I’m Afraid It Is So. Sorry.
My esteemed friend Rabbi Yaakov Menken, below offers kind words about me, for which I thank him; and takes strong issue with my defenses of President Obama’s Israel record against some of the attacks on him by members of the Jewish community – for which I also thank him. I know from e-mails I’ve received that, while I am not alone in my appreciation of the president, neither is Rabbi Menken in his criticism of him. And I think that respectful dialectic is the key to better understanding of issues, in the study of political matters no less than in, lihavdil, the beis medrash.
First off, let me state unequivocally that my defense of the president is not a simple reflection of the obligation we Jews have, in golus, as we are, to respect our governmental leaders. That obligation is indeed real, but it is peripheral to my stance. My position is born of examination of facts and critical thinking. My conclusions might be wrong, but I have only the mind Hashem has granted me to employ.
I also wish to make clear that I write on this issue as an individual, not in my “day job” as an Agudath Israel representative.
Rabbi Menken has written at some length to counter my position. I take the liberty of distilling his assertions as I understand them:
1) Michael Oren, as a brilliant man who cares deeply about Israel, should not be criticized. Especially since some non-Orthodox personalities have criticized him.
2) Mr. Oren did not claim, as I wrote he did, that Mr. Obama was the first president to publicly disagree with Israeli policies.
3) Mr. Obama “dramatically shifted the tenor” of the American position on settlements, and abandoned George W. Bush’s assurance in a letter that major settlement blocs would remain as part of Israel in any final designation of a Palestinian state.
4) Mr. Obama has demonstrated an “ongoing pattern” of not informing his Israeli counterpart of statements the American president would be making that are pertinent to Israel. And he opened negotiations with Iran without letting Mr. Netayahu know.
5) Mr. Obama’s non-citation of Israel as one of the countries aiding Haiti after the January 2012 earthquake there was intentional, since the Dominican Republic and Mexico, which the president did mentioned, like Israel, has not yet established aid activities on the ground in the affected areas of the country.
I will attempt to be both succinct and clear:
1) I don’t doubt either Mr. Oren’s intellect or his commitment to Israel, only his judgment of Mr. Obama, which echoes Mr. Netanyahu’s. And, while I don’t usually find myself agreeing with Reform leaders, even a stopped clock is occasionally right.
2) Mr. Oren writes that, until the Obama administration, “The U.S. and Israel always could disagree but never openly. [emphasis mine]” That, as I have written, is a grievous untruth.
3) The “dramatic shift” in tenor is Mr. Oren’s judgment only. Mr. Obama has never addressed his position on the ultimate status of any settlements, opting instead to leave al such things to any negotiations between Israel and the PA. Mr. Bush’s letter, by all accounts, was not binding American policy. And even it stated that “any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes.”
4) While it may rankle, the U.S. has no obligation to inform Israel of its activities, even those that may have impact on Israel. The question of whether the Obama administration’s secret talks with Iran reflected a lack of concern for Israel’s safety or was a shrewd bid to ensure her safety (by engaging the rogue state to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons) is one that reasonable people can disagree about. Efforts like Stuxnet to clandestinely undermine Iran’s nuclear program, and the testimony of Israeli intelligence personnel, , to me, argue for the latter contention.
5) Both Mexico and the Dominican Republic were on the ground in Haiti delivering services on January 13, 2010. Many other countries were either already delivering services then or (including Arab countries, unmentioned as well by Mr. Obama) in the process of getting there. A list can be seen here.
I think that much of the criticism of President Obama is, in essence, really criticism of the “two-state solution” in which he is deeply invested but which is opposed by many. I’m personally ambivalent about the idea myself. In theory, I believe it would be the best thing for Israel and the safety of her citizens; but practically speaking, considering the Arab world’s hatreds and disunity, it would seem a distant resolution at best.
If we step back, though, and allow Mr. Obama his commitment to the idea (realistic or fantasy), I believe his every action vis a vis Israel emerges as positive. Has US military aid to Israel been curbed? Has the US stopped standing up to Israel-hatred in the UN? Has intelligence cooperation between Israel decreased? No, no and no.
It is only when he reiterates his view of a two-state situation (and the need to woo the parties to the negotiating table), that the anger at him emerges. And so much of it is so venomous.
I believe that the president’s determination to reach a deal with Iran is also motivated by concern for Israel (and the others threatened by Iran’s evil leaders). He wants to buy time and gain access to Iran’s nuclear program, both (as I see it) laudable goals. Rest assured, though, that if a deal is struck and the details do not include comprehensive access to all nuclear sites, I will be among the first to criticize it. I bear no automatic brief for Mr. Obama. I simply feel, based on the facts to date, that he has always had Israel’s best interests at heart. (For articles providing some of those facts, you can just google “Shafran and Obama”).
It also seems that, perhaps understandably but to me wrongly, some of us read too much into Mr. Obama’s words, parsing them like they’re a Mishna. He “speaks the language” of the Arab world on occasion, in order to reach out to it to get it to be reasonable. Perhaps that’s a fool’s errand, but I’m inclined to see it as a wise strategy. So rather than, to employ the metaphor a talk show host one invoked to me, hear ominousness in the “niggun” of the president, I counsel actually looking at his record of actions.
As I’ve written in the past, we cannot put our trust any governmental leader, nor know what lies in any leader’s heart. What we can do here, though, is – whatever we think we know – join at least in the hope that my assessment of the president is the correct one. And, more important still, remind ourselves that, in the end, leaders’ hearts are in Hashem’s hands – and that, thus, improving our own lives is the greatest zechus for Klal Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.