February 28, 2008
I can think of a few reasons why Barack Obama will struggle for the pro-Israel vote.
Let’s get the touchiest out of the way first: racism. Obama’s opponents will jump up and down denying this, but some of the anti-Obama feeling is a legacy of the unhealed breach between blacks and Jews. The painful divorce brought out the worst in both sides: troubling rates of anti-Semitism among blacks that grew along with educational achievement; disturbing tendencies among Jews to make no distinctions among black leaders, from racist lunatic Louis Farrakhan to bumbling New York City Mayor David Dinkins. That’s one reason why Obama will never convince his antagonists that he doesn’t share his pastor’s sympathies with Farrakhan.
Then there is experience. Never mind that you couldn’t slip a strand of dental floss between the stated positions of Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama may say all the right things, but pro-Israel diehards fear that Israel won’t survive on-the-job training. Clinton gains in this regard from her experience at the side of her globe-trotting husband and schooling as New York’s junior senator (for many Jewish leaders, breakfast at UJA headquarters counts as foreign policy experience). Hawks just assume McCain’s continuing support for the Iraq War translates into a general toughness toward Israel’s enemies.
While no one can say just how much experience is enough, at least it can be measured, in terms of resume, education, public record. But there is an intangible reason why Obama worries the pro-Israel camp. Call it the Kishkes Factor.
Maybe they’ve grown spoiled, but you hear in the pro-Israel, anti-Obama rhetoric the notion that Obama’s spotless Senate voting record on Israel and meat-and-potatoes speeches to AIPAC are not quite enough. “Window dressing,” as someone dismissively described it to me. A certain kind of pro-Israel voter wants to know that candidates feel for Israel in their guts — their kishkes — and not just in their heads.
Ten years ago, Ester Kurz, AIPAC’s director of legislative strategy and policy, lamented the unseating of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. “He understood [Israel] in his kishkes,” she told an Arizona audience.
If the Kishkes Factor wasn’t in play, Jewish Republicans would have had a hard time making hay of Ralph Nader’s spurious comments about Obama during his “I’m b-a-a-a-ck” moment on Sunday’s Meet the Press. At one point Nader describes his disappointment in Obama, saying the Democratic front-runner supports Israel’s “destruction” of Gaza and lacks sympathy for “a civilian death ratio of about 300-to-1 — 300 Palestinians to one Israeli.” (Or, as columnist Doug Bloomfield puts it, “Nader also bemoans that in the fighting spawned by Hamas attacks on Israel from Gaza, very few Jews are dying.”)
Nader says he is especially disappointed because Obama was “pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois before he ran for the state Senate.” Nader provides no substantiation for this assertion, and MTP host Tim Russert didn’t press for any.
Nevertheless, the Republican Jewish Coalition, not the first group you would expect to quote Nader in support of their positions, was happy to take the Pinto-phobic spoiler at his word. Nader’s comments “raised serious doubts and questions about the true leanings of Senator Obama on these important issues,” wrote RJC executive director Matt Brooks in a mass e-mail.
You might think a pro-Israel group would be heartened that a candidate has rejected the pro-Palestinian line of Nader and his ilk. But in raising doubt about Obama’s “true leanings,” RJC is playing the kishkes card.
Facing Obama is the question whether a) he can develop kishkes to the satisfaction of his critics and b) he can do it between now and November. Hillary Clinton showed that it can be done. After her ill-fated smooch with Suha Arafat in 1999, Senate candidate Clinton did everything to establish her pro-Israel bona fides short of resurrecting a distant Jewish relative (oh wait, she did that, too). She brings to the presidential race an eight-year education in the language and nuances of the New York-area Jewish community, the nation’s largest and most influential.
Obama is trying to catch up, and on Sunday, ahead of the Ohio primary, he met in Cleveland with about 100 Jewish communal leaders. He worked hard to clarify his positions on Iran (all options on the table, but aggressive diplomacy first); on his Mideast advisers (Zbigniew Brzezinski is “not one of my key advisers”); and his pastor (he’s no anti-Semite, but sometimes says things Obama disagrees with).
But Obama also suggested that he was wise to the Kishkes Factor, and knew his Jewish interlocutors wanted a glimpse at his heart, not just his policies. So Obama spoke of his “overwhelming support among the Jewish community that knows me best, which is the Jewish community in Chicago.”
I’m sympathetic to the idea that with the Mideast on eggshells, we can’t afford a president who doesn’t bleed blue and white.
But it’s curious, and troubling, that a good record and good rhetoric are no longer enough to establish a politician’s pro-Israel credentials.
I worry that by shifting the goal lines and disparaging our friends, we risk alienating pro-Israel politicians in both parties.