Obama rises above blind Jewish bias

Amer­ica’s Pres­i­dent has faced un­war­ranted mis­trust with good sense and dig­nity

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - Richard Wolffe is a for­mer ‘Newsweek’ White House cor­re­spon­dent who, in cov­er­ing Barack Obama’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, trav­elled with Obama for its en­tire 21 months. His book, ‘The Mak­ing of Barack Obama’, is pub­lished by Vir­gin at £17.99

WE WERE to­gether in a syn­a­gogue hall in Boca Ra­ton, Florida — a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date on a bar stool, a semi-po­lite au­di­ence seated in rows in front of him, and the world’s me­dia strain­ing to hear ev­ery word. It took less than 10 min­utes be­fore Barack Obama faced the in­evitable at­tack, phrased as a ques­tion: could he name any “close per­sonal friends” who were “solemnly pro-Is­rael and anti-ter­ror­ist”?

In a sin­gle, con­torted ques­tion lay all the sus­pi­cions about Obama and all the para­noia and con­spir­acy views of some of his Jewish crit­ics. It was not enough for Obama to ad­vo­cate pro-Is­rael and anti-ter­ror­ist poli­cies. He needed to show some­thing more per­sonal.

Half the crowd jeered; the other half lis­tened closely as Obama re­sponded: “I have to be very cau­tious about this be­cause you re­mem­ber the old stereo­type about some­body say­ing, ‘I’m not prej­u­diced. Some of my best friends are Jewish.’ Or some­body says, ‘I’m not prej­u­diced. Some of my best friends are black.’”

Then he promptly listed sev­eral names of his Jewish friends: Penny Pritzker, his fi­nance chair; James Crown, his Illi­nois co-chair; Lee Rosen­berg, a close friend on the ex­ec­u­tive board of AIPAC; Ab­ner Mikva, his po­lit­i­cal men­tor and for­mer White House coun­sel. He could have men­tioned David Ax­el­rod, his chief strate­gist, or Rahm Emanuel, now his White House chief of staff. He could have told how he went to his first Seder night in a cheap ho­tel on the cam­paign trail, where he joined sev­eral ju­nior staffers — in­clud­ing one who han­dled his bags — for an im­promptu Pe­sach cel­e­bra­tion, with no cam­eras to record the mo­ment.

The irony for Barack Obama is that his first at­tempt to run for of­fice in Wash­ing­ton was doomed in part be­cause of the sus­pi­cion that he was too close to Jewish donors in Chicago, his op­po­nents stir­ring up the no­tion that he was closer to Jewish Democrats than the over­whelm­ingly African-Amer­i­can vot­ers he needed in or­der to win.

So what if he has Jewish friends? So what if he just named an am­bas­sador to Lon­don by the name of Lou Sus­man? So what if his wife Michelle has a cousin who is, in fact, a rabbi with the ex­traor­di­nary name of Capers Fun­nye, who con­verted un­der Con­ser­va­tive su­per­vi­sion?

What about his poli­cies on Is­rael? As a can­di­date, Obama gave two speeches to meet­ings staged by AIPAC, the dom­i­nant pro-Is­rael lobby group in Wash­ing­ton. He started the first, in 2007, by retelling the story of an IDF he­li­copter ride to Kiryat Sh­mona, where he re­called a house struck by a Katyusha rocket. He de­clared “a clear and strong com­mit­ment to the se­cu­rity of Is­rael: our strong­est ally in the re­gion and its only es­tab­lished democ­racy. ”

His next AIPAC speech, in 2008, was more per­sonal. He told how he’d had a Jewish camp coun­sel­lor who had lived in Is­rael; how the coun­sel­lor had told sto­ries of the Jewish yearn­ing for a home­land, a yearn­ing that spoke to him as a child of many cul­tures but with few roots.

“In many ways, I didn’t know where I came from, so I was drawn to the be­lief that you could sus­tain a spir­i­tual, emo­tional, and cul­tural iden­tity and I un­der­stood the Zion­ist idea that there is al­ways a home­land at the cen­tre of our story,” he ex­plained. “And I also learned about the hor­ror of the Holo­caust and the ter­ri­ble ur­gency it brought to the jour­ney home to Is­rael.”

He had a sense of the Holo­caust, too, this half-Kenyan, half-Kansan politi­cian: his fam­ily had re­lated sto­ries of his great-un­cle, who had helped lib­er­ate part of Buchen- wald — and been trau­ma­tised by what he wit­nessed.

Obama promised to pro­tect Is­rael’s mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity, to work for peace and se­cu­rity with the Pales­tini­ans from the start of his term as Pres­i­dent, to iso­late Ha­mas, and to do ev­ery­thing in his power to stop Iran from ob­tain­ing a nu­clear weapon.

Peo­ple who say that isn’t enough, and that Barack Obama is no Ge­orge W. Bush, need to ask them­selves whether Is­rael is more or less safe than it was eight years ago; whether Is­rael is stronger or weaker when the United States has fewer al­lies; whether the Mid­dle East is bet­ter or worse without a peace process to speak of; and whether Iran is stronger or weaker without its twin en­e­mies Sad­dam Hus­sein and the Tal­iban in power, and with an ad­vanced nu­clear pro­gramme in­side its own bor­ders.

Those peo­ple need to ask them­selves whether they can ever be­lieve a black pres­i­dent named Barack Obama, no mat­ter what he says, what he does, and what friends he keeps. Be­cause if they can’t, the prob­lem lies with them, not with him.

RICHARD WOLFFE

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