Jews Have Seats at Obama’s Head Table

Other than African Americans, no group of voters provided more support to Barack Obama than Jews. According to exit polls, 78 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate, despite predictions that this would be the year Jews would abandon their historic party loyalty. Only 43 percent of whites overall voted for Obama.

As impressive as this is, Jewish support for Democratic congressional candidates tends to be even higher than their backing for the top of the ticket. The great majority of Jews clearly wanted Obama’s election and a big Democratic wave in Congress.

As inauguration day approaches, the promises of the campaign are turning into the reality of governing. Jews and friends of Israel certainly have seats at the head table in Obama’s administration. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and his adviser, David Axelrod, are likely to be major decision makers. His candidate for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, though not Jewish, is a strong friend of Israel and was the preferred candidate of the majority of Jewish Democrats during the nomination process. And under her wing, Dennis Ross will be handling sensitive negotiations in the Middle East.

Furthermore, Henry Waxman, the fiery congressman from Los Angeles, won the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, where his influence over national policy will be immense.

It can be expected that America’s attention will be focused on the economy and the Obama stimulus plan. Jews are no different from other voters in these concerns, though for Jews, a series of policies along the cultural divide will be particularly important.

One of the themes of the election was the battle between science and ideology. The modern Jewish community was profoundly shaped by the Enlightenment that moved Europe centuries ago. The beliefs that learning is vital and that logic and reason can defeat ignorance are deeply ingrained among Jews. Education is not just about upward mobility but also about the triumph of wisdom over the Dark Ages.

Sen. John McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate clearly unnerved Jewish voters, who saw in her the forces of ignorance and anti-intellectualism that have so infected the Republican Party. Obama will likely reverse a number of policies in the Bush administration that reflected this point of view, reopening the doors to stem cell research, providing full information on reproductive choice and unshackling science from political control.

The end of the era of global warming denial and other assaults on science in the public arena will open up new possibilities for environmental action and energy independence. Progress can be made to ensure that gays do not face discrimination in the workplace or in the military and pay equity for women can be advanced through legislation currently moving through Congress. Much of this work can be done by presidential executive orders and will resonate powerfully with Jewish voters.

In the area of foreign policy, though, Obama faces extremely thorny challenges that will be very important to Jews and to Israel. The most urgent problems include Iran and its nuclear program and Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Bush has left Obama with an Iran greatly strengthened by the war in Iraq, in which the United States conveniently removed one of Iran’s main adversaries.

Having lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bush administration has less credibility in its warnings about Iran’s nuclear program. Yet the unknowns in that program are quite frightening. Israel has long considered Iran a much graver threat than Iraq ever was.

Bush also aided the rise of Hamas when he rejected the advice of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to delay the Iran-backed Hamas’ role in Palestinian elections until that organization met preconditions. Ever protective of his own philosophy of spreading democracy, Bush did not listen. Unfettered by preconditions, Hamas won the 2006 elections and then fought Fatah to win control over Gaza in 2007. Its rocket attacks on Israel ultimately led to the current conflict.

Obama has constructed a foreign policy team that is reassuring to Jews, a pragmatic, pro-Israel group that is unlikely to engage in global adventures like the Bush administration. The president-elect also has been careful not to undermine Israel’s position in his public statements about Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza, despite much global criticism of the Jewish state.

At the same time, Obama has pledged to engage America’s adversaries, including Iran. He will likely play a more active role in Middle East peace negotiations than Bush.

Obama’s style mixes engagement with determination. In domestic policy, he reaches out to political adversaries in ways that make his supporters nervous and even angry. He invited conservative evangelical preacher Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration. He offered congressional Republicans input into the stimulus package. In foreign policy, he plans to engage our adversaries. This is the direct opposite of the Bush philosophy of my way or the highway.

The question is, what happens if the engagee bites the hand that engages? That is where the true mettle of the Obama presidency will become known. In domestic policy, what if Republicans unite against his economic policies?

And of all the possible bites, by far the most important one would be if Iran announces that it has a nuclear weapon. It could happen at any time, or not at all. The options for destroying Iran’s weapons program are not simple, and the dangers of a Middle East war must be considered. Any conflict with Iran places American troops in Iraq, which is now friendly to Iran, even more in harm’s way.

But can America accept a nuclear Iran? What if Israel chooses to act on its own; should the United States give the green light? Much as our focus is on the economy, these may be the hardest questions this president will ever face.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII. He writes a monthly column for The Journal.