Obama's inside track on Israel

By Joel Braunold, March 29, 2012
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In Peter Beinart's new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart tracks, the relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, whom he terms the first "Jewish President". It's not a reference to Obama being a crypto-Jew, but rather that the intellectual and moral milieu within which Obama made his meteoric rise was entirely Jewish.

Beinart was not the first to use the phrase, - it's actually a quote from an Obama fundraiser in 2008. It highlights the remarkable comfort that the President has when speaking to Jewish audiences about Judaism. One only needs to read his speech to the Reform Biennial - the quotes about his daughters attending barmitzvahs, the quotes from the weekly Torah portion, the ease with which he says Hebrew phrases - to see that this is someone with a real affinity and connection.

Jeffrey Goldberg, unofficial dean of the Jewish press corps, confirms these feelings. After being granted an interview with the President on the eve his Aipac speech, Goldberg gave Obama the New American Haggadah to which he, Goldberg, had contributed. The president who hosts a White House Seder, quipped: "Does this mean I can't use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?" The Maxwell House Haggadah is given for free in the US when you buy a jar of Kosher for Passover coffee.

This level of immersion in the day-to-day life of American Jewry is far removed from political pandering and evangelical philo-semitism. Obama truly gets the Judaism of mainstream America, to such an extent that he can hock with the best of them. It is this comfort with Jewish America that explains, in part at least, the President's much commented-on relationship with Israel.

They mean he shows the wrong sort of affinity

Whether it is the mismatch of a Likud government in Israel and a Democratic administration in DC, or the current toxic hyper-partisanship of modern US politics, Israel is now an electoral issue. Presidential candidates looking for the advantage in swing constituencies like Florida have latched on to it. An attempt to narrow the definition of "Pro-Israel" seeks to limit the supporters of Israel to those who support the policies of the current Israeli government.

The discussions remind me of our own community discussions on public criticism of the policies of Israel. Obama's speeches are reminiscent of the discussions at Shabbat tables across the Jewish World. People who claim that the President lacks affinity for the Jewish people and the state of Israel misrepresent themselves. What they actually mean is that he shows the wrong sort of affinity.

As the leader of Israel's most important strategic ally, Obama feels like he has the right to comment on what Israel does. The democratically elected government of Israel can do as it sees fit, but it does not automatically get the current level of American support based on its democratic nature alone.

Nothing Obama says or does cannot be heard in any Jewish community discussion about Israel anywhere. It would not surprise me if we learn one day that his opinions were formed at various Shabbat tables in Chicago. The discomfort of many of Obama's Jewish political opponents is that it is not a lack of knowledge, or hatred, that is behind his stance on Israel, but merely a difference of opinion about what needs to be done.

The first Jewish President is feeling the effects of our internal community broiges. The recriminations are always more bitter within a closely knit community than with those with whom you have no affinity. The anger that many are feeling towards Obama on Israel is perhaps just a stand-in for how many in our community feel about each other.

Joel Braunold is a graduate student at the
Harvard Kennedy School of Government

    Last updated: 4:29pm, April 3 2012