Missed Message

My dear and esteemed friend Jonathan Rosenblum has taken me to task in Yated Ne’eman for an Ami Magazine essay I wrote entitled “Our Not So Humble Opinions.” My thesis was that it behooves Jews to not embrace conclusions, particularly political ones, without knowing and weighing all the facts. As an example, I cited a public figure about whom I believe many Orthodox Jews may not be fully informed: President Obama. Jonathan culled material from his file of anti-Obama columns to disparage the suggestion that Mr. Obama may not deserve Israel supporters’ opprobrium.

My position on the current administration, as it happens, is neither laudatory nor disparaging. As I wrote in my essay: “There may well be reasons to feel negatively toward the current administration… History will have its say in time.” My essay’s intent was not to judge Mr. Obama, but to simply note some facts about him that are not widely acknowledged. I won’t reprise the list here (my essay is available at Cross-Currents.com, as is Jonathan’s critique) but will only note that none of the items I cited, all of which remain uncontested, have ever, to my knowledge, been subjects of Jonathan’s columns. Considering my friend’s well-deserved popularity, that might partially explain the many responses I received – from both admirers and detractors of the president – admitting that, indeed, the information was entirely new, and surprising, to them.

My essay’s central point, though, that we don’t always know all we think we do, seems to have been lost amid the tumult. Citations of anything laudable about Mr. Obama, it seems, are red flags obscuring all else

Jonathan dismisses most of the facts I cited as merely “reflect[ing] a political calculus: Jews, after blacks, are the Democratic Party’s most dependable voting bloc. No need to needlessly risk their support over primarily symbolic matters.”

Not one of the items I cited, though, is “symbolic”; each (save, perhaps, the president’s authorization of the targeted killing of a dangerous Islamist; I included that because some people consider Mr. Obama soft on terrorism) is a concrete demonstration of support, militarily, diplomatically or economically, for Israel. In some dockets, it seems, Mr. Obama simply cannot win. If he does or says something vague about Israel, it is a veiled threat; if something positive, he is pandering. Were he to convert to Judaism, put on a yarmulke, grow peyos and move to Meah Shearim, it will have been, in some minds, for the cholent.

Still and all, Jonathan’s mighty marshalling of material to pro-actively prove Mr. Obama’s animus for Israel demands examination. He writes that he doesn’t expect to convince me of his case. He is correct.

The bulk of Jonathan’s onslaught consists of a sort of psychoanalysis-at-a-distance of Mr. Obama, the contention that the president “entered office in thrall to a number of misconceptions” – like the “liberal fallacy” that all people are basically the same; the conviction that “the Arab-Israeli dispute is at the center of all that ails the Middle East”; and the belief that the peace process is interconnected with Iran. I have no rebuttal, as I have no key to the inner workings of Mr. Obama’s mind. Is there some evidence of word or action pointing to Jonathan’s assertions? Perhaps, but he doesn’t offer it.

What he does offer, and at considerable length, is an assortment of sins allegedly committed by Mr. Obama, things we’ve all read about repeatedly in the past. (Repetition of things, though, doesn’t increase their accuracy.) Regarding any or all of them Jonathan’s interpretation may be right. But it may also be wrong. Let me briefly address a few.

A 2004 letter of understanding offered Israel by George W. Bush about areas of settlement Israel should not be expected to vacate was indeed characterized by Secretary of State Clinton as something less than a binding commitment. But that is a fact. It was not binding on the Bush administration either; it wasn’t a treaty. What is more, the then-ambassador of the U.S. to Israel (Dan Kurtzer, no hero to many of us but who nevertheless has the advantage of knowing the precise context and content of the letter) has maintained that what it did include was explicitly predicated “on the basis of mutually agreed changes” – i.e. a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. We may not like that fact, but facts don’t bend to our likings.

A 2009 meeting between the president and a group of American Jewish leaders, at which Mr. Obama allegedly said something that Jonathan ungenerously parses to mean “that the Obama administration does not intend to be the same kind of ‘friend’ as the previous administration,” was characterized positively by some who were there. The Jerusalem Post reported at the time that “even those who disagree with Obama’s stance on settlements had warm things to say about the powwow.”

Jonathan and others see a clear mark of Obamic iniquity in a broad nuclear nonproliferation document’s reference to Israel as a non-signatory of an international treaty. The Obama administration worked hard for months, however, to keep the reference to Israel out, and even Dore Gold was sympathetic to the U.S. need to sign it in the end, since, he explained, it was aimed at stopping Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, and its shelving would have invited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey to feel free to follow Iran’s example.

And after the document was signed Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, General James. L. Jones, publicly declared that “The United States deplores the decision to single out Israel in the Middle East section of the NPT document.” Now, reasonable people can certainly disagree about whether the U.S. should have, no matter the repercussions, refused to sign the document. But characterizing the move as a “clear break with all past American administrations,” as Jonathan does, when every American administration since the 1970s has called on Israel to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, is deeply misleading.

The short-lived appointment of Chas Freeman, a critic of Israel, to head the National Intelligence Council is another mark of Cain on Mr. Obama’s forehead, in Jonathan’s eyes. But it was Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair who appointed Freeman, and the quick torpedoing of Freeman’s appointment (clearly ordered by the White House) was due not only to his views on the Middle East but to his alleged callousness toward dissident Chinese. The episode was clearly an embarrassing blunder for the administration. But a blunder, not some sign of ill will toward Israel (or Chinese dissidents).

Finally, Jonathan holds against the president that in Mr. Obama’s famous June, 2009 Cairo speech (the one in which he told the Arab world that “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus”) he chose to urge his Muslim listeners to accept Israel’s legitimacy on the basis of Jewish suffering and the Holocaust, not the Jewish right to the Holy Land.

But would it really have been constructive to invoke before that audience (as Mr. Obama in fact did before the United Nations) the fact of Eretz Yisrael being the Jewish homeland? Should he have quoted the first Rashi in the Chumash? As warm as that might have made us all feel, the stark fact remains that, to much of the world – a world still ungraced, unfortunately, by Moshiach and in which Jews everywhere, knowing it or not, live precariously – Israel’s justification is Jewish suffering, not Jewish entitlement. Even Harry Truman, in 1944, spoke of providing “a haven for all those who can be grasped from the hands of Nazi butchers.” He invoked the Balfour Declaration, not the Torah. Was he, too, no friend of the Jews?

(In a related vein, Jonathan claims greater moral authority, as an Israeli, to judge Mr. Obama since “it is our lives on the line.” I deeply hope my chaver knows that we in chutz la’aretz are not an iota less deeply concerned about him and our other friends and relatives in Eretz Yisrael than he is.)

But all of that is, in the end, beside the point – at least the point I tried to make: that we sometimes adopt, and then become invested in, political positions even in the absence of all the facts. Whatever one’s judgment of Mr. Obama, let it be based on cold, hard and complete evidence, not only arguable interpretations, assumptions and imaginings.

Jonathan feels I “struck out” in my goal of “defending” the president’s policies. But my goal was something much more modest: To encourage people to question some of their assumptions. And I’ll be truly satisfied if, in that quest, I managed to score even a single.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: [email protected]

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