Jack Lew Skirmish Highlights Danger of Right-wing Incitement Against Obama

Politicians and pundits foment fury and are then surprised when people take them seriously, just as they did when Rabin was alive.

Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama announces his choice of White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew as the next Treasury secretary, January 10, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama announces his choice of White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew as the next Treasury secretary, January 10, 2013.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev

Barack Obama is stabbing Israel in the back, selling it down the river, throwing it under a bus. He is like Franklin Roosevelt abandoning the Jews, like Neville Chamberlain appeasing the Nazis. He sucks up to Muslims, kowtows to Arabs, hates Jews with a vengeance. As for his real birthplace and true religion, well, there’s no smoke without a fire.

Worse, perhaps, are the lily-livered, knee-jerk, self-hating leftist Jews who work for Obama. By aiding his drive to give Iran a bomb and by abetting his efforts to force Israel to give up Judea and Samaria, they are no better than collaborators, not to mention kapos, perhaps even mosers and rodefs of Talmudic times.

Such accusations and their derivatives, blunt or subtle, should sound familiar to anyone who’s lived on earth during the past six years and has come into contact with Jews or other self-proclaimed Israel-lovers.  You can hear and read them, in one form or another, from Israeli leaders and Republican politicians, in right-wing media and settler bulletins, on tweets and blogs and Facebook, from the aisles of Evangelical churches through the benches of Brooklyn synagogues to the salons of Manhattan’s richest and most famous. “Tell me, is he really in the Muslim Brotherhood?” one worldly and well-known New York powerbroker asked me recently, and he wasn’t joking.

In that sense, then, the most surprising thing about the unfriendly reception accorded Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew at the Jerusalem Post conference in New York this week was that people were actually surprised. The boos, jeers, and catcalls directed at Lew by many if not most of the participants at the conference were mild -  when one takes into account the deep-seated suspicions and pent up rage prevalent in Orthodox and right-wing circles towards the Obama administration. In fact, because he is not completely identified with the other “court Jews” in the Obama administration, as they were again described this week, Lew probably got off easy.

True, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid all went out of their way to placate the flustered Lew after he left the podium on Sunday at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Manhattan. They scolded the audience, saying that Lew was undeserving of such scorn. Steinitz said that he was “embarrassed” by the audience’s reception and lauded Lew’s singular role in helping Israel get accepted into the OECD, and there is no doubt he was sincere.

But that’s known in the Talmud as “immersing in the mikveh with vermin in his hand”, or, possibly, in this context, the pot calling the kettle black. Steinitz seemed quite oblivious to the significant role played by right wing Israeli politicians, from his party leader Benjamin Netanyahu on down, in creating the kind of atmosphere that has incited and inflamed right wing opinions, Jewish or otherwise, against Obama. It’s not only Obama’s policies that are protested, as is right and proper, it is his character and motives that are often maligned.

The onslaught from Jerusalem is compounded by the increasingly venomous discourse in America itself. Many of Obama’s Jewish detractors take their cue from the harsh attacks directed at Obama by his GOP rivals, not only on matters concerning Israel but on his liberal agenda as well. In one ear they hear that he is throwing Israel under the bus, on the other that he is destroying the American way of life. Given that research shows that conservatives are much more likely than liberals to reside inside their isolated media echo chamber, they tend to dismiss accounts of Obama’s unprecedented defense assistance to Israel or view them as a ruse meant to conceal his evil designs.

As in Israel and perhaps even more so, in America, the Jewish right wing naturally gravitates towards a worldview that is always on guard against an onslaught of anti-Semitism, a catastrophe just around the corner, a Holocaust lurking in the wings. Politicians in Israel and organizational leaders in the US tend to promote this pessimism and to portray Obama’s role in it, not only out of genuine concern but also as a cynical ploy aimed at getting more votes or extracting more donations. They are then shocked, horrified and appalled when it turns out that their words have consequences.

The people who booed Lew on Sunday do not represent American Jews, of course. They don’t represent right wing Jews either. Nonetheless, the incident, so uncharacteristic of Jewish American norms of behavior, is not detached from what can only be described as incitement against Obama and his administration. It momentarily got out of hand, but ended in mere boos and a turning of backs. Israelis who lived through the period preceding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin cannot be blamed, however, for fearing that it might have been, and could still be, very much worse.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured together in 2010.Credit: Reuters

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