Obama and the Jews: it’s complicated

By Branko Brkic 22 March 2010

In the heat of the recent meltdown in US-Israel relations, Bibi Netanyahu’s brother-in-law called Barack Obama an anti-Semite on Israeli radio. A ridiculous thing to say, perhaps, but symbolic of the fraught and divided attitude of Jews the world over to the idea of Palestinian statehood.

Is Barack Obama an anti-Semite? The question has been asked in conservative Jewish and Israeli circles since Obama won the Democratic primaries in June 2008. It’s not a new question, and Obama is not the first US president about whom it’s been asked. Neither is the question a specifically American one. In South Africa and much of the Jewish diaspora, where the outlook of the chief rabbinates tend towards steadfast support for the State of Israel, there will usually be someone in the extended family wondering aloud how the current (and future) US leadership feels about the tribe.

In the months leading up to the Obama-McCain showdown, New York’s young Jews, being who they are, released the uncomfortable energy inherent in this question by making jokes about it. “If Barack Obama doesn’t become the next president of the United States, I’m going to blame the Jews,” comedian Sarah Silverman quipped in a pro-Obama campaign video known as “The Great Schlep,” which garnered over 1,5-million hits on Youtube. “I’m making this video to convince you, all of you, to schlep over to Florida and convince your grandparents to vote Obama…You know why your grandparents don’t vote Obama? Because his name sounds scary, it sounds Muslim, which he’s obviously not. Yes, Barack Hussein Obama, it’s a super-fucking-shitty name. But you’d think someone named Manishewitz Guberman might understand that.”

WATCH: Sarah Silverman and The Great Schlep (Youtube video)

Sadly, in the last two weeks, there hasn’t been much to laugh about. Israel’s announcement, during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, that 1,600 Jewish houses would be built in East Jerusalem has resulted in a hardening of attitudes on both sides. After US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – at the behest of Obama – called Israel’s actions an insult, not only did Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu announce in parliament that his country would build houses where it wanted, but his brother-in-law, Hagai Ben-Artzi, took upon himself the duty of pronouncing Obama “an anti-Semite” on Israeli radio.

The most thoughtful response to Ben-Artzi came not from the US government, which sagely chose to pretend the man didn’t exist, but from David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker magazine:

“No one, not even Netanyahu, should be denied his right to an idiot relation, but the remark is less readily dismissed when one recalls reports (later denied) that the Prime Minister himself has referred to David Axelrod (whose West Wing office featured an ‘Obama for President’ sign in Hebrew) and Rahm Emanuel (a civilian volunteer in the Israeli Army during the first Gulf War) as ‘self-hating Jews.’”

Ah, the self-hating Jew. The catch-all category used by Jews on the right of the political spectrum who seem to conveniently forget that debate and dissent are the cornerstone of the Talmud, the central text on which Judaism is based. Remnick, himself a Jew, doesn’t employ this significant – if obvious – point in his argument; he focuses instead on the many diplomatic blunders the far-right coalition government of Netanyahu has made in the past, and on the fact that Israeli officialdom doesn’t seem to appreciate the diversity of opinion amongst American Jewry, especially as it pertains to the notion of “Greater Israel” that Netanyahu’s own father supported wholeheartedly.

That there are still movements in Israel and the Jewish diaspora who believe Israel’s borders should encompass the occupied territories, Sinai and even Jordan should come as no surprise; what might come as more of a shock is that there are larger and unfortunately less vocal Jewish groups who think these people are nuts. Included in this latter group would not only be the millions of young, liberal Jews in America who voted for Obama, but their counterparts in Australia, France, Britain, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa who cheered wildly when he got in.

And what about non-official Israeli society? How do they feel about Obama? According to a report released by the Associated Press on Friday March 20th, a Dialog survey has seven out of ten Israelis sharing a favourable view of the US president. That said, the same report reveals, as per Dialog and two other polls, that 48 percent of respondents would want the construction of houses in East Jerusalem to proceed apace.

Clearly, it’s complicated. Support for retaining the whole of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital is not equivocal with support for the idea of a Greater Israel, and while the latter can safely be equated with non-support for Barack Obama, the former can’t.

But to get back to the less confusing issue. Barack Obama, although it’s almost ridiculous to have to say it, is not an anti-Semite. While there may be many anti-Semites in the world, they are not always and every time the people who are critical of Israel’s policies.  Breyten Breytenbach, of all people, put it best in an open letter he wrote a few years ago to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “This ‘anti-Semtism’ allegation is utterly deplorable, especially coming from Jewish intellectuals who so often constitute the reasonable, rational, humanist, and creative backbone of Western societies.”

There’s a lot to be critical of in Breytenbach’s crusading non-fiction, a subject for another piece. In the letter to Sharon, however, he got it dead-on. The above quote came immediately after the following passage, which is just about the best summation of the situation you’ll find anywhere in the English language:

“No reference to some ostensibly sacrosanct ‘Greater Israel’ can camouflage the fact that the settlements are armed colonies built on land shamelessly stolen from the Palestinians, festering there as shards in their flesh, or operating as snipers’ nests intended to thwart and annul any possibility of Palestinian statehood. There can be no way to peace through the annihilation of the other, even when he’s an Arab, just as there can be no paradise for the ‘martyr’.”

By Kevin Bloom

Read more: New Yorker, Associated Press

Photo: White House photo stream


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