How Barack Obama Won Over Jewish Voters — While Irking Pro-Israel Establishment
WASHINGTON (JTA) – Fraught record on issues of race and anti-Semitism? Check.
Much-hyped meeting to get Benjamin Netanyahu’s hechsher? Check.
Stirring speech at AIPAC to quiet the naysayers? Check.
Jewish validators galore? Check. Administration top-loaded with Jewish staffers? Check.
Welcome to Inauguration Day 2009.
President-elect Barack Obama walked into the White House eight years ago with a Jewish profile that bears similarities to the one tucked away in Donald Trump’s baggage.
There are key differences, of course, and how Obama handled his relationship with the Jewish community could provide a blueprint for Trump as he goes forward – both in emulating Obama’s successes and avoiding his failures.
Obama’s presidency was one that thrilled majorities of Jewish voters with its portent of an American reconciliation that would set aside once and for all the intimations of alienation that have haunted non-Christians and non-whites since before the republic’s dawn.
It was also a presidency that often left the Israeli government and much of the U.S. Jewish establishment feeling shunned and shunted aside.
Obama could work a crowd: His galvanizing speech on “one America” at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, thick with hope, threw into relief the one-note, warrior-turned-peacemaker candidacy John Kerry was peddling.
The confident and youthful state senator from Illinois who walked onto the Fleet Center stage that July evening did not have to prove himself, as the actual party nominee, nearly two decades his senior, always seemed to be doing.
The America Obama described was not mired in the 1960s angst embedded in Kerry’s past both as war hero and then as war protester. It signaled a 21st century – one that now seems fanciful — where blacks and whites, Jews, Muslims and Christians, conservatives and liberals lived in mutually supportive harmony.
“We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America,” he said.
Obama, like Kerry, like every politician, started out talking about himself – but unlike Kerry, this Hawaii-born constitutional lawyer could handily pivot, almost imperceptibly, to talking about you, about everyone.
Obama could also work a Jewish room similarly, making his interlocutors feel as if he had lived among them forever. It was a skill he had cultivated as a community worker, and he worked it in the Jewish retirement homes north of Chicago as he ran for the U.S. Senate that year.
In those settings he said that his first name had the same meaning as “Baruch,” a knowing wink signaling that he knew his name was weird, just like his listeners’ grandparents and great-grandparents knew their names were weird. Not only that, Jan Schakowsky, a Chicago-area congresswoman who was already very much smitten with him, said then, “He pronounced Baruch impeccably.”
Obama was in similar form seven years later with his “Hineni” speech in 2011 to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial. It wasn’t just his repeated (and again, correctly pronounced) invocation of Joseph’s declaration to Jacob, or in how he again made the speech about his listeners, reciting with emotion the contributions that Reform Jews had made to the civil rights movement.
His empathy, his facility for making everyone in a vast room feel like his best friend, was evident most of all in an impromptu aside when he shuddered remembering the short dress his daughter Malia wore to the first bat mitzvah she attended. Laughter, at first a low rumble and then in full force, rolled through the auditorium. Every Jewish parent got it.
And just as quickly as Obama could turn a Jewish room on, he could turn it off, chilling the air with an insensitive aside. The cutting putdowns seemed to come from the same place as the moments of elation, from his unerring belief that he understood what his listener wanted, that he somehow knew you better than you knew yourself.
It was there in 2008, when he met with Jewish leaders in Cleveland – a community known to be more conservative than coastal Jewish communities. He defended himself from charges that he was distant on Israel and too cozy with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor, whose expressions of sympathy for anti-Israel militants were transitioning then into blatant hostility toward Jews.
The meeting went well, and then, during a Q&A, Obama said, “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have a honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”
Some folks in the room said later that their jaws dropped (to be fair, others said the meeting went over well). The Likud was not then in power, but it was a major party in Israel, and as president he would likely have to deal with it. Indeed, his eight years in office almost wholly coincided with Likud-led governments.
More sensitively, saying the dialogue was not “honest” seemed to some derived from the toxic narrative prevalent in the post-Iraq War period that pro-Israel groups forced an unnatural foreign policy on the United States.
Remarkably, the contents of what was supposed to be an off-the-record meeting were leaked – by Obama’s camp. They thought the meeting was a success and they couldn’t wait to put out the word.
Similar charges of tone-deafness were leveled less than six months into his presidency when he met with Jewish leaders unsettled by burgeoning tensions with Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
In July 2009, at another closed meeting between Obama and Jewish leaders, Obama asserted that the policy of “no daylight” between the United States and Israel, which had prevailed under his two predecessors, had done no favors to either country.
The statement has haunted Obama’s relationship with pro-Israel activists — at least groups on the center and right, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which tend to defer to Israel’s sitting government and dominate the American Jewish discourse on Israel. J Street and other groups on the left, it should be said, found his statement to be a bracing bit of truth-telling from a good friend.
More telling, however – and shocking to some of those present — was another, smaller moment: Discussing settlements, Obama grabbed the arm of his then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is Jewish and has an Israeli father.
“Don’t think that we don’t understand the nuances of the settlement issues,” Obama said. “We do. We understand there is a profound political edge to Israeli politics. But Rahm understands the politics there and he explains them to me.”
Obama may have thought he was reassuring the room, telling them that one of their own was his right-hand man. Instead he was alienating many of them; what these folks heard was “I don’t need you.”
