The Audacity of Hopelessness

The President-elect once bought a home whose deed prohibited its resale or rental to Jews. He had associations with a number of dubious characters, some of whom did not much care for Hebrews. In fact, he himself seems to have harbored some pretty anti-Jewish sentiment.

No, no, not Senator Obama. That was Richard Nixon, whose delivery of arms to the Jewish State during the Yom Kippur War helped prevent an Arab victory. And who, in the terminal crisis of his presidency, confided in two identifiable Jews – Henry Kissinger and Boruch Korff (known as “Nixon’s rabbi”).

Then there was President Harry Truman, who wrote that he found “the Jews… very selfish” and expressed anger at the fact that “a thousand Jews [had been brought] to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed.” The same Harry Truman who acted to help Jews in postwar Europe and supported Israel’s creation – against his own State Department.

Such examples point to a truth paid lip service but not always internalized: History is determined not by any sovereign’s personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign’s insuperable will. As King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 21:1) “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem.”

Which idea should inform all our political thoughts. What matters most is never a particular candidate but G-d’s plan – and our merits.

I don’t think I’m the only Jewish observer who found (and find) certain expressions of anti-Obama sentiment in parts of the Orthodox community less than reality-based. Many of us may have supported Senator McCain for a number of valid reasons – his experience, his willingness to reach across the partisan aisle, his maverick-ness, or simply because they disagreed with Senator Obama’s positions – but anyone who voted Republican because of the Democrat’s ostensible animus for Jews or Israel was not terribly different from commentators who portrayed Mr. Obama as a Zionist dupe. Osama bin Laden’s top deputy described the President-elect as a “house Negro” who has chosen to “pray the prayer of the Jews.”

Yes, Mr. Obama associated with a nutty, rabble-rousing pastor. But when the clergyman’s looniness was exposed, the Senator denounced both it and him, in no uncertain terms. Political expediency? Perhaps. But perhaps personal conviction. It is unbecoming and unwise to deny the President-elect the courtesy of taking him at his word.

That his path crossed with that of an aging 60s-era radical was unremarkable; seeing it as evidence of some secret anti-American conspiracy was scraping the bottom of an empty barrel. I would certainly never want to be judged by some people I’ve had occasional professional dealings with.

In four years, we will be able to look back and assess the Obama administration (or its first term) – and be either harsh or hailing. Now, though, none of us can claim prophecy. What we can know is that the next President of the United States is long on record as supportive of Israel, enjoyed broad Jewish support (and knows it) and has no record whatsoever of having expressed any ill will toward Jews. And that he is smart and savvy, and surrounds himself with similarly smart advisors (among them, as it happens, a number of Jewish ones).

There may be valid concerns about how the Obama presidency will turn out; I don’t mean to dismiss them. But the degree of fretting among some members of the tribe strikes me as unwarranted, even audacious.

I’m as paranoid as the next religious Jew. I don’t doubt for a moment that the wonderful haven that is the United States cannot be taken for granted. But neither do I doubt for a moment that it is a wonderful haven – and that no reasonable case can be made that President-elect Obama’s mantra of “change” includes any alteration of that happy historical reality.

Yes, efforts must be made with the exit of an Administration that many of us regard as singularly praiseworthy on many counts; and the arrival of new boys on the beltway whose wisdom and judgment have yet to be tested.

Political activism is certainly called for, and there was much discussion at Agudath Israel of America’s recent convention, as I am sure there was at the Orthodox Union’s, about strengthening existing ties with the President-elect and his Administration, and creating new ones. Both organizations’ full-time Washington offices are already in anticipatory high gear.

And above and beyond that, prayers are surely indicated – but with (excuse the word) hope and trust in G-d, not paranoia and fear.

And with awareness of the words of a recent Council of Torah Sages statement:

It is incumbent upon all Jews… to show President-elect Obama the proper dignity and honor due to the leader of our country…, with whom we look forward to a warm and productive relationship. May Hashem, in Whose hand the hearts of all earthly leaders reside, guide America’s new president to succeed in carrying out his awesome responsibilities in a manner that will bring great blessing to the Jewish people, to America, and to all of humankind.”

And let us all say, Amein.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
This essay was adapted from a longer one in Mishpacha magazine, and is offered here with its permission.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered for publication or sharing without charge,
provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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15 Responses

  1. The Contarian says:

    Rabbi Shafran wrote:

    “History is determined not by any sovereign’s personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign’s insuperable will”

    That being the case, it is obvious that Sovereign desires that state of Israel go back to the 1949 armistice lines.

    In the last 15 years

    1993 Rabin elected on a not one inch platform signs OSLO

    1997 and 1998 Netanyahu elected to stop OSLO signs the Hebron Protocol giving Chevron back to the Arabs and the Wye Accords

    2000 Barack the military hero runs out of Lebanon and almost succeeds in giving back 97% of the WesT bank to the Arabs which beomes the the new starting point for future negotiations.

