Last week, within twenty-four hours, I got emails from old friends I respect with forwards on opposing sides of this question. One was from a small group of distinguished attorneys, mostly Jewish, decrying an anti-Obama smear campaign and passing around information, mostly from the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, attempting to show that Obama supports Israel, period. The other was from two physicians, professors at top-ten medical schools, whom I knew many years ago as students at Emory; both were very distressed about what they had recently learned about Obama–mainly from right-wing bloggers.
These incompatible views reflect an unpleasant debate going on in the Jewish community about Obama’s real views. The debate is thoroughly intertwined with politics, and it includes what has been called a smear campaign from the right, condemned by a formal letter from top leaders of non-partisan Jewish organizations, including Abe Foxman of ADL and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It also includes expressions of very serious doubt about Obama from staunch Democrats like Alan Dershowitz.
My own politics, for the record, include working on the 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for that office, and a New York Times op-ed supporting Jesse Jackson for president in 1988—a piece that produced hate mail from fellow Jews. Nevertheless I can’t give Obama a pass, not because I am sure what he will do about Israel but because I am not.
Here are the facts. The NJDC rightly points to evidence that Obama is a staunch Israel-supporter. They quote his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting last March, in which he described flying over Israel’s narrow waist in an IDF helicopter, spoke movingly of the Holocaust, supported Israel’s right to respond to Hezbollah with force, decried Iran’s hate-mongering and strongly opposed any future access it might have to nuclear weapons. He said, "We must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs. This would help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza." He has said similar things on other occasions since, usually but not always to Jewish audiences.
Furthermore, Obama co-sponsored legislation enabling sanctions against Iran and also the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which fully supports Israel’s right to respond appropriately to terrorist attacks. Finally, he wrote to our U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, saying, “the Security Council should unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks against Israel, and should make clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against such actions.” These are deeds, not just words, and they strongly support Israel.
So what’s the problem? For one thing, two weeks after his reassuring AIPAC speech, he made the now-famous gaffe, “Nobody suffers more than the Palestinians.” His later claim to have meant from the failures of the Palestinian leadership gave rise to some understandable skepticism. Asked at the Iowa debate about America’s best friends, he spoke eloquently about NATO and Japan. As Susan Estrich (a Clintonite) put it, “Obama didn’t get that this was the Israel question.” So Brian Williams tried to help him, but he continued to fumble. Mistakes are forgivable, but what people say off-the-cuff can be more informative than what they say in prepared speeches.
As for the AIPAC speech, many politicians spoke at that conference as always. Some, like Hillary Clinton and Mitch McConnell, spoke with great conviction. Obama, famous now for his political passion and eloquence, did not. The legislation he co-sponsored had very wide support in Congress. And his letter to the UN Security Council, dated Jan. 22, 2008, has to be seen in the context of an increasingly intense bid for the White House.
But some other facts on the ground are concerning. These have to do with the people around Obama, especially the ones he has chosen to advise him on foreign affairs and the Middle East in particular. George Soros is one; he has been a relentless critic of Israel and of Jewish-American support for Israel, has used his vast wealth to support its severest critics, and advocates pressuring Israel to deal with Hamas.
Another is Samantha Power, a distinguished writer on genocide who does not seem to grasp the role of the Holocaust in the history of the Jewish state. She said recently that America’s foreign policy makers “defer reflexively to Israeli security assessments, and…replicate Israeli tactics” because “special interests dictate the way in which the ‘national interest’ as a whole is defined and pursued.” It is obvious from the context that she means Jewish Americans. She also implicates Israel in the lead-up to the Iraq war; while this claim has become a staple of anti-Semitic rhetoric, it is well known that Israel privately opposed the war as destabilizing to the region, supporting it (like a good ally) only when it became inevitable.
Zbigniew Brzezinski is a third key Obama Middle East advisor; this relic of the Carter administration helped shape Carter’s increasingly strident anti-Israel views, and has published countless articles attacking the Jewish state and its Jewish-American friends. For some reason, he has been exhumed by the candidate of the future; Alan Dershowitz is one loyal Democrat who has called on Obama to get rid of Zbig. Dershowitz supports Hillary.
Last but perhaps most disturbing is Robert Malley, who famously tried to rewrite the history of the Clinton administration’s peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians; contrary to the clear description of President Clinton, Dennis Ross, and others directly involved, Malley blamed Israel for the failure of talks that Yasser Arafat walked away from. (President Clinton, in contrast, said that Arafat had “been here fourteen days and said no to everything.”)
This is Barack Obama’s Middle East advisory team–and we have not yet mentioned his personal pastor and long-time friend Jeremiah Wright, who has for many years used his pulpit for venomous anti-Israel and borderline anti-Semitic sermonizing; the church has given an award to Louis Farrakhan.
Obama also has Dennis Ross on his foreign policy bench, and that is a balancing sign, but as it stands most of his close advisers are very bad for Israel. It is noteworthy that Martin Peretz, New Republic editor, centrist Democrat, and staunch friend to Israel, has pronounced Obama unequivocally pro-Israel.
But there is little doubt that the other two candidates left standing would be more predictable; the panel of Israeli experts assembled by Ha’aretz, the left-of-center “New York Times of Israel” has ranked Obama markedly lower than any other serious candidate since the start of this presidential season.
The standard reply to the criticism that Obama lacks experience is, Don’t worry, it will be who he appoints that matters. Well if, as is often the case with candidates, campaign advisors are likely to get the relevant government jobs, we can legitimately wonder if an Obama administration would be a true friend to Israel.
Fortunately there is an easy way for Obama to remove all doubt among Jewish voters: He can get rid of his anti-Israel advisors. Until he does that, questioning whether his fine speeches on Israel will lead to good deeds is no right-wing or even pro-Hillary smear campaign, it’s just common sense.