WASHINGTON (JTA) – Barack Obama got his kishkes back.
The president, whose alleged aloofness was the signature flaw cited by his rivals, his critics and at times his friends, ended his presidency with an impassioned appeal for the preservation of democracy — his lower lip trembling, a tear streaking his cheek.
For sure, Obama could be emotional, heimishe even – remember his tears while speaking with the parents of the children slain in Newtown, Connecticut, or his singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for one of the Charleston shooting victims? Think of all those photos where he’s goofing with kids in the Oval Office.
True, in those cases, and in his farewell speech Tuesday night in Chicago, Obama was surrounded by admirers, by those who loved him – among them an abundance of his Jewish supporters and staffers past and present who flew in for the event.
But here’s the thing: On the same day that he said farewell to his fellow Americans, there was another emotional appeal, one that stopped short of tears but was all the more remarkable for whom he was appealing to: Israel, where as he gets ready to leave office, he has a 20 percent approval rating.
And the appeal was essentially the same: What your nation, like ours, has built is worth preserving, and the way to preserve it is through the fierce defense of democracy.
Obama, who is busy negotiating an unusually bumpy transition, took 30 minutes two weeks before his presidency ends to speak to Israel’s Channel 2 and make his case that he was looking out for Israel during his eight years in office.
“I have shown repeatedly my commitment to Israel’s security and I feel it deeply,” he said.
The similarity in his messages to the two countries was striking.
Here was Obama in Chicago: “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — who said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”
His advice to those aggrieved by Donald Trump’s election victory was to listen “to the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”
But his sharper focus was on Trump and those who elected him.
“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” he said. “So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.
“And that’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are.”
The reference to Muslims, derided by Trump and many of his backers during the campaign, got Obama the biggest applause line of the evening.
Now here’s Obama speaking, with intensity, to Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan: “I also believe that the best traditions of the Zionist movement in Israel are consistent with the values that I have tried to live by and have tried to promote here in the United States and around the world: a belief in rule of law, a belief in human rights, a belief in freedom of the press, a belief that we treat people fairly and justly not only when it’s convenient politically but when its inconvenient.
“It breaks my heart to see a situation when it seems increasingly the prospects for peace are fading.”
And on Israeli TV, Obama closed the circle between the history he made and the history he believes Israel has made. Speaking of bigotry, he said, “As an African-American, when I see those kinds of attitudes harden, I remember my history and I remember the history of the Jewish people.”
So where was this Obama these past eight years? Where were his kishkes, his gut empathy for Israel and for the Jewish attachment to Israel?
Mention it to his Jewish supporters and staffers and they roll their eyes. Not just the Jewish ones. When I brought it up a couple of years ago with one of his former top aides, Bernadette Meehan, a slight pale woman as Irish American as it gets, she finished the sentence for me and correctly pronounced kishkes. And rolled her eyes.
And when the eye rolling was done, Obama’s friends and aides would say it wouldn’t have helped anyway. The fix was in. No amount of goodwill Obama expressed, they said, through unprecedented levels of military assistance and intelligence sharing, through a White House packed with Jewish staffers and a government packed with Jewish officials, through expressions of solidarity, could help. There was a cadre in Israel and among American Jews, they said, who always would judge Barack Obama by their disagreements.
Indeed, throughout his farewell speech, pro-Israel activists to his right tweeted angrily about the Iran deal, the U.N. anti-settlement resolution and his failure to name “Islamic terrorism.”
Obama told Dayan, smiling, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “had a good friend” in the White House for eight years, although “he may not have recognized” it.
The president acknowledged that the disagreements were profound over the Iran nuclear deal that he touted in his Chicago speech as one of his major accomplishments, and over Israeli settlement expansion, which culminated in the U.S. abstention last month at the U.N. Security Council, allowing through for the first time on his watch a resolution opposed by Israel.
On Tuesday, hours before Obama’s appearance with Dayan and a half day before his Chicago speech, Netanyahu met with a delegation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and said he had “incontrovertible” proof that Obama had orchestrated the U.N. vote, although he did not provide it or even describe it. Obama in his interview with Dayan forcefully denied a U.S. role.
In Washington, D.C., two hours before Obama spoke in Chicago, the Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer, who has clashed publicly with the administration over the Security Council vote, spoke at an event in the U.S. Capitol celebrating U.S.-China ties. As guests picked through kosher Chinese fare, Dermer extolled the relationships between Israel and China, and Israel and the United States – but failed to praise the sitting president, which he routinely does at these events. It was left to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., speaking after Dermer, to note Obama’s support for Israel. Dermer looked on, betraying no expression.
Down the street at a meeting of the Christian United for Israel leadership in a Capitol Hill hotel, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., did mention Obama about an hour before the president spoke.
“I can’t wait until Obama leaves, what about’ch’all?” he said, and there was a clatter as the roomful of pastors set down steak knives and cheered.
On social media, Obama’s Jewish supporters crowded their mentions with teardrop icons, before and after Obama himself shed tears while thanking his family.
As the speech wound down, Hadar Susskind, an activist who has worked for an array of liberal Jewish groups, posted photos on Facebook he had taken over the years on occasions when Obama has embraced causes dear to the liberal Jews: the president signing a fair pay and safe workplaces order, another to protect LGBT workers, speaking at Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue. One showed an uncreased, mostly black-haired Obama speaking outside the White House in 2012.
On Channel 2 in 2017, his voice hoarse, his hair gray, Obama grinned when Dayan asked him to speak from his innermost soul: That Security Council vote, she asked, was there not the slightest desire for revenge?
“No,” he insisted, he was acting to protect the Israel he admired. “I believe it would be a moral betrayal for the world not to protect and secure a homeland for the Jewish people.”