    2005 Ariel Sharon the father of the settlements elected to crush the second intifada unilaterally surrenders Gaza to the Arabs expelling 10,000 settlers.

    2008 Olmert starts talking like he was elected prsident of Peace Now after violently removing settlers from the west bank.

  2. Joel Rich says:

    Interesting, but imho needs further clarification else one might conclude , for example, that President Roosevelts decision not to bomb the rail lines into the concentration camps was not something he should be evaluated on.


  3. Benjamin E. says:

    Yishar kokhakha…thank you for expressing these sentiments. Someone very much needed to come out and say them. I’m very pleased at the broader view you suggest here. It’s not a political perspective everyone wants to see here (ok, some people, maybe), it’s sanity…and when people hear expressions of ideas in the Orthodox world that sound less sane, it’s good to know that here you can find some of that sanity, even in some of the touchiest politics.

  4. Larry says:

    It’s interesting to see how those who once villified our incoming president are now scurrying to demonstrate their moderation and seek his favor. Jonathan Rosenblum, Rabbi Shafran’s associate, stated on Cross-Currents that “Arab-Americans overwhelmingly support Senator Barack Obama for president. So do Jewish-Americans. One of these two groups either does not care much about the Arab-Israeli conflict and/or is stupid. My money is on the Jews.” Chava Willig Levy, in an article posted on this website, compared Barack Obama to Haman. And Rabbi Menken, the creator of this site, noted in a Cross-Currents article that Barack is an Arabic word and that Barack Obama suffered from “an inability to discern between good and evil” with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moderates indeed!

  5. Chaim Fisher says:

    Hmmm. So Agudath Yisrael is now “strengthening ties” with Obama after doing their best to make sure he did not get elected. Are they concerned that Obama might hold grudges against them for all their smears against him, like the baseless “inability to discern between good and evil” stuff?

    Don’t worry, fellas.

    Obama is not going to hold any grudges or have any ‘loyalty tests’ like Bush had.

  6. Tal Benschar says:

    “That his path crossed with that of an aging 60s-era radical was unremarkable; seeing it as evidence of some secret anti-American conspiracy was scraping the bottom of an empty barrel.”

    I am compelled to protest this characterization. The “aging 60s-era radical” was a member of a terrorist organization that planted bombs in public buildings, and who in 2001 told the NY Times that the only thing he regrets is that he did not plant more bombs. The same organization was responsible for the deaths of several people, and had it not been for the fact that bechasdei Hashem some of their plots were stopped before coming to full fruition, many more would have been killed. As far as I am concerned, there is no MORAL difference between his group and Al-Qaeda — only that Al-Qaeda was more succesful in its nefarious endeavors.

    Obama treated this person as an honored citizen who had much to contribute to public policy. To be fair to him, so did most of the political culture in Chicago, including both Republicans and Democrats. That’s to their great shame and discredit.

    During the campaign I had — and still have — grave reservations about the moral stature of someone who honored an unrepentant terrorist being the leader of the free world and leading the fight against terrorism of the Al-Qaeda flavor.

  7. David N. Friedman says:

    I am sorry to say, Rabbi Shafran, that I am fretting and I am warranted in my fears. “Valid Concerns” is way too much of an understatement.

    Pres. Elect Obama is simply way too far away from honesty and way too far away from moderation to be trusted going forward. I would surely be pleased to be proven wrong but never before in American history have we decided to fly blind with a mysterious President-elect. The leap of faith we took with Jimmy Carter had trouble written all over it. America’s choice in this dangerous age will likely prove to be more disastrous.

    It is my sense that only a radical kind of hope is keeping so many of us from despair since no one wants to look at the consequences of such a poor choice–so we pretend that it is really not so bad, he can’t be THAT radical, he really is a smart fellow, etc.

    No one wants to be conned, no one wants to believe that a President of the US can aim to hurt the nation. We can wish and we can hope and we can want the best. The Obama Presidency is a faith-based initiative and all the hope in the world and all the crossed fingers cannot substitute for needed balance in government. One party now commands both houses of Congress, the Presidency, most of the courts, all the mainstream media (including the vast majority of magazines and newspapers)the universities and an unshakable 40% voting block of a dependent class.

    Either we really have faith in liberalism or we do not. I lack such faith.

  8. Ori says:

    Larry, all you’ve shown is that Cross-Currents writers have diverse opinions. There would only be a contradiction is any of the writers you quoted had written this piece. Being associated with somebody does not mean agreeing with that person.

    Having said that, I personally hope and pray that Barrack Obama will show himself to be a good president(1), and that Rabbi Yaakov Menken will write an article here titled: “I was wrong about Barack Obama”. I’m sure Rabbi Yaakov Menken is hoping for the same.

