Kosher ‘Rahmbo’ triggers a press storm

Barack Obama’s Chief-of-Staff has been under the spotlight for his Jewish credentials

By Alex Brummer, November 13, 2008

The politically safest White House chiefs of staff have tended to be those who manage to stay out of the headlines. That will prove extraordinarily difficult for Rahm "Rahmbo" Emanuel, the first anointed member of the Barack Obama administration. He already has attracted press attention on both sides of the Atlantic - and not all of it favourable.

Typically, the British media have played up his Jewish/Israeli roots, something barely mentioned in American profiles. Leonard Doyle, writing in The Independent, made much of the fact that both Emanuel and Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod are Jewish. "Mr Emanuel had Axelrod sign the ketubah (the Jewish marriage covenant) at his wedding," he noted.

Andrew Sullivan, in The Sunday Times, observed that, for those who hung around the John McCain camp in the final days of the campaign and heard aides suggest that Obama was tied up with antisemites, the emergence of Emanuel as chief-of-staff was "a bit of stunner".

Sullivan drew attention to Emanuel's remarkable family: one brother, Ari, is a Hollywood agent for Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Wahlberg and Larry David, and another, Zeke, is a Harvard bioethicist.

The big question is how the appointment of Rahm will go down in the Middle East. After all, he and his family, originally the Auerbachs, hail from Israel. The family name was changed to Emanuel after an uncle was killed in a clash with Arabs in Jerusalem in 1933. Rahm's father fought with the Irgun so he has, in Sullivan's words, "serious Jewish and Israeli cred".

Indeed, as a leader in the Congress during the $700bn bail-out plan for the American banking system, Emanuel won special dispensation from his rabbi in Chicago to work during Rosh Hashanah. His Judaism is far from skin deep.

The new chief-of-staff tends to be an organiser rather than a policy maker but it is hard to believe that Rahm will ignore the Middle East.

Some British papers harboured hopes that the Obama presidency will see a new dawn. The Daily Mirror asserted that "Obama knows the plight of the Palestinians is the cause of many of the conflicts across the world and sparks suicide attacks." This reflects the Mirror's take at the time of the Iraq war, which it suggested was the work of a gang of Zionists.

Some commentators are likely to be disappointed that a Jewish view will be represented so high up in the White House hierarchy. Though of course Emanuel's views cannot be pigeon-holed or held to be representative. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly, who wrote some of the most insightful accounts of the candidates Middle East policies during the campaign argues that "Rahm, precisely because he's a lover of Israel, will not have much patience with Israeli excuse making." So when the next Israeli PM tells Obama that it is impossible to dismantle some outpost because of domestic politics, security or the Bible, Rahm is unlikely to accept such "nonsense". And Israel will find it hard to describe him as a self-hating Jew.

Where does this leave Quartet peace negotiator Tony Blair? In a speech reported in The Daily Telegraph, Blair urged the President-elect to take a strong role in the peace process as this was the "single most important thing for Mr Obama's new administration."

This is wishful thinking. With America's economy flat on its back, it is the choice of Treasury Secretary rather than Secretary of State that will dominate the new team's early days in the White House.


Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:05am, November 13 2008