That perceived “I don’t need you” played out again and again for Obama throughout his relationship with the Jewish establishment, and with Israel, whose diplomats tensed every time Obama or one of his top aides reassured them that the Iran deal exchanging sanctions for a nuclear rollback was in Israel’s best interests.
In Obama’s speech at American University pitching the Iran deal in the summer of 2015, Israelis and many pro-Israel activists heard buzzwords that they felt were designed to marginalize them. Critics of the deal were “alarmists,” he said. “They’re just not being straight with the American people,” they “accept the choice of war.” He didn’t name AIPAC, but it was leading the lobbying against the deal.
It didn’t help that Netanyahu – and the pro-Israel establishment – at times seemed to go out of their way to reciprocate the dismissive posture. Netanyahu especially seemed to delight in marking Obama’s territory, in the Oval Office in 2011, lecturing a visibly furious Obama on the realities of the Middle East, and then in 2015 in a speech to Congress on the Iran deal that the Israeli leader had secretly planned with Republicans.
Then there was AIPAC’s sullen reluctance, in the run-up to the congressional vote on the deal in 2015, to meet with his top officials despite Obama’s invitation.
Yet Obama has often needed Jews — for advice, for support, for friendship and for inspiration — and has said as much. His first mentors politically were Abner Mikva, the judge and Democratic activist; Robert Schrayer, the Chicago philanthropist; Penny Pritzker, the hotel heiress who is now his commerce secretary, and Alan Solow, the lawyer and former Presidents Conference chairman who has fundraised for Obama from the start of his political career. Among the staffers closest to him and the first lady were David Axelrod, his top political adviser in his first term, and Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s first chief of staff.
Obama throughout his political career has sought to close the circle of Jewish and black solidarity forged in the civil rights era and torn asunder as the communities drifted apart in the aftermath of the era’s successes. It takes a lot to bring an AIPAC crowd to its feet invoking anything other than Israel, and yet he did it in 2008 in his speech to the lobby’s annual conference.
“I would not be standing here today,” he said, if it were not for “the great social movements in our country’s history. Jewish- and African-Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man – James Chaney – on behalf of freedom and equality.”
It was that bond, between Jews and blacks, Obama invoked in an interview last week with Israel’s Channel 2, seeking to explain why he allowed – for the first time in his presidency – the United Nations Security Council to vote for a resolution opposed by Israel, in this case condemning settlement in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. Asked about bigotry and its reemergence this U.S. election season, 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.”
Obama’s voice was hoarse; he seemed at times during the interview to crumple. The night it was broadcast in Israel, he delivered his farewell in Chicago and wept. The promise Obama made in 2004 and 2008 of reconciliation seemed to dissipate in the wake of a profoundly divisive election, one in which the many Americas that he once described as coming together were retreating into silos.
How a president relates to a Jewish community has always been a function of how a president relates, period. Obama’s successes and failures with Jews are of a piece with autopsies of his presidency: He was an inspiration. He was aloof.
So what can the incoming president learn, writ large and small, from how Obama related to the Jews?
The answer may lie studded throughout Obama’s two terms, not in the dramas of the disagreements but in how he sought to overcome them. Jeremiah Wright? He stood by him, and then he did not, and when he abandoned him, Obama said candidly, he could no longer abide his pastor’s hostility to Israel.
The Likud? In Cleveland in February 2008, he cast the party as an obstacle to peace. That summer, visiting Israel, he sought out the party’s leader, Netanyahu, and pleased the Israeli opposition leader by soliciting his views on the dangers posed by Iran.
In Obama’s 2009 speech to the Muslim world, critics charged that his depiction of Israel relied too much on its role as a refuge for the Jews after the Holocaust and too little on the Jewish people’s ancient and historical relationship to the land. In 2013, he toured the country and sought out markers celebrating its ancient Jewish heritage and the redemptive promise of Zionism.
Was the Iran deal debate corrosive? Obama invited Netanyahu to the White House in its immediate aftermath and launched the process that would deliver to Israel its biggest-ever defense assistance package.
Not every attempt by Obama at reconciliation was successful. In the wake of the Security Council vote, Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu and standing among the most influential Jewish organizations is ending on a markedly sour note**, **probably unprecedented in U.S.-Israel relations.
For all their pronounced differences, Trump has endured a fraught courtship with the Jewish community that has echoes of Obama’s 2008 run: Trump has wondered aloud whether the U.S.-Israel relationship could use more “neutrality” when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, and has weathered accusations that he is too cozy with actors who embrace ideas hostile to Jews.
Trump has retreated from some of the postures that unsettled the pro-Israel community. The incoming president has met with Netanyahu, delivered a rousing AIPAC speech and left neutrality on Israel so far behind, he appears set to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He has put forth an ambassador to Israel who is a gung-ho supporter of the settlements and an antagonist of the Jewish left.
But Trump is also adamant in his refusal to renounce counselors who, like Wright, have extolled racial and cultural divisions.
What was Obama’s relationship with the Jewish community? For the majority who voted for him twice, and for whom Israel ranks fairly low in their considerations as voters compared to issues like the economy and health care, he was an exemplar of their political views, their values and their hopes for the country.
As for Jews who prioritize Israel as voters and activists, he ranged from a good if sometimes standoffish friend to bitter antagonist, who at least according to Alan Dershowitz, “repeatedly stabbed Israel in the back.”
Of course, the degree to which any of those assessments stick depends on how Jews endure – or rejoice in – President Donald Trump.
The story of Obama and the Jews is not over yet. Ask again a hundred days into the Trump administration — and then again a thousand days in.