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Contentions

Obama and American Jews

Throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has faced a series of disturbingly slanderous e-mails. Obama has been falsely accused of being secretly Muslim; studying in an Indonesian madrassa; and refusing to say the pledge of allegiance, among other charges. Sensing that these e-mails were particularly prevalent within Jewish circles, Obama held a conference call with Jewish journalists yesterday afternoon.

During the call, Obama sought to reassure the Jewish community by addressing Jewish identity issues. He thus declared his support for Israel “as a Jewish state”; expressed concern for continued rocket attacks from Gaza; stated that the Palestinian right of return could not be interpreted “in any literal way”; and opposed negotiations with Hamas so long as it denies Israel’s right to exist. He further denied that he had ever practiced Islam, and said that his church leader had made a “mistake of judgment” in honoring Louis Farrakhan. “My church has never issued anti-Semitic statements, nor have I heard my pastor utter anything anti-Semitic,” he said. “If I have, I would have left the church.”

The implication that Obama—by virtue of his church leader’s connections with Farrakhan—is anti-Semitic is hard to swallow. After all, Obama remains one solid degree removed from Farrakhan—highly significant in a political environment in which Joseph Lieberman declared his “respect” for Farrakhan during his 2000 vice-presidential candidacy. Moreover, it is saddening that Obama continually feels the need to address his non-Islamic faith, particularly when doing so insultingly implies that Islam is undesirable.

Yet one question remains legitimate: how can voters who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship be reassured that Obama’s staunchly pro-Israel declarations are not mere pandering? After all, Obama is on record as having called for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000, just as the Palestinians commenced the Second Intifada following Camp David. According to Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah, Obama’s pro-Israel epiphany occurred shortly before his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign—an about-face for which Obama apologized to Abunimah. “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front,” Obama said at the time.

Obama’s apology to Abunimah—a major proponent of the one-state “solution”— indicates an unsophisticated view of American politics, in which success requires whispering sweet Zionist nothings to satisfy the almighty, one-issue Jewish electorate. Obama’s foreign policy advisers have similarly promoted this inflated vision of Jewish power. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak has assiduously noted, Obama adviser Samantha Power has declared that sound Middle East policy might require “alienating a domestic constituency”—guess which one. His staff further features Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has defended the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics, rather than strategic interest.

This mixture of prior statements and advisory influences suggests little regarding how Obama might act towards Israel if elected. Obama has repudiated Brzezinski’s call for dialogue with Hamas, while Power’s support for ending U.S. foreign military aid to Israel probably represents too radical a departure from historic U.S. policy to be taken seriously.

Rather, Jewish concerns regarding Obama’s candidacy should focus on whether Obama and his posse view American Jewry as a stumbling block in the way of promoting U.S. interests in the Middle East. This is the insidious crux of the “Israel Lobby” thesis, and Obama’s prior statements to Abunimah—as well as the writings of Power and Brzezinski—are hardly reassuring.



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