So it turns out that President Obama not only thinks he understands Israel better than the Israelis, he also sees himself as being “the closest thing to a Jew” that has ever served as president. That quote comes from David Axelrod, the former Obama political adviser, who told Israel’s Channel 2 the president said this in the context of complaining about how hurtful it was to him that some Israelis and American Jews consider him an opponent of the Jewish state or even an anti-Semite. That Obama has a very thin skin is something that has been apparent throughout his presidency. But the idea that he somehow considers himself at least as, if not more, Jewish than the leaders of the Jewish state and its supporters is a remarkable insight into his thinking. The question is not so much whether to accept this bizarre formulation as it is to what would lead the president to come to such a mistaken conclusion. The only answer is that he, like some of his Jewish supporters, actually thinks Jewish identity is a function of modern American political liberalism rather than a faith or a people.
The debate over the Iran nuclear deal that the president has championed is the reason the president has embarked upon another Jewish charm offensive. But the Axelrod quote makes it clear that the president’s sense of himself as being somehow above criticism from Israel’s friends is animating his unwillingness to listen to them. These few words show that the problem here is not so much spirited disagreements over the details of the Iran deal or a policy of pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, but a president that feels uniquely entitled to tell the Jewish state what it should be doing.
For over a century, American Jewish liberals have been building a case that their political views were not merely justified by their faith, but actually mandated by it.This was rooted in the natural predilection of a religious minority as well as one that was largely composed of immigrants to identify with the underdog and the disadvantaged. It was primarily based on a belief that expanding the power of the state to provide services and benefits was a natural extension of Jewish religious law.
Social justice is a key element of Judaism. But the notion that the only way its vision can be realized is via the creation of a massive welfare state that arrogates to itself vast power that is ultimately unaccountable to the people is a function of the political theories of 20th century America, not Jewish traditions or its religious law. As Eric Cohen wrote in his April essay in Mosaicmagazine.com and as others who have subsequently responded to it have pointed out, there is a strong case to be made for Jewish conservatism as a more authentic and ultimately more compelling approach to interpreting Judaism in contemporary society. But, as Norman Podhoretz pointed out in his book Why Are Jews Liberals, for a critical mass of secular Jews, Jewish identity has become merely a vehicle for liberal politics or it is virtually nothing at all.
Under the circumstances, it is, perhaps, understandable, if lamentable, that an African-American man who belonged to a Christian church with a radical left-wing pastor and who had a long history of making anti-Israel comments would consider himself almost a Jew or America’s most Jewish president ever just because he was a liberal.
But if even liberals are somewhat nonplussed by Obama’s profession of Jewish identity, they probably share his view that an Israel that is not always perfectly in accord with their political views cannot be as authentically Jewish as a black man who supports government health care legislation or views Palestinians as largely blameless for the war they’ve waging on Zionism for the past century.
As he noted in his speech last month at a Washington, D.C. synagogue, Obama has to a large extent bought into the myth that Israel used to a liberal country, but is now descending into nationalist barbarism from which both Americans and Jews should disassociate themselves. If those sentiments were widely applauded by liberal Jews, it is not just because they don’t understand that their views about the distinctions between Israel’s Labor Zionist governments of the country’s first decades and its current coalition are largely unfounded. It is because many of them also judge Israel’s actions through the lens of an American political prism that has little to do with the realities of the Middle East or that of a country that is faced with the task of navigating between faith and national identity while under siege. Indeed, perhaps it is possible to judge President Obama’s clueless approach to the peace process and even Iran a bit less harshly if we remember that many of his liberal Jewish supporters are just as naïve as he is about these subjects.
It is of course entirely possible to hold liberal political views while also understanding that détente with Iran is a foolish gambit that will make the Middle East far more dangerous. It is also possible to agree with the president on domestic issues while still being sensible enough to understand that pressuring Israel to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that is both unwilling and incapable of making peace is a fool’s errand that actually lessen the chances of ending the conflict rather than achieving that goal. But for Obama and his inner circle, these bits of common sense go unacknowledged in no small measure because of their false conception of Judaism as a theological vessel for modern liberal politics. Under the circumstances, it would appear that the last thing Israel needs is a Jewish president, or at least one whose identity is defined by adherence to the catechism of American liberalism.