U.S. election campaign 2012: The year of talking dangerously
The upcoming U.S. presidential campaign looks increasingly likely to produce an all-out, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners political conflagration in the Jewish community - with Israel taking center stage.
"Any Jew who supports Obama is ultimately an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people."
This was the terse verdict of Internet commenter Daniel on the blog known as "Yid with Lid," in response to the recent joint statement issued by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee that beseeched the Jewish community to avoid "polarizing debates" and "political attacks" in the upcoming presidential campaign.
"You must be kidding," was the no-less-pointed reaction of conservative columnist William Kristol, one of the leaders of the well-funded and aggressively outspoken Emergency Committee for Israel, echoing widespread suspicion on the American right that the plea by the ADL's Abe Foxman and the AJC's David Harris was simply a ploy aimed at shielding President Barack Obama from the wrath of his Jewish detractors.
Indeed, if the so-called unity pledge achieved anything at all, it was to highlight the Jewish community's state of utter disunion as it approaches the 2012 presidential campaign.
The fact that Foxman and Harris - staunch defenders of Israel, who are often the target of strong criticism from the liberal wing of American Jewry - were immediately branded by some as left-wing collaborators of the Democratic Party, is a harbinger of the charged atmosphere and the acrimonious dialogue that surely lies ahead. The Republicans, after all, are planning to do exactly what Foxman and Harris were somewhat naively seeking to avoid: to use Israel as a "wedge issue"; to depict a vote for Obama, as commenter Daniel succinctly observed, as tantamount to a knife in the back of the Jewish state; to exploit, by any means possible, what many Jewish Republicans now view as a once-in-their-lifetime opportunity to cut the Gordian knot that has bound Jewish voters to the Democratic party for close to a century.
Indeed, although Foxman subsequently tried to clarify his position by conceding "measured and thoughtful expressions of different points of view regarding U.S. policy toward Israel," he knows, and his critics know, that nothing could be farther from his critics' minds, or from their plans.
Just like other hard-core ideological adversaries of this president - and, in many ways, even more so - Obama's Jewish opponents, secular and religious alike, are armed with true conviction and manifest zeal as they prepare for the electoral showdown. America has had presidents whom most Jews intensely disliked - Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush immediately spring to mind - but none became the object of anything approaching the absolute abhorrence that Obama has spawned among his Jewish opponents before, during and mostly after his election in 2008.
Anyone who has participated in recent years in a Shabbat dinner political conversation in America or in Israel can provide first-hand testimony of the hitherto-unheard-of vehemence and vitriol that Obama routinely arouses among his Jewish critics.
Thus, this presidential campaign looks increasingly likely to produce an all-out, black-or-white, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners political conflagration - with Israel taking center stage. It is a campaign in which the end will justify the means and the means will all be deemed "kosher" in the name of a greater cause. It is a campaign that may bend the "golden triangle" of the Israel-America-Jewish community so completely out of shape that it may prove difficult, if not impossible, to return it to its original state.
On the "day after," no matter who wins the election, Israel may be perceived as a partisan issue, removed from the consensual center it has occupied for the past five decades in American politics, embraced by one side of the political arena, but consequently rejected and resented by the other. And if, as many observers believe, the majority of Jewish voters do continue to support Obama, despite everything - albeit with far less enthusiasm than in 2008 - they will have done so after "failing" the test of loyalty to Israel devised by the Republican right.
Consciously crossing such a threshold, despite the warning, could have negative long-term effects, both on the community and on its future attitude toward Israel.
In personal conversations during the past few months, some politically minded American Jewish leaders have cited the unrestrained animosity of liberal Jews toward George W. Bush, especially in his second term, and despite his warm relations with Israel, as a precursor and even direct catalyst of the right wing's reciprocal hostility toward Obama; others have attempted to strike a balance by citing the concurrent radicalization of groups on the Jewish far left that support BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions ), and are thus said to be actively participating in the delegitimization of Israel's very existence.
In the final analysis, however, most will concur that the American Jewish conservative and ideological right wing has grown exponentially bigger and bolder in recent years, steadily gaining in influence and funding, and attracting experienced and savvy supporters in the media.
The conservative right in America has stoked the flames of Jewish resentment of Obama, and this, in turn, has helped it to further empower itself. At the same time, growing self-confidence has made members of the Jewish right far more militant and much less tolerant of opposing views, a development that Jewish leaders confess - in private, of course - is having a chilling effect on the internal dialogue in their community, in the form of what is arguably a mirror image, by design rather than coincidence, of similar developments taking place in Israel.
"They [right-wingers] dislike anything or anyone in America who is leftist or liberal," one of my interlocutors said, though it was unclear if he was referring to America, or Israel, or both. "But it is liberal and leftist Jews that they detest more than all."
