Obama’s Jewish Problem

In the days leading up to the Super Tuesday presidential primary sweepstakes, the Obama campaign has been making a special effort to reach out to Jewish voters. Representatives of the campaign have been visiting Jewish retirement homes, synagogues, and wherever else they can find a willing audience. Faced with Clinton campaigners making charges that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel, Obama himself wrote a letter to US Ambassador to the UN Khalilzad last week, urging that the United States reject any resolution critiquing Israel’s cutoff of fuel and food to a million residents of Gaza “that does not fully condemn the rocket assaults Hamas has been conducting on civilians in southern Israel.”

It’s a problem that won’t go away. Jewish voters are only 2% of the US population, but they are mostly concentrated in the states with the highest number of delegate and electoral votes (New York, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois), they contribute financially to politicians disproportionately to their percentage, and they are often in key roles as opinion shapers in the communities where they work or live.

Democratic Party appeals to the Jewish vote are not much different than appeals to other constituencies like the labor movement, the women’s movement, Latino voters, African Americans, farmers, seniors or children, or Republican pandering to the anti-immigrant crowd, Southern whites, or Catholic and evangelical anti-abortion voters. They are as American as apple pie, even when “appealing” slides into “pandering.”

What puts Obama into difficulty is that his actual beliefs make this attempt to appeal to Jews difficult when it comes to Israel.

Obama is a spiritual progressive. He believes that human beings are equally valuable whether they are white or black, American or Asian or African or European. Apply that to the Middle East and you get policy inclinations very different from those which have been insisted upon by the Israel Lobby, supported by most of the establishment Jewish institutions which, through the power of their organized pressure have become the dominant policy supported by both parties in rare unanimity.

So while spiritual progressives like the editors of Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have been insisting that the best path to Israeli security is a peace treaty with the Palestinian people (an approach that seeks mutual openhearted repentance for the way each side has treated each other, the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that is both politically and economically viable, includes reparations for Palestinians refugees, and a South-Africa model of “truth and reconciliation” in both Israel and Palestine) the Democratic Party and Republican Party have traditionally vied during the election period to see which could appear more militant in its support for Israeli power and less sympathetic to the Palestinian people. While spiritual progressives support a Middle Path that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, the extreme partisans on both sides see them as abandoning their interests and covertly siding with the other.

Underlying this is a deeper ideological conflict. After the Vietnam War, there was a terrible fear among conservatives and the military-industrial complex that the peace movement might use the moral outrage at that war to mobilize for disarmament. Jewish neocons, fearful that a disarmed United States would be unable to play a central role in protecting Israel, took the leadership in warning against a “Vietnam syndrome.” Security for the United States and Israel, they argued, comes from military strength, and those who seek peace, disarmament, and reconciliation with antagonists are naive, utopian, dangerous, and de facto anti-American or anti-Israel.

Spiritual progressives, on the other hand, believe that the strategy of dominating the other does not lead to homeland security either for the United States or for Israel, whose interests would better be served by a strategy of generosity, caring for the well-being of the other, and reaching out with open hearts to acknowledge the unintentional pain that the United States or Israel has caused others, and seeking forgiveness for that. We have seen that the path of “toughness” doesn’t work, doesn’t yield security, but only intensifies the losses on both sides. As a concrete example of what this might look like, the Network of Spiritual Progressives is beginning a campaign for a Global Marshall Plan that would allocate 1-2% of the American GDP every year for the next twenty, to once and for all end domestic and global hunger, poverty, homelessness, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and repair the global environment. This kind of initiative is far more likely to dry up the cesspools of hatred against the United States from which terrorists are able to recruit suicide bombers. The fact is that the strategy of domination has been tried for thousands of years, and it has never brought anyone security, so it’s time to try the strategy of generosity.

In recent days, Tikkun magazine has received hundreds of e-mails from young Jews distraught at the television images of tens of thousands of Palestinians breaking out of the prison camp that Gaza has become, desperate for food, fuel, and other goods that have been denied entry into Gaza by the Israeli army. A new generation of young Jews no longer blindly adopts the strategy of domination or salutes to the policies of the current government of Israel. These are the Jews of the future, but they do not yet control the institutions of Jewish life. They understand that Israel will be far more secure if it adopts a strategy of generosity, and stops trying to show how “tough” it really is, but they also despair about Israel “getting it” in time to save itself from policies that further inflame hatred against it by human-rights-respecting people around the world. No matter how much these young Jews may agree that Palestinian acts of terror or Hamas shelling of Sderot are also ugly and morally inexcusable acts, they understand that the overwhelming power of the Israeli military gives Israel the obligation to take the first definitive steps toward peace by embracing the progressive Middle Path articulated above.

Obama’s problem is that his spiritual progressive worldview is in conflict with the demands of the older generation of Jews who control the Jewish institutions and define what it is to be “pro-Jewish,” while his base includes many young Jews who support him precisely because he is willing to publicly stand for the values that they hold. We can expect that this tension will be central should Obama win the nomination. But once in office, whether Obama actually pursues policies that are in accord with his highest beliefs as a spiritual progressive, or whether he finds it “too unrealistic” to try to buck the spineless Democrats who will bow to the Israel Lobby automatically, depends on whether we can build a powerful enough movement of ordinary citizens to push for a peace that provides security for Israel and justice for the Palestinian people. Obama has made it clear he would want to do that.