Friday, June 05, 2009

Yes, Obama's Efforts Are Good For the Jews

There are many Jews who are not happy with Barack Obama tonight – Jews in Israel, in America, everywhere. There are also many Jews who are thrilled with the president – in Israel, in America, everywhere. Today, the President of the United States did a very ballsy, creative, politically risky thing: he stood on a stage at Cairo University in Egypt and made a speech about many serious, contentious, and ancient struggles related to the existence and security of Israel; the status and strategy of the Palestinians; and the violent antipathy between America and the Muslim World. He talked about terrorism and peace and freedom and communication and understanding and tolerance. He reaffirmed America’s support of Israel’s national integrity and security, but also criticized certain Israeli policies which, he believes, have been counter-productive in the efforts for peace. He talked about Muslims and Christians and Jews, and he quoted from the Koran, the New Testament, and the Torah. He was bold and straightforward and spoke truth to intransigence in all quarters. Needless to say, he got mixed reviews.

Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times offered a pro-Obama op-ed that ended with: “An Egyptian friend remarked to me: `Do not underestimate what seeds can get planted when American leaders don’t just propagate their values, but visibly live them. …When young Arabs and Muslims see an American president who looks like them, has a name like theirs, has Muslims in his family and comes into their world and speaks the truth, it will be empowering and disturbing at the same time. People will be asking: “Why is this guy who looks like everyone on the street here the head of the free world and we can’t even touch freedom?”’ You never know where that goes.”

On, the Web version of an independent Israeli daily newspaper that describes itself as having “a broadly liberal outlook both on domestic issues and on international affairs… founded in Jerusalem in 1919 by a group of Zionist immigrants, mainly from Russia,” there is a great deal of reportage and analysis, most in support of President Obama, but by no means in lockstep agreement. For further commentary in opposition to the President’s words and approach, check out Peter Daou’s fired-up essay on The Huffington Post.

The Jewish connection in my very mixed heritage is the strongest. I spent my earliest youth in Jewish neighborhoods on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx. I grew up at a time and place where the Holocaust was a recent trauma, not a distant memory; where Israel was viewed as a miracle, a dream-come-true, and an entitlement strengthened by Hitler’s considerable anti-Semitic, genocidal success; when people bought Israel Bonds and planted trees and sent care packages; when Jewishness and a fierce tie to Israel were synonymous, and Arabs on their massive lands surrounding the tiny Jewish Jewel in the Desert were viewed with suspicion, distaste and outright fear, as eternal enemies.

And, perhaps most politically significant, the Left were the great supporters of Israel, while the Right indulged in socially acceptable discrimination, restriction, and stupidity, the quietly hateful milieu faced by Gregory Peck in the classic film, Gentleman’s Agreement. One of my mother’s co-workers in a New Jersey factory, on learning that she was Jewish, asked to see my mother’s horns. In that world, the answer to any question, both jokingly and very seriously, was predicated on the answer to the primary one: Yes, but is this good for the Jews?

Fifty years later, the struggles and animosities in the Middle East may be much the same, but both there and here, the rules have changed. The Left have abandoned Israel and come to view it as an imperialist oppressor of the Palestinians, who are still portrayed as desperate, destitute youths fighting guns and bombs with rocks and moxie. The Right, largely for their own Fundamentalist Christian reasons, have come to embrace Israel as a holy land and a cherished democracy. Surely, this alliance epitomizes the adage, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” For those who are not Jewish (in any way, shape or form), the importance of Israeli existence and security seems greedy and defensive; they don’t understand (or just don’t care) that for many Jews, Israel represents Jewish survival in the face of millennia of efforts to destroy us.

However, even in Israel, there is a growing consensus that the Palestinians cannot be defeated anymore than the Jews can, and peace can only evolve from a two-state solution and [albeit grudging] mutual acceptance. And even this imperfect solution cannot be achieved if the Muslim World sees America as its cultural, religious, mortal enemy. But like many Americans and other Westerners, I have huge problems with traditional/ orthodox Muslim attitudes towards and treatment of women, as well as anyone else whose views, behaviors and very existence are regarded as an affront to Islam.

I don’t know what the hell should be done about all this. But I believe, as I’ve said several times on this blog, that Barack Obama’s bi-racial, multi-religious heritage and even-handed personality make him a conciliator by nature. And while he appreciates the enormity of these issues, he also regards it as his presidential duty to try to craft peace, cooperation and co-existence out of this mess. He doesn’t hate Jews or hate Israel or want the peculiarities of the Muslim World to hold sway around the globe. He wants to find in this situation, as in many others, a workable middle ground.

So yes, I think it’s good for the Jews.

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