November 20, 2019

A Jewish ‘thank you’ to President Obama

I’ve held off writing about President Barack Obama’s speech at Adas Israel Congregation late last month, but I’ve certainly read everything we Jews have written about it.

And here’s my conclusion: We can really be a bunch of ingrates.

To quickly recap: On May 21, The Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg published a long, searching interview with the president about his views on Israel, the Middle East and the Iran nuclear deal. President Obama followed that with a May 22 address to Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., and a long June 1 interview on Israel’s Channel 2 with Ilana Dayan. 

The goal of this Jewish trifecta was to drum up Jewish support for a nuclear containment deal with Iran that would gradually ease the tough international sanctions Obama set in place against Iran in exchange for a significant, verifiable reduction in Iran’s nuclear program. Obama inherited from his Iraq-obsessed predecessor an Iran already well on its way toward getting the bomb. Short of military action — an option rejected by Israeli intelligence agencies, the Israel Defense Forces and the United States — this deal looks like the best of many bad options.

What astonished me in the coverage that followed Obama’s outreach was the instantaneous backlash. 

In Mosaic, Michael Doran accused Obama of raising the specter of “dual loyalty” among Jews who prefer Netanyahu’s approach to his. Joel Pollak in Breitbart attacked Obama for inventing a pro-Israel past to dupe liberal Jews. Commentary editor Jonathan Tobin went so far as to suggest that Obama’s warm, friendly speech presented an image of Israel so at odds with reality, it was positively hostile.

Over at Bloomberg View, Eli Lake derided Obama for name-checking Golda Meir, the kibbutz movement and Moshe Dayan as icons of the Israel he, as well as many Americans, grew up admiring. And my friend and Jewish Journal partner-in-crime David Suissa chided Obama for expressing his love only for a fictitious or idealized version of Israel but not for the current real and messy version.   There are so many more examples– you get the idea.

From the far left, Mondoweiss blasted Obama for daring to say the Palestinians are “not the easiest of partners” when it is the Israelis who deserve the blame. But in the Atlantic,  former Israeli general Yossi Kuperwasser, criticized Obama  for going too easy on Palestinians by simply saying they are– you guessed it– “not the easiest of partners.”

You must know the old joke about the Jewish mother down at the beach who watches her child slip under the waves. She prays fervently to God for the boy to be saved, and her prayers are answered — he washes up on shore, perfectly healthy. At which point the mother looks up to the heavens and points out, “He had a hat.”

All this carping, criticism and correction is truly our “he had a hat” moment.

I’m not saying we should accept without comment what scraps our leaders toss us. This is a democracy, and we Jews have the right to press our interests. But this level of umbrage is insane.

Here’s what we aren’t taking into account. This so-called eternal bond between Israel and the United States is actually relatively recent, having blossomed 48 years ago this week — on June 5, 1967, to be exact — in the aftermath of Israel’s lightning victory over five Arab armies in the Six-Day War. Before 1967, Israel went begging to France and sundry other nations for weapons and aid. Afterward, America embraced a winner. Some 90 percent of all the aid money Israel has received from the United States has come since Israel’s stunning victory. 

Name-checking Meir and Dayan was a shorthand way of appealing to the broadest swath of older, influential American Jews, whose images of Israel were forged in that era — which isn’t all that long ago. 

The deep alliance with the U.S. enabled Israel to secure its defenses, absorb millions of immigrants, and make peace with Jordan and Egypt. It flourished as a result of bipartisan support, even under some presidents — both Republican and Democrat — who were far more antagonistic to Israel than this one. The last thing any of us should do is take for granted the words and actions of an American president reaching out to American Jewry.

And what about the now-indestructible trope that Obama just doesn’t understand Israel?  (Which replaced 2008-10’s indestructible trope that Obama just doesn’t feel Israel).

First, he’s not stupid, and Israel isn’t some arcane mystery.  In fact, it’s pretty simple.  In June 1967, in a just war of defense, Israel captured territory where a lot of Palestinians live.  At some point it will have to decide to either give the territory up, or grant the Palestinians who live there citizenship.    Brain surgery, right?  What Obama also understands is that in the last election three out of four Israeli voters voted against Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the entire right wing, don’t-give-an-inch-back bloc won only 44 seats— just a third of the Knesset.  

Obama also understands he has a damn near perfect record of standing up for Israel where it really counts: in the UN, in security and intelligence matters, during the Gaza war, in front of Arab audiences, during times of national tragedy and emergency. You know who said so?  Netanyahu.  

So I’m going to say something radical, incendiary and, for so many Jews, absolutely stomach-turning, if not traitorous. Ready? Here goes:

Mr. President, thank you.

Thank you for saying clearly that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Period. Full stop.   

Thank you for using your power and political capital to find the best of many bad answers to the Iranian nuclear problem. Thank you for saying, “I’m interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon — every single path.”

And thank you for promoting your vision of a Jewish, democratic Israel living securely alongside the Palestinians. 

I realize that my words will come across to some as sycophantic and to others as naïve. They are neither. I’ve never hesitated to point out where I think Obama has fallen short — his Hamlet-like approach to Syria comes to mind. And I’m not angling for more invitations to the White House Chanukah party, no matter how good the latkes — and they are delicious.

But, c’mon people. What happened in late May was a pretty good thing in the annals of our tragic history. So, can we all stop acting as if someone drowned?


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism.