By SETH J. FRANTZMAN AFTER SIX years in office US President Barack Obama has finally admitted the nature of his obsession with Israel and it’s really not what anyone expected. In a long interview with The Atlantic, he spilled the beans so to speak on his relationship with “the Jewish people” and Israel. For everyone who thought he is anti-Israel and has some sort of secret agenda, gained from years of “radical” schooling and upbringing and secret pro-Palestinian sympathies; those views have to be disabused. His dislike or foibles when it comes to Israel has nothing to do with Palestinians. Palestinians are just a stand-in to make Israel live up to her “values.” If there were no Palestinians, say if Zionism had settled on the Uganda Scheme and built a state in Uganda, then Ugandans would be the stand-in to make the Jewish people live up to their perfection. Obama speaks in the terms of Liberal Zionism, the concept expressed by some Zionists on the left in the US that the Jewish people have a role to play in the world, that Israel must be essentially superior, held to a higher standard and that the country of Israel is a “light unto the nations” and does “tikkun olam,” or “fixes the world.” This arrogant, almost mission civilisatrice view, couched often in terms of “enlightened” left wing views, is paradoxically actually a right wing ethnocentric ideology. The concept that Israel or the Jewish people are “better” and therefore have to be held to a higher standard, and that the treatment of the Palestinians in a decent manner is simply part of being better than the Palestinians, is profoundly paternalistic, racist, and unfortunate. But let’s allow President Obama to say it in his own words and unpack his meanings and implications. He describes how Israelis have contentious and robust democratic arguments. “It’s part of the reason why I love Israel – because it is a genuine democracy and you can express your opinions.” He argues that part of debating with Israel, literally “wrestling” with the country as Jacob wrestled the angel or Abraham debated God before Sodom, is to speak truth to Israel. “Right now in strengthening Israel’s position is to describe clearly why I have believed that a two-state solution is the best security plan for Israel.” Listen to what he is saying. It isn’t about Palestinian rights, or self-determination or democracy. The reason for two-states is for Israel. It is about the love for Israel. And tough love, like in a family, makes Israel better. Obama may view himself as a kin, even a father, of Israel.
Obama doesn’t hold back from this point. “Precisely because I care so deeply about the State of Israel, because because I care so much about the Jewish people, I feel obliged to speak honestly and truthfully….I am secure and confident about how deeply I care about Israel and the Jewish people.” In a sense Obama is the most philosemitic president the US has ever had. He doesn’t care about the Iranians, hence why he can let them do what they want. In a sense many of the other peoples in the world are almost barely worth considering. Does he express love for any other group? Chinese people. Maronites? The tribes in Darfur? No. He speaks in the language of love. Of course, love can also be a flip-side of hate; a kind of obsession. And that’s what is scary also. OBAMA HAS been accused of being anti-American. But this interview reveals the true nature of his love to the U.S as well. He argues that “I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over millennium…I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in the fight for what I believe to be true.” He also notes that “I think there are certain values that Israel, and the Jewish tradition, at its best exemplifies. And I am willing to fight for these values.” Truth? Values? Judeo-Christian? In the language of the American right this would be a speech about the alliance of democracies or civilizations. But this isn’t Samuel Huntington. So what he is talking about is again a kind of superiority complex. The US and Israel are superior. Other nations are inferior. But the superior groups must be held to a higher standard. Here is the soft bigotry of low expectations. Precisely because someone is Iranian or Turkish, they have lower expectations. They are not “us.” And Muslims? Well, they are not part of the “Judeo-Christian” values, which he says are ultimately universal values. The irony is that any group that is diametrically opposed to universal values, say the nature of Saudi Arabia’s laws, gets a pass, precisely because it is not “Western” and therefore not held to the same standard. Obama’s values don’t extend to deracinating the region of ISIS or stopping the cultural genocide of the Yezidis or Palmyra. Why? Because those aren’t the right values, for some reason. Although one could argue that it is remiss to waste so much time on Israel, when a whole world’s values are being destroyed.
Then Obama sets out his vision for Israel. Why does he disagree with certain Israeli laws? “That is consistent with being supportive of the State of Israel and the Jewish people….you can’t equate people of good will who are concerned about those issues with somebody who is hostile towards Israel…I’ve got Israel’s back.” Obama is expressing a love for Israel as an insider. He is basically saying he is Israeli and that as an Israeli or true friend of the “Jewish people” as he puts it, he must hold Israel up to its real values. If Israelis all converted to Shia Islam, then the whole duty to hold them up would vanish. The interview does not reveal ambivalence. This US President truly does love Israel and what he ascribes to be “the Jewish people” and the “Jewish values” that he ascribes to Jews. He speaks openly of being “pro-Jewish” in the interview. Which is a kind of strange formulation. “Pro-Muslim”, “Pro-Hindu”, “Pro-Christian.” Doesn’t really roll off the tongue. So why does “Pro-Jewish”? Should a US President be pro-Jewish? Obviously he should not be openly “anti-Jewish.” Richard Nixon said many terrible things against Jews, but those views didn’t manifest themselves in policies in the US or toward Israel. And that’s the irony. Perhaps loving Jews too much, being too interested in Israel has clouded his vision.
