel policy “counter-productive.” Schumer’s stance on this issue likely reflects the stance and beliefs of a great many American Jews in assessing the Obama Administration’s Mideast policy. While a significant case can be made that the administration’s policy concerning Israel and the Mideast peace process does not fundamentally differ from policies undertaken by past American administrations, the atmospherics of the administration’s actions appear to be causing a significant rift with the American Jewish community.

The Obama Administration’s Iran policy does little to inspire confidence either. The administration does not appear to be willing or eager to use military force to put a halt to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. To be sure, the Iranians have learned much from Israel’s 1982 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear power plant and have taken measures to prevent any military strike from halting, or even significantly slowing, their drive toward nuclear weapons, but the administration’s bark on the issue of Iran appears to be worse than its bite, which does little to reassure either Israel or American Jews with deep connections to Israel that an existential threat against the Jewish state is being effectively dealt with. Obama lauds as “unprecedented” the sanctions that his administration has sought to impose on Iran, but the Iranians are used to sanctions, and there is no evidence that economic pressure applied by America and its allies is doing anything to halt Iran’s effort to make itself a nuclear power.

The administration might have used the popular uprising against the Iranian government’s acts of electoral fraud in the country’s 2009 presidential elections, and the Iranian government’s subsequent and bloody violations of human rights, to push for the Iranian government’s ostracism in the international community, to pressure the Iranian government to reform and liberalize, to support the Iranian opposition movement, as many young Iranians called for, and to force significant concessions from the Iranian government as a price for helping Iran to once again be a member in good standing of the international community. Instead, Obama gave, at most, pro forma support to the Iranian opposition movement; issued, at most, pro forma condemnations of the actions of the Iranian government; and did nothing to isolate the Iranian regime or wring concessions from it in return for helping end the regime’s isolation.

The inability or unwillingness of the Obama Administration to forcefully speak out against instances of anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party should also be a cause for concern. The demagoguery of Democrats like Rep. James Moran, who has stated that an “extraordinarily powerful” pro-Israel lobby—with “the strong support of the Jewish community”—was responsible for causing the United States to go to war with Iraq, is well known, but the Obama Administration has not decided to challenge him, or other Democrats like him, for seeking to profit politically from the popularization of anti-Semitic tropes. Nor has the administration taken on members of the liberal blogosphere for engaging in reflexive anti-Israel hatred and general anti-Semitism and for potentially causing a serious rift between liberals and American Jews, a rift that would harm the president’s political prospects and the Democratic Party’s electoral future.

Some might say that a lone Congressman or a handful of lefty bloggers are beneath the attention of the president of the United States. But while no American president wants to engage in rhetorical overkill, there are disturbing trends developing within the base of the Democratic Party that ought to concern the president and certainly concern the American Jewish community. A shocking 2009 poll revealed that 18.4 percent of Republicans blamed Jews for the recent financial crisis. That’s appalling enough, but even worse, the poll revealed that nearly a third of Democrats also blamed Jews for the near-collapse of the American economy. As the administrators of the poll wrote, this statistically significant difference was surprising “given the presumed higher degree of racial tolerance among liberals and the fact that Jews are a central part of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition.” It would be in the president’s interests to fight against anti-Semitism in the liberal community, if only to prevent the defection of American Jews from the Democratic Party. But he seems to be unwilling to do so. If American Jews are not alarmed by this lack of action on the president’s part, they should be.

Many Jews still support the president despite his recent actions and those of his administration. Part of the reason likely has to do with the fact that whatever the shortcomings of the president and his administration on issues important to the American Jewish community, the longstanding ties between American Jews and the Democratic Party make it difficult for an abrupt break between the two to take place. The longstanding view of many Jewish Democrats is that the political philosophy of the Democratic Party is close to the philosophical teachings espoused by Jewish religious laws, and as a consequence, it would come as no surprise to find out that many American Jews believe that being Democrats is equivalent to being on the side of right and good, as right and good are defined by Jewish laws, customs, and teachings. But despite the longstanding ties between the American Jewish community and the Democratic Party the Obama Administration, through its policies, runs the risk of putting the relationship asunder.

As the midterm election approaches, Obama’s relationship with American Jews stands at a crossroads. It is entirely possible that the relationship may improve as the president and his political team prepare for his re-election effort in 2012 and seek to increase support and enthusiasm in the American Jewish community. But American Jews now have had time to take the measure of the 44th president and are now well-suited to make an informed decision as to whether he cares about issues that are of special concern to our community. Chances are that the American Jewish community will remain largely loyal to the Democratic Party. But no one should be surprised if, as a result of the Obama Administration’s policies and practices, the Democrats’ hold on the American Jewish component of its base is permanently damaged by an approach that evokes precious little of the enthusiasm that the community showed for him in 2008.

Pejman Yousefzadeh is an attorney and writer in Illinois. He blogs at A Chequer-Board of Nights and Days.