June 18, 2009
There was a telling item in JTA this week about what top Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein did or did not say about American-Jewish support for Barack Obama.
Hoenlein, the executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, gave an interview to the right-wing and pro-Israel website Newsmax on June 14.
The Newsmax article paraphrased Hoenlein as saying, “President Obama’s strongest supporters among Jewish leaders are deeply troubled by his recent Middle East initiatives.”
Hoenlein tells JTA, however, that he never said or implied that criticism of Obama was that widespread or monolithic. True, he has heard criticism, even among Obama’s supporters, of the president’s Cairo speech. Some didn’t like his mention of the Holocaust as the exclusive justification for Israel’s legitimacy. Or they detected a specious analogy between the suffering of the Jews in the Shoa and the Palestinians under occupation.
Those concerns are genuine, he told JTA, but not shared across the board.
Newsmax’s overeager coverage suggests that there are supporters of Israel just itching for a fight with the Obama administration and hoping to inflate disagreement into warfare, disappointment into disgust.
You hear the alarmist tendency in statements by the Zionist Organization of America, which said the Cairo speech “may well signal the beginning of a renunciation of America’s strategic alliance with Israel.” That’s strong stuff, coming after a speech in which Obama told the Arab world that the U.S.-Israel bond is “unbreakable.”
And there’s a secondary tendency: to suggest that real supporters of Israel, in a dust-up between Washington and Jerusalem, will and should always side with the latter.
This suggestion resounds in a recent essay by author and TV personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “The inevitable clash will separate sunshine Jewish patriots who back Israel when convenient against those who stand with Israel even when it means losing their invitation to the White House Hanukka party,” he writes.
Boteach’s assumption is that Jews who support Obama do so not out of principle, but out of political expediency.
In fact, there are legitimately pro-Israel groups and individuals who believe that a little American arm-twisting is a good thing if it helps Israelis make some unpopular political decisions and gives the Palestinians assurances that their interests will not be cast aside. Many of these groups have always seen the settlements as an obstacle to peace-making and the two-state solution as the only solution.
Boteach doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of such pro-Israel views — rather, he seems to define “those who stand with Israel” as those who agree with his critique of Obama. And there’s a troubling hint in Boteach’s op-ed, which I hope he did not intend, that American Jews owe their first allegiance to the policies of the Israeli government over their own. Boteach writes that a clash between America and Israel “will pit a well-organized community of substantial resources but also substantial insecurity — particularly when it comes to charges of dual loyalty — against a popular president of considerable eloquence but misguided policies that identify Israeli settlements as the main obstacle to Middle East peace.”
Again, Boteach assumes some Jews will side with Obama only because they are insecure or fear charges of “dual loyalty.” But we’re a lot more vulnerable to charges of “dual loyalty” if we must back the current Israeli government in a dispute with the White House. Forget dual loyalty — that’s single loyalty.
Jews have stood up to the White House in the past, as Jonathan Tobin, the executive editor of Commentary, wrote recently. In pressuring the Shamir government over loan guarantees, the first President Bush essentially reversed the inroads the GOP had been making among Jews since the Reagan era. Like Boteach, Tobin would like to see Jews repeat history and punish Obama for his very public dispute with Netanyahu.
Why that seems less likely this time, however, is not because “the loyalty of Jews to the Democratic Party and its very popular leader may now outweigh the vestigial ethno-religious pull of affection for the Jewish state,” as Tobin writes. First, George H.W. Bush overplayed his hand wildly when he complained that he was “one lonely little guy” beset by “powerful political forces” — meaning the pro-Israel lobby. Jews don’t take well to anti-Semitic canards.
Secondly, it’s no surprise that Jews who vote Democratic might have similarly liberal politics when it comes to Israel. Tobin and Boteach aren’t merely asking Jews to stand up to Obama, but to act against a dovish inclination that is certainly more pronounced today than it was during the first Bush era, when talk of a Palestinian state was still taboo.
There’s definitely a debate to be had over Obama’s foreign policy. The Jewish Left avoids scrutiny of Obama at its — and Israel’s — peril. We also need to revisit an old debate — namely, how we reconcile our Jewish and American identities, our love for America, and our “ethno-religious pulls of affection.”
But let’s just keep the discussions separate.