A legacy of 9/11
There are many factors contributing to this unprecedented antipathy toward Obama, not least of which, of course, is what appears to be his own frosty attitude toward Israel, which is a matter of his detached personality, according to his supporters, and not of malevolence, as his detractors believe. It is also safe to assume that the diametrically opposed ideologies of the governments in Jerusalem and Washington have played a significant role in souring attitudes on both sides.
The Israeli press often notes the recurring "bad luck" of conservative hawk Benjamin Netanyahu in having had to deal with liberal-left U.S. administrations in both of his terms in office - Obama's in the second, Bill Clinton's in the first - but the converse is just as true. "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says that unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel," Obama told Jewish leaders in Cleveland during the election campaign in March 2008, producing a prophetic prognosis of his own first term.
There are many other contributing factors affecting the extraordinarily harsh attitude of many Jews towards Obama, that have been discussed elsewhere, some of which, such as the Internet's radicalization of political discourse, have nothing to do with Obama or Israel, but one that often goes unmentioned is the enduring influence of 9/11. For many Americans, but particularly for Jews, the sheer monstrosity of the Al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center was supposed to have "settled the argument" once and for all about the absolute necessity to confront militant Islam and the absolute morality of Israel's battle against the Palestinians. Jihadist Islam, represented by Al-Qaida, the Taliban, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hamas, Hezbollah and their cohorts, were now viewed as latter-day successors of Nazi Germany. Politicians may have felt obligated to maintain the distinction between these manifestations of militant Islam and the "silent majority" of its peaceful adherents, but for many Americans, Jewish and otherwise, there were no more "good Muslims" after 9/11, just as there were no "good Germans" during World War II.
Thus, when President Bush proclaimed his dichotomous dictum "you are either with us or you're with the terrorists," he encapsulated the simple philosophy by which many Israelis and a significant number of American Jews evaluate the world around them to this very day.
The spate of atrocious suicide bombings in Israel in the years just before and following 9/11 provided ongoing proof, if any was needed, of the inhumanity of Israel's Islamic enemies, as well as ongoing validation of Bush's black-or-white formula. During those dark times and in the ensuing years of collective post-trauma, the full effects of which have yet to be properly explored, the nuanced and gray middle-ground gradually disappeared from Israel's public discourse, and a growing intolerance was projected by Israel on the American Jewish community.
Patience with, and understanding for groups, especially Jewish ones, that appeared to be concerned with the rights of the Palestinians - or worse, who were perceived as collaborating with Israel's enemies - disappeared, especially in the wake of the war in Gaza and the Goldstone Report. Human rights NGOs that had once been tolerated, however grudgingly, were now recast, under the dictates of the post-9/11 either-or test, as enemies of the state, worthy of condemnation, hate and legal sanctions.
Thus, when seven short years after the Twin Towers fell, America elected a black president whose middle name is "Hussein"; when that president then extended a hand of friendship to the Arab world, proposed a friendly dialogue with the tyrants in Tehran and was even seen to be bowing his head before the Saudi monarch; and when he was and still is perceived (erroneously and very often maliciously, in this writer's opinion ) as seeking to "throw Israel under the bus," the psychological and emotional impact on many Americans and especially on right-wing Jews was compounded a hundred times over because of 9/11. This was not simply a president pursuing a contrary and unpopular political policy. This was true blasphemy.
Not long after his election, Obama was deemed by his detractors to have failed Bush's either-or litmus test, and was henceforth cast as beyond the pale, unworthy of his high office. Nothing he has done since, including his undeniable successes in hunting down the perpetrators of 9/11, can commute his sentence. And in such a charged atmosphere, the vexing prospect of continued Jewish support for this president, despite his transgression, is no longer viewed as liberal naivete that can be tolerated, but has evolved into an abnormal aberration that is tantamount to a betrayal of Israel itself.
Just one additional, somewhat ironic, analogy that can be made between Obama's election in 2008 and Netanyahu's own surprise victory in the 1996 election: Just as conservative hawks were convinced that 9/11 would irrevocably and universally change attitudes toward militant Islam, so the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was viewed by his supporters as a watershed moment that would sweep away all opposition to the Oslo Accords and peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu's shock electoral victory created the same kind of righteous indignation among the Israeli left that permeates the American right today, and the force of this pent-up anger played a pivotal role in bringing Netanyahu down a short two-and-a-half years later.
On the other hand, that short-lived success was arguably the last hurrah for the Israeli left, and today's prime minister, 15 years later, is none other than the same Netanyahu.
Follow Chemi Shalev on Twitter @ChemiShalev