MARCH 26, 2008
Obama and the Jews: you thought maybe you could get away without this discussion? If you did, then you misunderstand the quadrennial ceremony in which constituencies parade their fears so that candidates may adjust their pandering. It was Tim Russert who introduced the inevitable controversy into the "national conversation," at the debate in Cleveland. In his style of interrogation, Russert has evolved from a small-town prosecutor with a Google search in his hand into a game-show host with a trick question up his sleeve. ("Senator, if you were given actionable intelligence that a mass suicide was about to take place in response to an ethnic cleansing, would you, as commander-in-chief, use American force unilaterally, in defiance of EU diplomacy and in the absence of a U.N. mandate, to lift the siege of Masada?") In Cleveland, Russert confronted Barack Obama with the awkwardness of Louis Farrakhan's endorsement. "Do you reject his support?" It was a yes-no question to which Obama bizarrely failed to reply with a yes; and only Hillary Clinton's preening saved him from the spectacle of his inadequacy. Russert then broached the embarrassment of Obama's pastor, and his racialist and anti-Zionist assertions. Suddenly the wild broodings of the Jewish blogosphere were erupting into prime time.
Russert's questions were both unfair and fair. Reverend Wright's worldview has an unmistakable Durban-like quality, but he was plainly responsible for a spiritual transformation in Obama, and so Obama quite understandably loves him. I have myself loved rabbis whose politics I abhorred, though I have to add that in some instances the evidence of their hate caused me to take back my love. Sometimes the excesses turn out to be the essence. I do not for a moment believe that Obama is in any way sympathetic to, or ambivalent about, Farrakhan's philosophy; and I somewhat resent the way in which antipathy to Farrakhan has come to be regarded as primarily a Jewish or pro-Jewish matter: Farrakhan's anti-Semitism is only one of his offenses against decency and veracity and America. And I agree with Obama that some of the rumors about his coolness toward Israel have been proliferated by supporters of Israel who are attempting to pass off their own particular ideology--the Likud one, and some even more odious varieties of Jewish chauvinism--as merely a nervous solidarity with the Jewish state. As for Obama's notorious middle name: it is the rankest Islamophobia to suggest that all Husseins are the same. I run into Islamophobia in the Jewish community rather often. It is unpretty and it is un-Judaic. Barack Hussein Obama is as splendid a name for a patriotic American as, say, Abner Mikva. And my bigoted brothers and sisters might take comfort (though they do not deserve any) in the thought that Bill Clinton has demonstrated how little about a man can be known from his middle name.
And yet it was fair for Russert to confront Obama with these penumbral allegations. There is nothing about a candidate for the presidency that is not of interest, in the old politics and the new. If you want fewer questions, seek fewer powers. And there is an awful air of impeccability about Obama, with his peculiar mixture of populism and hauteur: criticism of him is not only wrong, it is also impudent. He regularly waves criticisms away as "silly." He will talk to dictators but not to reporters. So Russert was right to disrespect the halo. And most importantly, of course, the anxieties of American Jews about the security of Israel cannot all be dismissed as Likud e-mail. The political exploitation of fear notwithstanding, fear is not always a fantasy. It is true that sometimes American Jewish identity appears to consist in a great competition in worry, and whoever worries most, wins; and it is true that American Jewish culture is too consumed by the commemoration, or the anticipation, of disaster. But the psychological complexities of American Jewry are not all you need to know about the strategic complexities of the Middle East. This is a time when the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly in disrepute, and the conspiracy theory about the Jews and Washington is increasingly in the air; when a Hamas regime in Gaza is receiving Iranian weapons, and using them; when Hezbollah has become a regional inspiration; and when Iran is relentlessly pursuing a nuclear option. It is perfectly proper for friends of Israel to probe Obama remorselessly for his analysis of the dangers, and for his understanding of "hard power" and "soft power." Anyway, worry is also an expression of love. The more intensely you cherish something, the more regularly you contemplate the possibility of its disappearance.
With the exception of George H.W. Bush, I have heard every president in my lifetime lauded by American Jews as "the best friend Israel ever had," and I have heard every one of them, even Ronald Reagan, denounced as a pawn of the peace process. This Jewish need to believe in the friendship of the highest power in the land is a survival of the political mentality of medieval Jewry, with its preference for "vertical alliances" over any reliance upon the goodwill of the local population--a highly anomalous survival in the American case, in which horizontal alliances, at every level of politics, are a regular feature of Jewish existence. But the reassuring truth is that every president in my lifetime has pursued more or less the same policy toward Israel, according to which Israeli security is to be regarded (in Obama's fine word) as "sacrosanct," and a Palestinian state is to be created out of the occupied territories, and Israeli settlement of the territories is to be discouraged, and a concord of pro-American Arab states is to be encouraged, and so on--in sum, partition, a special relationship, peace, a regional alliance. There have been tonal differences, to be sure, and all these elements may finally not go together--but this is the tradition, and I do not imagine that Obama will deviate from it, or Clinton, or McCain. September 11 drew the United States into a new and deep and justified engagement with the Arab world, and American Jews will have to accustom themselves to this historical complication--but hold the kaddish, because in American presidential politics now there is not an enemy in sight.
Leon Wieseltier is The New Republic's literary editor. This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of the magazine.