Obama and the Jews

9 March 2007

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One of the many paradoxes of contemporary American politics involves the Democratic Party’s two most loyal constituency groups: African Americans and Jews. They have managed to stay under the same political tent even as their historic relationship has continued the long descent from the heights reached when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched side-by-side in Selma, Ala.

In the decade or so since Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March, the best — or worst — that can be said about the relationship is that it has pretty much moved from mutual alienation to mutual indifference as black newspapers rarely mention Jews except to take potshots at Israel, and Jewish papers can be relied on only to ritually invoke King on his birthday.

Bill Clinton, the ultimate political empath, became a favorite of both groups without really bridging the growing rift between them. A crowning irony of the next presidential sweepstakes is that the contender who may have the best chance of restoring Black-Jewish enthusiasm for the same candidate has the middle name “Hussein,” after his paternal grandfather.

Everybody by now knows the outlines of Barack Obama’s odyssey as the Hawaiian-born son of a white Kansas mother and a Kenyan father who was educated early on in Indonesia (the home of his Muslim stepfather) as well as Honolulu, worked as a community organizer in Chicago (his real political education), graduated from Columbia University, became president of the Harvard Law Review and spent six years in the Illinois State Senate before his nationally acclaimed speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and election that same year to the U.S. Senate.

As Obama hires an operative to prepare the groundwork for a major Mideast policy speech, perhaps before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, his less-known Jewish connections are beginning to surface in the media: Gerald Kellman (“Marty Kaufman” in Obama’s semi-autobiographical “Dreams From my Father”), a practitioner of Saul Alinsky-style community organizing, was Obama’s first mentor in Chicago. Jay Tcath, director of Chicago’s Jewish Community Relations Council; Robert Schrayer, a leading Chicago Jewish philanthropist; and Judge Abner J. Mikva are among Obama’s fans. David Axelrod, his media maven, lost relatives in the Holocaust.

Those looking for Obama’s views on the Mideast won’t find a great deal. In 2004, he disappointed Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada by giving a speech to Chicago’s Council on Foreign Relations endorsing the U.S. alliance with Israel. Speaking before Jewish audiences during his Senate campaign, he reassured them that his Swahili first name, Barack (“Blessed”), is a close relation of Baruch in Hebrew.

His current bestseller, “The Audacity of Hope” — a carefully crafted manifesto positioning him for his 2008 run — has a page on a recent trip to the Mideast, where he talked to both Holocaust survivors and Palestinian villagers. The book emphasizes the need for enhanced homeland security while offering sensible suggestions for a comprehensive approach, including carrots as well as sticks, to wean the Arab and Muslim world from Islamic extremism.

A reading of Obama’s remarkably candid and insightful “Dreams from my Father,” written in 1995, suggests his ultimate appeal for Jewish voters may not be ideology but temperament and sensibility. One telling moment in the book comes in 1992 with Obama, in his early thirties around the time of his marriage, joining Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, a congregation popular with upwardly-mobile black professionals.

One can’t escape the impression that getting married and joining the church were both the politic thing for him to do. Regarding religion and politics, Obama emerges as a man wise beyond his years, with a deep appreciation of human frailties (including his own) and a profound aversion to fanaticism in any form. As a community organizer in Chicago, he learned the social importance of the black church and pulpit rhetoric.

Yet it is impossible not to be struck by temperamental affinities between Obama and earlier great Illinoisans — not only Abe Lincoln, also a lanky, big-eared agnostic who married late — but wryly wise Adlai Stevenson. Conversion or not, Obama remains deeply skeptical of religious dogma — as was Old Abe (who never joined a church), despite his political mastery of biblical cadence and imagery. His careful, skeptical frame makes for a chilly relationship between Obama and demagogues like Al Sharpton and others who view Obama as inauthentically “black.”

Another critical point in Obama’s moral self-education, dramatized in “Dreams,” comes during an interlude in New York when he was dating a white, apparently Jewish girl. He took her to a play, shot through with anti-white humor, at which the mostly black audience laughed and clapped, almost like in church.

“After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering — nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said, and she said that it was different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said the anger was just a dead end.”

The night ended with the girl crying that “she couldn’t be black…. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.”

Relating the story a few years later to a friend, Obama said “whenever I think back to what my friend said to me, that night outside the theater, it somehow makes me ashamed.”

Like other Americans, Jews who support Obama will be making a bet that — despite his limited national political experience (another similarity with Lincoln, who served only one term in Congress before his election to the presidency) — he has what it takes to move America beyond multicultural cliches to engaging real 21st century challenges, including our inescapable post-Iraq War responsibilities in the Mideast.

Like Stevenson, he will have to “talk sense to the American people,” especially the left wing of his own party.

Like Lincoln, he will have to harness “the better angels of our nature” to reconcile Americans with each other, and challenge them to intelligently engage the rest of the world.

Harold Brackman, a historian who has written extensively on the history of Black-Jewish relations, lives in San Diego.

Related Links

  • Obama Pivots Away From Dovish Past, The Jewish Week (8 March 2007)
  • How Barack Obama learned to love Israel, Ali Abunimah (4 March 2007)
  • The Jewish Journal