Obama and the (Orthodox) Jews

(The article below appeared earlier this month in Haaretz. I share it here with that paper’s permission.)

The gabbai at the shul I usually attend on Shabbos is something of a comedian. When I was recently called to the Torah, he offered the traditional “Mi Sheberach” and added a blessing for “ha-president” – which he quickly qualified by adding: “Not Obama – the president of the shul.”

I interjected “yes, Obama.” Nearby congregants gasped.

They shouldn’t have. The Mishneh teaches us that Jews should pray for the government, as governments are what prevent people from acting on their worst instincts. For many years, every American Orthodox synagogue included a special prayer for the president and vice president, a practice that, for some reason, has fallen into disuse.

But beyond the Jewish obligation to express hakaras hatov, “acknowledgement of the good,” to the leaders of their lands, I believe that the current occupant of the White House well deserves our special good will.

That is not, I know, the common stance in the Orthodox world. I have been puzzling over that fact for five years.

A registered Republican since I could vote, I shared in the skepticism and concern that swept the pro-Israel community and a good part of the American populace when Mr. Obama appeared on the scene. His ascendance to prominence was so sudden, his record so sparse, his connection to a rabid preacher so troubling, what reason for optimism, really, was there?

We expected that, if elected, he would prove anti-Israel, a global isolationist, lax on national security. His wife, we were warned, was the second coming of Angela Davis. John McCain got our votes, hands down.

But when the worst actually happened and the Obamas moved into the White house, the anticipated bad news, well, never came.

Mere months into his first term, the new president dared to address the Arab world in Cairo and stated clearly that America’s “strong bond” with Israel is “unbreakable,” and that the Jewish “aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” He firmly denounced Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic stereotyping, the mother’s milk of much of the Arab sphere, and condemned anyone who would threaten Israel’s destruction.

I was surprised and heartened. But strangely, the reaction in many Orthodox circles was to focus not on Mr. Obama’s blunt and courageous words but on his reassurance that the U.S. is not at war with Islam (are we?), his endorsement of a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestinian conflict (the declared American position over several administrations) and his very invocation of the Holocaust as the root of Israel’s establishment (as if he should have offered his audience Torah verses). I was flummoxed by the refusal to give the man any credit, and reminded of Rodney Dangerfield’s mother-in-law’s supposed reaction when, having given him two neckties and seeing him wearing one of them, sneered “What’s the matter? You don’t like the other one?”

Then came Obama’s withdrawal from the Durban Conference, his rejection of the Goldstone report, his refusal to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey unless Israel was included, his pushing of Iron Dome, his relentless pursuit of terrorists (and authorization for killing Anwal al-Awlaki, outraging the American left), his statement before the UN General Assembly that “Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people,” his threat in September, 2011 of severe consequences if Egyptian authorities didn’t act to protect Israeli embassy guards besieged by a mob, which they did, his successful focus on neutralizing Osama bin Laden, and more.

And yet, much of the Orthodox community, including dear friends and most of the Orthodox media, seemed to see only danger in Mr. Obama (and his wife, whose malevolent designs, it turned out, were on childhood obesity). They parsed his every utterance with the determination of a JFK-conspiracy buff examining the Zapruder film, for new “evidence” of their pre-existent conclusion. His uneasiness with Prime Minister Netanyahu (shared by a good piece of the Israeli citizenship, as it happens, and fueled in Mr. Obama’s circumstance by the Israeli’s unwarranted and insolent lecturing of the American in the spring of 2011) was seen as a rejection of Israel, which clearly was not, and has been proven not to be, the case. His every appointee (like mortal threats Chuck Hagel, Susan Rice and Hannah Rosenthal) was mindlessly rumored to be a stealth bomb aimed at Israel.

And more recently, instead of admitting that Mr. Obama’s dogged commitment to an international boycott of Iran brought its malevolent leaders to the negotiating table, many have pilloried the president for his judgment that the best path toward defanging Iran lies in allowing the mullahs to save some face rather than pushing them into a corner and risking a new terrorism campaign born of desperation.

When I occasionally wrote about President Obama’s record, it was heartening to glean from some readers’ (private) reactions that I was not alone in my puzzlement over so many Orthodox Jews’ fear and anger about Mr. Obama. It wasn’t likely a silent majority, but even a silent minority was reassuring.

Some suggested that the animus against the president was, at its core, racist. I don’t believe that. Others claimed that Mr. Obama’s social-issues liberalism irredeemably damned him in the eyes of social conservatives, a group to which most Orthodox Jews (myself included) belong.

But I think the answer is more simple. We humans don’t like to admit that we were wrong.

Not exactly a high Jewish ideal, that.

Not like hakaras hatov.

© Haaretz 2014

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