Goldberg, who recently penned a widely discussed article for the Atlantic looking at Israel’s difficult choices through the prism of the tensions between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and writer David Grossman, finds that Obama has done some reading on the topic — from Leon Uris to “The Yellow Wind,” Grossman’s 1987 look at life in the West Bank.
Goldberg poses a smart question — one that has also been raised by another smart Jewish journalist — that cuts to the core of Obama’s challenges in the Jewish community. I’m talking about “the kishke question,” the implications of which Goldberg does a good job of summarizing:
JG: 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. BO: 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. Sometimes I’m attacked in the press for maybe being too deliberative. My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives. The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it’s more than political expediency. When it comes to the gut issue, I have such ardent defenders among my Jewish friends in Chicago. I don’t think people have noticed how fiercely they defend me, and how central they are to my success, because they’ve interacted with me long enough to know that I’ve got it in my gut. During the Wright episode, they didn’t flinch for a minute, because they know me and trust me, and they’ve seen me operate in difficult political situations. 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.
Goldberg also asks a question that is being raised with increasing frequency in the general political discourse — much to the discomfort of many supporters of Israel:
JG: Do you think that Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas? BO: No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable. I am absolutely convinced of that, and some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I’m not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that’s the safest ground politically. I want to solve the problem, and so my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth and say if Israel is building settlements without any regard to the effects that this has on the peace process, then we’re going to be stuck in the same status quo that we’ve been stuck in for decades now, and that won’t lift that existential dread that David Grossman described in your article. The notion that a vibrant, successful society with incredible economic growth and incredible cultural vitality is still plagued by this notion that this could all end at any moment — you know, I don’t know what that feels like, but I can use my imagination to understand it. I would not want to raise my children in those circumstances. I want to make sure that the people of Israel, when they kiss their kids and put them on that bus, feel at least no more existential dread than any parent does whenever their kids leave their sight. So that then becomes the question: is settlement policy conducive to relieving that over the long term, or is it just making the situation worse? That’s the question that has to be asked.
Read more from Goldberg’s Q&A with Obama here.
Hat tip: Max Gross