The backlash didn’t take long.
Within hours of President Barack Obama
declaring to a group of Conservative Jews that he “probably knows more about
Judaism than any other president” – a result, he claimed, of reading and having
lots of Jewish friends – the blogosphere was ablaze with pointed
Historians have noted, for example, that the early
presidents especially were steeped in knowledge of the Jewish Bible, religious
history and theology. Presidents John Adams and James Madison were both students
of Hebrew (as well as Greek and Latin). Adams even translated books of the Old
Testament from Hebrew to English.
Most US presidents, in fact, have known
their Bibles cover to cover, including modern presidents Truman and – though
painful to admit – Jimmy Carter.
Yet, although thorough dismemberment of
his boast proceeds apace, it is worth asking where Obama gained his
self-proclaimed expertise. Just what does Barack Obama “know” about Judaism;
more importantly, from whom did he learn it? Jewish knowledge did not come from
Obama’s youth. Unlike every other American president, his religious education
did not have lifelong roots in American Judeo-Christianity, and it shows: he
simply doesn’t demonstrate the innate affinity for understanding Jews, Judaism
and Zionism (or, for that matter, religious Christians) that has been so evident
in other presidents, especially Truman, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and George W.
Neither of Obama’s two navel-gazing autobiographies mentions any
Jewish education. Raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama has stated that his
first exposure to Judaism and Zionism was as a sixth-grader, from a Jewish camp
His mentor through his high school years was “Uncle Frank,”
communist agitator Frank Marshall Davis, hardly a scholar of Judaism.
has Obama embarked on any known study of Judaism since arriving on the national
stage. His very public reading list, heavy on fiction, contains no books about
Judaism (interestingly, it does list David McCullough’s biography of judeophile
John Adams.) The only books even close are by Israeli peace activist and writer
David Grossman and by historical novelist Leon Uris.
Which of his
longtime White House aides could have provided him with a serious Jewish
education? David Axelrod? David Plouffe? Please.
We are left with the
disturbing likelihood that Obama’s education regarding Jewish theology, history
and Zionism has come from three primary influences in his adult life: activist
Rabbi Arnold Wolf, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and formerly Beirut-based PLO flak
Dr. Rashid Khalidi, currently the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies
at Columbia University.
Obama has expressed gratitude for the influence
of Khalidi on his thinking. The Obamas and Khalidis were best friends during
their time in Chicago. His many talks with the Khalidis, Obama said, had been
“consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own
It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to
come, we continue that conversation – a conversation that is necessary not just
around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,” but around “this entire world.” One can
only guess which “biases” and “blind spots” the Khalidis, of all people, cleared
up for Obama.
For all of Obama’s day-late, dollar-short efforts to
distance himself from Reverend Wright, he cannot deny that for 20 years Wright
mentored him in all matters, and credits Wright with shaping his
They had such a deep and close relationship that Wright
considered himself Obama’s “second father.”
As for Obama’s sudden, public
(and highly expedient) campaign-season repudiation of him, Reverend Wright put it
in context: “Them Jews aren’t going to let him talk to me... he’ll talk to me in
five years when he’s a lame duck, or in eight years when he’s out of
Least known of Obama’s “rabbis” is the late Rabbi (Reform)
Arnold Wolf, a left-wing activist, member of the Democratic Socialists of
America, champion of the Chicago Seven and advocate of Israeli negotiations with
the PLO at the height of its 1970s terrorism.
A relentless critic of
Israel, Wolf founded “Breira,” an organization that demanded that Israel be less
“arrogant” and “intransigent” (this during the administrations of the famously
arrogant and intransigent Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin) and met with the PLO in
November 1976 – just four months after Entebbe.
Wolf, rabbi at the
synagogue across the street from the Obamas, preached a Judaism synonymous with
leftist political activism.
Obama was a regular guest. One of Obama’s
earliest political backers, Wolf insisted that he was influential in shaping
Obama’s policies. In this congregation, Obama also met his crowd of famously
left-wing Jewish Chicago friends, with J Street orientations similar to Rabbi
In fact, there’s no tremendous difference between Wolf’s Israel
policy and that of Khalidi or Wright.
Obama’s claim of Jewish expertise
was perhaps just inept campaign puffery, along the lines of his other
preposterous boast: “I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this
administration has done more in terms of the security of the State of Israel
than any previous administration.”
Nevertheless, Obama’s belief in his
own great Jewish knowledge comes from somewhere. A look at his “rabbis” –
Wright, Khalidi and Wolf, the shapers of Obama’s religious outlook and
Jewish/Zionist understanding – is revealing.
To mainstream Jews and
Israel-supporters, that roster should also be worrying.
The writer is an
American attorney and political commentator living in Israel. He serves as
counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.