I’m not arguing actually that Obama has been bad for Israel. He hasn’t really done anything regarding Israel or the Palestinians. Israel gets the same security commitments in 2015 as it did in 2008. It gets the same weapons and loans and other support. The US still doesn’t have an embassy in Jerusalem and it still doesn’t have a visa waiver. Policies haven’t changed much. It still opposes, officially, settlements. It still talks peace. Here and there, there are spats, of a mostly personal nature against Netanyahu and Likud. But the theory that Obama is rabidly anti-Israel is absolute nonsense. And even if he were, the fact is that the US State Department (which is critical of Israel) and Defense Department (which likes Israel), don’t turn on a dime. The Palestinians have received nothing from the US administration, except from foreign aid and the maintenance of the ‘Dayton‘ mission. Obama’s true failings, in coddling Iran and allowing the Iranian octopus to take over half of the Middle East, despite ample warnings by his Sunni allies, is a major problem. The abandonment of minorities in the region, and of democracy issues; a whole laundry list of abandonments, is a problem. But the real issue worth discussing is whether holding Israel to a high standard, being “pro-Jewish” and adopting this view that Israel is somehow superior to other states and peoples and that this is the real reason to leave the West Bank, is not in fact an ethno-centric, problematic view. The real reasons to look at the West Bank is from a standpoint of rights and freedoms. Freedom of movement. The right to have a passport. The right of an East Jerusalem resident to have citizenship. Those kind of rights seem to be more important, than this concept of Israel must hold itself to “Jewish values.” Maybe Iran should treat its people better and hold itself to Iranian values? Why can’t ISIS be asked to hold itself to Muslim values? Obama simply re-defines ISIS as “non-Muslim.” But whatever it is, why can’t it hold itself to good values? The values argument is problematic when it posits that by the very virtue of being born Chinese or Hindu or Sikh one has less values, less standards. The real universal value should see everyone as equal. A Jewish person should treat a Palestinian better because he must make Jews look good, or being a “good Jew” or being true to “Jewish values,” because that theory posits that by simply converting to another religion he no longer has the same standards to which to hold himself to. That’s rubbish and nonsense. A policeman doesn’t get to beat you more just because he isn’t Jewish or American, but rather Ugandan or Druze.
Obama missed that about American values. American values transcend “Judeo-Christian” and embrace equal rights and the Bill of Rights. America doesn’t have to behave “better”, it should just behave. And by behaving normally it behaves well, because its existing framework is good. Israel should be more “Jewish”, it should just be more human and more equal. Iran shouldn’t be absent of critique because it is viewed as “lesser,” Iran is capable of the same exact values as anyone else and should be held to the same exact rigorous standards. If Ayatollah Khamenei becomes a Jew all of a sudden, he shouldn’t suddenly be held to higher standards. That’s called racism. Is Obama a racist? No. He is just misguided in the worldview he has embraced. Someone should disabuse him of it. It’s probably too late now. ***Update*** Obama doubled-down on his interview by speaking at a synagogue on Thursday night. He spoke at Adas Israel Congregation in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, a major rarity for a sitting US President. He told those in the audience, referencing his interview about; “I was actually interviewed by one of your members, Jeff Goldberg. And Jeff reminded me he once called me the first Jewish president. Now, since some people still seem to be wondering about my faith, I should make clear this is an honorary title, but I was flattered. And as an honorary member of the tribe not to mention somebody who has hosted seven White House seders and has been advised by two Jewish chiefs of staff.” The US Embassy put out an edited copy of the speech. He made some other remarks of interest. “Two Jewish chiefs of staff…getting hang of the lingo…this congregation tells the American story; President Grant became the first sitting president to attend a synagogue service when he dedicated this synagogue in 1876.” Obama spoke about Shavout, and 1,000s of years of tradition; and a “foundation stone of our nation….many of your ancestors came here fleeing persecution.” He spoke about the heart of the Biblical edict “we shall not suppress a stranger.” He discussed Abraham Heschel walking with Dr. Martin Luther King. He claimed that “our future will be shaped by the values that we share.” He spoke in the “we”, as in “we care about making college affordable.” This was a President very in touch with the Jewish values he had identified. He mentioned “human rights,” but didn’t seem to actually give specifics, except to say that the “shared values re-affirm our enduring friendship with the people of Israel, our unbreakable bonds with the state of Israel,” to which he received applause. “Those values compel us to say our commitment to Israel’s security is and always will be unshakeable…it would be a morally failing if we did not stand up, on my part and the government, to stand up on behalf of Israel’s right to exist and prosper…it would ignore the history that brought the state of Israel about.” He spoke about Iran and mentioned support for terrorism and “ugly threats against Israel.” He again said “America has its [Israel’s] back and will always have its back…but that does not mean there will not be periodic disagreements between our two governments.” He compared his own story to Israel’s, claiming that it could “repair the world” through being “grounded in history…the example of Israel was inspiring…so when I hear people say disagreements over policy belie a lack of support, I object forcefully.” Then he discussed rights; “The rights I fight for in the US, compels me to stand up for Israel and the rights of the Jewish people and compels me to think of a Palestinian child in Ramallah who feels trapped without opportunity…that is what the Jewish tradition teaches me, these things are connected.” He was parroting his former interview. It was interesting he dwelled so much on Israel and so little on Jewish history and heritage, which is so much more rich than just Israel. He mentioned that Palestinian child, but what it was really about was Jewish values. Palestinians only matter because it matters to be more Jewish, have more Jewish values. Only because it reflects well on Judaism; not for its own sake. It is like Christians that say one should be nice because of the message of Jesus to “turn the other cheek.” Are they being genuinely good, or just trying to adhere to their faith? Are you doing good deeds to get into heaven or burnish your values or because good deeds are what is right? And that matters. He may be the most Jewish President. He is also a self-critical Jewish president. He wants to repair the world. That may be his sense of Judaism. But it may create a problematic reading of history also.