Monday, many hours before the polls opened, much less closed, I wrote a piece called “President Obama.” With victory assured, I celebrated a moment in American and world history that not millions, but billions have waited a lifetime for. As a boy I marched for civil rights and took a bus from Brooklyn to Washington to stand on the Mall and hear a great black leader talk about his dream. I have now lived to see a major part of that dream come true.
Jews were in that movement way out of proportion to our numbers, as we have been in every progressive cause in modern times. In 1909, Jews (including rabbis) were among the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and led and funded that organization for decades. In the 1960s, half the Freedom Riders and half the civil rights attorneys were Jews.
This sibling relationship between two historically oppressed peoples did backfire for a time in the ‘70s and later, when a restive, increasingly independent black community needed to assert itself without outsiders. But the alliance was natural and largely healed.
In this election, Jews voted more than three to one for Obama, as we have for some favored Democrats before. The expected withdrawal of Jewish support because of questions about Obama’s friends, church, and pro-Israel credentials did not materialize.
But these questions have not quite gone away. I wrote about them way back in February, seeking the real Obama among the conflicting claims. He said the right things about Israel, and was endorsed by people like Dennis Ross and Martin Peretz, strong pro-Israel voices. But he also enlisted anti-Israel advisors like George Soros, Samantha Power, and Robert Malley. Haaretz, the New York Times of Israel, ranked Obama much lower on their friend-to-Israel scale than any other serious candidate.
Most of these people appear to have faded into the background, and that is reassuring. Obama had to repudiate his personal pastor and long-time friend Jeremiah Wright, who has often over the years of their association used his pulpit to denounce Israel as racist and colonialist; they gave an award to the openly anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan. I simply don’t believe Obama was unaware of his church’s and his friend’s strong leanings.
As for Bill Ayres, the former Weatherman Obama has worked with, and Rashid Khalidi, the former Yasser Arafat associate who raised money for Obama, both are staunchly pro-Palestinian opponents of Israel, and neither association has been properly explained.
But what will count is what happens next. A very bright spot yesterday was the offer of the White House Chief of Staff position to Rahm Emmanuel, the aggressive congressman and campaign strategist whose parents were Israeli. Rahmbo, as he’s sometimes known, volunteered at an Israeli army base during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991. His father is a Jerusalem-born pediatrician who belonged to the Irgun terrorist group fighting against the British. Dad likes Obama.
Rahmbo may stay in the House, where his take-no-prisoners style will probably make him Speaker some day. But the offer is reassuring, and in the coming days we will find out who Obama’s foreign policy team will be. This could remove the question mark over his Middle East policy.
I voted for Obama because I am not a one-issue voter; if I were, I would have voted for McCain, since there is no doubt in my mind that McCain would support Israel fully in any crisis; with Obama, there is.
I do accept the argument that in general a more peaceful world would be good for Israel, and it certainly would be good for everyone else, but unlike many of my friends, I am not sure Obama will bring about a more peaceful world.
The challenges Joe Biden predicted Obama would meet on the world stage began within hours. Medvedev gave a state-of-the-nation speech in Russia that excoriated the United States and announced deployment of missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave surrounded by European Union nations. Iran called for a reversal of America’s policy. And Hamas terrorists in Gaza launched a huge barrage of Kassam rockets at Ashkelon and kibbutzim in the Negev.
Hello Mr. Obama, welcome to the neighborhood.
As for Israel, words are important, and Obama has transcendent eloquence. But deeds, to paraphrase the liturgy, are still lacking. Gaza pounds Israel with rockets; will Israel pound back? And then what will Obama do? More important, what will he do if, as seems quite possible, Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear installations? Time, not promises, will tell.
I wrote a close Jewish friend—a staunch liberal Democrat and a friend of peace advocate Yossi Beilin—that I hoped Obama would do the right thing about Israel. He wrote back, “I trust you can tell me what the ‘right thing’ is.” In fact, I could and did tell him.
“What I mean by ‘doing the right thing’ is simple. What I mean is what Sarah Palin said when she was asked a bunch of detailed questions about the settlements. She said, “I don’t think we should be second-guessing Israel.” That’s all I want to hear from any American president. Not a word that’s a hair to the right of where Israel is, nor a hair to the left.
“So how do I know where Israel is? Simple. I listen to what the people that Israelis elect say. Recently that has meant Olmert. For the immediate future I hope it will be Livni, because the alternative is not Beilin, it is Bibi.
“Whoever is in that very hot seat is there because the strange vicissitudes of Israel’s democracy have put him or her there. That is good enough for me. And I feel that way despite the fact that a significant minority of the voters there are not Jewish. It’s the Israeli electorate whose views I try to follow. Not Bibi, not Beilin, not even Israeli Jews, just Israel, as represented the only way that makes sense to me: according to what is decided by the democratic process that determines Israel’s government. When Beilin is Prime Minister, I will certainly apply the same standard to him.
“In other words, like Sarah Palin, I don’t think we should be second-guessing Israel. When Obama convinces me that he agrees with that statement, then he will be doing what I consider the right thing. You may not agree with this, but I hope you’ll agree that it’s a pretty straightforward standard.”
We will find out soon whether our brilliant, eloquent, and inspiring new president meets the challenges of his and all our lifetimes. I am rooting for him. I hope he remembers what Jews have done for and with blacks for over a century, and that he knows in his heart what Israel means to a people relentlessly persecuted not for hundreds but for thousands of years, not with whips and chains but with gas chambers and ovens.
I always said we would have a black president before we have a Jewish one. Now it is up to him to recognize the dreams of another oppressed people, who put his dream first.