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 Buchenwald — 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.