NEW YORK – As U.S. President Barack Obama steps down and president-elect Donald Trump prepares to lead America’s highest office, Haaretz spoke with a wide range of Jewish leaders about what legacy, in their view, Obama is leaving behind.
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In these highly divided and divisive times — especially given the Obama administration’s recent statements on Israel — it will surprise no one that heads of Jewish organizations have wildly divergent perspectives on the president’s legacy, particularly in terms of Israel. But many complimented the president’s character, especially in contrast to that of his successor, and spoke admiringly of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Abraham Foxman, national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Obama failed to live up to his promise, particularly on the international stage. His “promise of change and hope was greater than the delivery,” said Foxman.
“That he was the first African-American president will forever be a statement about what America was capable of. I think the first lady will be part of the great legacy. She was connected, inspiring, classy and she made a difference,” Foxman told Haaretz.
The president “started with a great promise in world affairs, but that is also his greatest failure. I thought he moved America isolationist, he moved us back. Iran is and will be a mistake,” said Foxman, referring to the nuclear deal struck with Iran in 2015, despite strong opposition from the Israeli government and its allies in the U.S.
In terms of Israel, “I don’t think he understood the Arab-Israel conflict,” Foxman told Haaretz. “He tried to be even-handed to the point of bias. There was no level of trust, and that was the tragedy because he sincerely wanted to bring about peace. Obama never understood that he tried to make this even handedness the cornerstone, when in fact it undermined his ability to bring the Israelis to the table.”
The Zionist Organization of America’s Morton Klein, arguably the American Jewish community’s most vocal right-wing representative, was unsurprisingly unequivocal in his take.
“Obama will be remembered as the most dangerous and hostile president to Israel, even supplanting anti-Semitic Jimmy Carter,” Klein said. “History will judge Obama harshly for the horror of releasing over $100 billion and eliminating most sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, the largest funder and promoter of Islamic terrorism in the world, and providing them a pathway to nuclear weapons endangering Israel and the West.”
Equally unsurprising is that Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the left-wing New Israel Fund, had the opposite view.
“As an American and as a Jew, I'm profoundly grateful to have had this president. He was perhaps our most pro-Israel president ever, with a deep understanding — shared by the overwhelming majority of American Jews — that Israel's future is compromised by the settlement enterprise,” he told Haaretz.
National Council of Jewish Women CEO Nancy Kaufman spoke of Obama’s legacy in terms of the Affordable Care Act, which even before Trump is inaugurated has been gutted by a Republican Congress. “It is the most important piece of social legislation since the New Deal and has filled a gaping hole in our social safety net.”
It “has been especially important to women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) individuals, people of color, and those struggling to make ends meet,” she told Haaretz. “It ushered in protections against gender and sex discrimination in insurance it stopped health plans from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions that included having had a Caesarean section, breast cancer, and even having survived domestic violence. The ACA also improved access to critical health services. A key new required benefit was maternity care — excluded by 87 percent of individual market plans in 2009.”
Today most insurers have to cover without co-pay contraception, domestic violence screening, annual exams, cervical cancer screening and mammograms, she noted, which in the past “many women used to forego due to cost.”
More surprising the perspective of Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudath Israel of America, which represents the Haredi community, who had admiring things to say about the outgoing president.
“The day Obama was elected he already created a legacy,” Zwiebel said. “In a country with a history of racism that a black man could be elected president is something to be very proud of, frankly, and reminds us that this country is a place of great opportunity and should be the source of inspiration to people of any minority community, including our own.”
Zwiebel also lauded Obama for being “a person who brought some measure of dignity to the White House. He and his family were never involved in any salacious scandals. He always comported himself with a certain dignity, as did the first lady. We ought to expect that of our presidents,” said Zweibel, obliquely referring to the Oval Office’s next occupant.
In the area of foreign affairs, “a lot of us felt that there were areas where we were disappointed in his actions. Certainly he reminded us a few weeks before he left office with the abstention on the UN vote that he may not have been as close a friend to the State of Israel as we would have liked.”
Still, Zwiebel noted Obama’s contribution to Israeli security in positive terms, describing it as “very strong commitment to Israel’s defense perpetuated under his leadership."
"While we remember some of the negatives, like the Iranian nuclear deal, it needs to be balanced with the commitment to the tangible commitments he carried through on to Israel’s security,” said Zwiebel, referring to the unprecedented level of funding and cooperation provided to Israel by the U.S. administration.
“On a personal level,” said Zwiebel, coming back around to contrasting Obama with his successor, “I happen to like him very much and appreciate elected officials who are intelligent, speak in whole sentences and who are morally strong and decent people. And I think he was.”
One thing that most of those interviewed agreed upon was what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the country’s largest Jewish denominational organization, the Union for Reform Judaism, called Obama’s “mixed legacy.”
David Harris, who serves as executive director of the American Jewish Committee, summed up the conflict that some feel about what Obama leaves behind.
“Many argue that the U.S.-Israel link is deeper than ever, despite superficial tensions, and the world is safer in part because of the Iran deal, while others assert that the recent U.S. abstention in the UN Security Council revealed a deeper hostility and the Iran deal endangers Israel and the world,” he told Haaretz. “In other words, the jury – or, should I say, Jewry – is still out.”
But on Obama’s character and personal priorities, the URJ’s Jacobs has only positive things to say.
“Whether I agreed or disagreed on specific policies, I believed and continue to believe that he’s a man of uncommon decency and resolute integrity, with a clear devotion to the common good,” he said. “I also think Obama leaves an important legacy as father-in-chief and spouse-in-chief. What a joy it has been to watch his relationships with his family, to see his palpable devotion to them. That’s a lesson for us all – no matter how heavy your other responsibilities, it’s always possible to prioritize your family.”
Stosh Cotler, CEO of the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc, spoke of President Obama in terms similar to those the outgoing president used during his own presidential campaigns, when he inspired a nation with soaring, hopeful ideas.
“His biggest legacy is his work in building an America that came closer to the promise of its founding, fundamental ideal of dignity for all people. He embodied that promise every day through his presence as the first black man in the nation’s highest office,” Cotler told Haaretz. “He reminded us that we the people have the power to bridge the gap between America's reality and the aspiration of America,” she said. “The contrast between his vision of the country’s most important values and the vision of his successor could not be more stark.”
Said NIF’s Sokatch, “No president is perfect, and President Obama is no exception. Still, I think that when we look back on the Obama presidency, we will remember him as a truly great one — one of the best,” said Sokatch. “I am grateful for his service. And as we look to the next administration, I'm sure we'll be missing his presence in the White House deeply."