Beliefnet
God-O-Meter

obamajews.jpgBarack Obama certainly has work to do in bringing Jews, a bedrock Democratic constituency, over to his side before November. In Pennsylvania, the last primary state with a good-sized Jewish population–they accounted for one in twelve Democratic voters there–Obama lost Jews to Hillary Clinton 62-percent to 38-percent. It’s a vulnerability Obama has long recognized. He’s made a habit of meeting with Jewish activists to address their concerns, rooted largely in his stated support for talking to Iran, past sympathetic statements toward the Palestinians, and the fact that he’s not Hillary Clinton, who has neither of those first two problems.
Now, Obama has given an interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to talk Jews and Israel. The second half of the interview captures Obama’s Israel/Middle East positions, and has the Illinois senator challenging some of the Jewish state’s policies even while attempting to establish credibility as a reliable backer. What God-o-Meter finds more intriguing, however, is the first half, in which Obama speaks cogently and in detail about what the Jews and Israel mean to him as a person:

[W]hen I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man — as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, and during the course of this two-week camp he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. There was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted. That was part of my upbringing, to be traveling and always having a sense of values and culture but wanting a place. So that is my first memory of thinking about Israel.
And then that mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past. I found this very appealing.
You’ve talked about the role of Jews in the development of your thinking
I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris. So when I became more politically conscious, my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.
One of the things that is frustrating about the recent conversations on Israel is the loss of what I think is the natural affinity between the African-American community and the Jewish community, one that was deeply understood by Jewish and black leaders in the early civil-rights movement but has been estranged for a whole host of reasons that you and I don’t need to elaborate….
Go to the kishke question, the gut question: the idea that if Jews know that you love them, then you can say whatever you want about Israel, but if we don’t know you –- Jim Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski –- then everything is suspect. There seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don’t feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it.
I find that really interesting. I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what’s been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they’re asking themselves moral questions.
….The other irony in this whole process is that in my early political life in Chicago, one of the raps against me in the black community is that I was too close to the Jews. When I ran against Bobby Rush [for Congress], the perception was that I was Hyde Park, I’m University of Chicago, I’ve got all these Jewish friends. When I started organizing, the two fellow organizers in Chicago were Jews, and I was attacked for associating with them. So I’ve been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends, so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it’s curious.

Sure, John McCain is convincing that he says he’s “Hamas’s worst nightmare.” But can he talk about the Jews and Israel with that much soul?


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