Jewish Americans are the most consistently and staunchly liberal group in the United States. They have been at the vanguard of the fight for equal rights, for gay rights, women’s rights and the rights of minorities. They are the strongest proponents of separation of church and state and the fiercest opponents of Evangelicals who seek to erase it, despite the latters’ strong support for Israel. And even if they harbor reservations about his policies on Iran or the Palestinians, President Barak Obama is still the embodiment of those values that American Jews hold most dear.
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These are the heartstrings that Obama pulled on in his speech at the Conservative congregation Adas Israel in Washington on Friday, and in his extensive interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that was published in the Atlantic on Thursday. Obama made light of Goldberg’s description of him as “the first Jewish President," but he nonetheless anchored his address on the emotional and cultural pillars of the American Jewish diaspora: Yiddishkeit, Tikkun Olam, a progressive world view and support for Israel. Not necessarily the current government of Israel or its policies, as Obama repeatedly pointed out, but the Israel that Obama and many of his liberal followers would like it to be.
The timing of Obama’s speech was linked to Jewish American Heritage Month as well as Solidarity Shabbat, a worldwide event coordinated by the Tom Lantos Foundation aimed at raising awareness of global anti-Semitism. It is also part of a White House campaign aimed at shoring up American Jewish support in advance of the expected fight in Congress over an Iran nuclear deal: Obama knows that the stronger American Jews object to an accord with Tehran, the harder it will be for him to prevent Democratic lawmakers from joining the GOP opposition.
But Obama’s speech at Adas was much more that. It was an appeal by Obama to American Jews to prefer his own liberal-progressive vision of Israel to the conservative, rightwing world-view espoused by Netanyahu, the one that triumphed in Israel’s recent elections. He made no mention of the Israeli prime minister, but his essential message to American Jews was nonetheless stark: I represent your core values far better than the elected leader of Israel.
His audience, judging by its warm applause, was receptive. Obama’s unabashed endorsement of a two-state solution garnered far more enthusiastic support in the D.C. shul than it ever would in Israel’s Knesset, even in its more centrist wing. He was equally applauded for standing up for his right to criticize Israel, as he did in the Goldberg interview, when he said that “papering over disagreements is not a true measure of friendship”: It is a statement that stands in sharp contrast to that of most Republicans, Jewish or otherwise, who now maintain that Israel and especially its current prime minister should be applauded under any and all circumstances. Small wonder that the reaction of J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami, often censured for his own public criticism of Israeli policies, was the most enthusiastic of all.
Obama linked his support for Palestinian statehood to the liberal legacy that has connected him throughout his life with Jewish Americans. He mentioned, as he did with Goldberg, the common denominator of Jews and African Americans as oppressed minorities as well as the undeniable contribution of American Jews to the Civil Rights Movement. Obama lauded Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King, as well as Rabbi David Teitelbaum, who was briefly thrown in jail. Whatever reservations Jewish leaders may have had about the concealment of Jewish participation in the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the movie "Selma," Obama did more than his fair share to fill in the blanks.
He repeated his by now hackneyed references to kibbutzim, Golda and Moshe Dayan, but these are nonetheless the reference points that led him to admire Israel several decades ago. It is an appreciation that he shared with the Chicago Jews who embraced and supported Obama when he took his first steps in politics. It is still the cultural world that underpins much of the love that American Jews have for Israel - but it is one that has turned from a source of admiration to an object of derision for many Jewish Israelis. In fact, if there is one thing that Obama’s speech accentuated, it is the growing gap between the two communities: One is from Venus, the other from Mars. In the eyes of most members of Netanyahu’s new coalition, American lefties, be they Jewish or African American or presidents of the United States, are even worse than Israeli lefties, and we know what they think about them.
Obama’s appeal should also be viewed against the historical backdrop of the growing gap between the basic liberal ideology of most American Jews and the way they increasingly view modern day Israel. For many years, especially after the Six-Day War, American Jews cohabited in comfort with both. The rise of the Likud to power, the two intifadas, the wars in Lebanon, the continued occupation and settlement drive – all of these chipped away at support for Israel, but only on the fringes. Ours is not reason why was the credo, at least for those Jews who took an active or even passive interest in the Jewish State: We will leave the task of leading the way to the Israelis.
This imperfect union began to fray before Netanyahu and Obama began their bitter Six Year War, but the process has accelerated dramatically in recent years, picking up speed over the past few months months, since Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Jews who lean Republican don’t have an issue: They admire Netanyahu and abhor Obama in any case. Liberal Jews, who have voted Democrat for the past century - and are likely to keep on doing so, despite the right’s wishful thinking, for many year to come - are increasingly torn not only between the two leaders but between the two divergent paths they represent. It is a battle for hearts and minds that Obama believes, apparently, is far from over.