Are Obama supporters playing up Jewish religion of new White House chief to appease pro-Israel groups?

Under attack from Republicans for supposedly not being pro-Israel enough, US President Barack Obama has been doing all he can to prove that he is indeed the most pro-Israel president in history. His surrogates have been boasting, for example, that on his watch, US military aid to Israel has reached “unprecedented levels.”

And, the administration let it be known that it is about to undertake the largest joint US-Israeli military exercises ever involving deployment of thousands of US troops.

Today, The Jerusalem Post reports:

US President Barack Obama, facing a tough re-election fight, on Monday shook up the top ranks of his administration, replacing White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley with budget director Jack Lew.

Lew, an Orthodox Jew, is currently the director of the Office of Management and Budget, a Cabinet-level position and a post he also filled during the Clinton administration.

Fostering anti-Semitism?

But does Lew’s religion have anything to do with the appointment? In US discourse it is normally considered anti-Semitic to suggest that individuals are appointed to senior positions because they are Jewish, or represent the Jewish community.

Yet that is precisely what The Jerusalem Post appears to be doing:

Daley is leaving after just over a year on the job; he replaced Rahm Emanuel, who left the White House to run successfully for Chicago’s mayor.

Lew, like Emanuel, has close Jewish community ties.

There had been speculation in the organized Jewish community about whether Obama would fill a top spot with someone close to the Jewish community after the departure last month of Dennis Ross, who had been Obama’s top Iran policy adviser.

That Lew’s appointment is being interpreted as a concession to “the organized Jewish community” is troubling and may only feed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and stereotypes.

“Jewish values” in government

The Jerusalem Post also quotes David A. Harris, the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) on Lew’s appointment:

Throughout his time leading the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew has lived his Jewish values every day by working to strengthen the economy and ensuring that painful budget cuts do not strand vulnerable Americans. Mr. Lew has had such deep experience at the Department of State and the White House, and it’s wonderful to learn that President Barack Obama has selected him to help lead this White House staff forward – and to enact this President’s programs. We wish Jack a hearty ‘mazel tov’ – congratulations – and wish him all the best in this crucially important new position.”

Clearly, NJDC is playing up Lew’s religion as part of its battle with the Republican Jewish Coalition to prove that Obama is friendly to the Jewish and pro-Israel constituencies.

One can only imagine the reaction if any official were openly lauded as having lived his or her “Muslim” or even “Christian” values in exercising governmental authority. That alas is hypothetical, since so it is almost unheard of for Muslims to reach high office in the United States amid an atmosphere of growing Islamophobia.

Such use of religion is distasteful and inappropriate, especially when we do not in fact have equality among religions in the United States and when religion is being used as part of a not-so-coded effort to show Obama in the most pro-Israel light.

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Having only one passport--US citizenship--will soon be a handicap in American politics.
Indyk did not even have one--he had double Israeli and Australian citizenship-- but received it in a hurry when Clinton was directed to appoint him.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.