    (1) I don’t think that is very likely. OTOH, as somebody who voted for Rabin in 92 and supported the Oslo accords when they were signed, I find it hard to trust my own political judgment. Arguably I should be denied the vote for the good of the country.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    All the valid objections to voting for Obama are still valid. We now have to make the best of the situation at it is, in an honorable, not fawning way.

  10. LOberstein says:

    The reason the Council of Torah Sages had to tell us to be civil to our President is that so many of our co-religionists have bought into the mischaracterizations of Obama. It would be a tragedy if frum , heimish Jews were seen as among the least tolerant and most bigoted of Americans. It would destroy so much of the good work of the Agudah if its core constuancy contained far more than the average number of people who believe and spread the vile, racism we heard in the past electoral cycle. In fact, now that the election is over, when normal people have focused on the crises we face, too many people we know can’t let go their visceral hatred of our President Elect. If it were only a lunatic fringe the Agudah wouldn’t have to plead with them to shut up already. Hashem Yirachem.

  11. Aaron says:

    This week’s parsha spoke of Yaacov’s preparation for Eisav: tefilah, gifts and preparation for battle. I can only view this essay as included among “gifts” to an obvious foe. While the frum community obviously emphasizes the tefilah third of the equation, what scares me is that so few of the observant community ever even contemplate preparation for battle. It is NEVER discussed in shul or a shiur. We are martially illiterate and easier targets than we should be.

    We praise this benevolent country yet fail to exercise our Second Amendment rights and opportunity to take rudimentary defense measures. Recall the photographer at Mumbai who said he wished he had a gun instead of a camera. All the evidence confirms that relaxed concealed carry laws REDUCE violent crime.

    “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.” When there are urban “uprisings” and the bad guys vastly outnumber the police, with what do we defend our homes and neighborhoods? If “A broken wall calls out to the thief [to come in],” can’t a disarmed neighborhood call an enraged mob to re-enact Kristallnacht? I recall the LA riots where Korean shop owners stood on the roofs of their shops with shotguns… and the mobs passed by to pillage undefended targets.

    Only those who refuse to see the repeating patterns of history can say we didn’t see it coming.

  12. One Christian's perspective says:

    “History is determined not by any sovereign’s personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign’s insuperable will” Rabbi Shafran

    That being the case, it is obvious that Sovereign desires that state of Israel go back to the 1949 armistice lines. – Comment by The Contarian —

    Contrarian, Rabbi Shafran is correct in what you quoted. Sometimes, our problem is we try to look at history with too short/narrow a window and see justice and the Sovereign’s will as not agreeable to our ideas for justice, mercy and grace. Think back to ancient Egypt. How would you feel seeing these many plagues occur. You might not have anticipated the Passover, the parting of the Sea, Mirian’s song, and the Promised Land …..but…G-d never forgot Israel, His promise to Abraham nor His words given to the Prophets. The best is yet to come !

  13. Yaakov Menken says:

    Larry and Ori… Larry does an excellent job of distorting the truth via adept presentation of a fact.

    I did note that “Barack” is an Arabic word… in the context of a critical remark about the “Jewish Americans for Obama” page of his campaign website. It was that page which carefully pointed out that his “name comes from the same root as the Hebrew word Baruch, or ‘blessed’,” and with equal care failed to then tell us in which language Barack means blessed. I think the fact that his name is Arabic is at least as relevant as the fact that it means blessed (by which I mean that both aren’t at all relevant), but remain open to hearing explanations to the contrary.

    Be that as it may, it was the Jews for Obama that attempted to use his first name to gain political capital. I simply pointed out that they did so by telling half the truth, which seems consistent with the statements of Jewish Democrats in the current conversation.

    Jewish Democrats did not demonstrate themselves terribly willing or able to look past the campaign and work with facts on the ground after past elections that didn’t go their way. They were more likely to chant “hail to the thief” than work with President Bush as he assumed office. Regardless that it was the Democrats who pushed the election into the court system, they then called the courts ‘politicized’ when they determined the law, and refused to accept the results even months later, as newspapers showed that with one recount method after the next, Bush still won.

    I’ve already said that Obama’s transition thus far has been both well-managed and surprisingly bipartisan. Should he keep traveling this road, his policies will almost assuredly be far better than those he appeared to espouse as a first-term liberal Senator. His attitudes towards Israel and the failed “Peace” Process remain a large question mark, and I admit to a greater level of trepidation than Rabbi Shafran seems to feel is warranted.

    Larry, though, seems to criticize Jewish McCain supporters for their willingness to give the new President-elect a chance to prove himself, rather than to duplicate the fear-mongering and denial that followed the 2000 election. I’m not sure, though, why he thinks that would be productive.

  14. Michoel says:

    Chaim Fisher,
    How did the Agudah do their best to keep Obama from being elected? Please give a specific reference.

  1. December 19, 2008

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