The distorting anxieties of the American Jewish community

An American president using the time-honored rhetorical weapons of anti-Semites to improve poll numbers has been sickening to many, but perhaps most of all to American Jews who voted to elect him.

By MICHAEL BERENBAUM
August 25, 2015 22:10
US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House

US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)

 
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The organized American Jewish community is in the midst of a 60-day battle against the Iran agreement currently before Congress. Accusations abound, with charges of dual loyalty and coded language, anti-Semitism and perceived threats.

Clear statements are recast with complete disregard to nuance and tone. Candid advice, offered between friends, is being misrepresented as threats. The gap between what is being said and what is being heard reveals an anxiety now taking root in the American Jewish establishment.

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In one of many examples, Jeff Robbins, a former US delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission during the Clinton administration, complained in the Boston Herald: “Criticism of his deal, our president says, is the work of ‘money,’ ‘donors’ and ‘lobbyists’ who ‘demand’ war, and whose ‘drumbeat for war’ is motivated by their ‘affinity for...Israel.’ The specter of an American president using the time-honored rhetorical weapons of anti-Semites to improve poll numbers has been sickening to many, but perhaps most of all to American Jews who voted to elect and then re-elect him.”

In his American University speech, the president actually said: “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” Witness the fact that a former US Ambassador to the United Nations pondered the wisdom of an immediate attack.

The President also went on to say, “I do think it is important to acknowledge another more understandable motivation behind the opposition to this deal, or at least skepticism to this deal and that is a sincere affinity for our friend and ally Israel. An affinity that, as someone who has been a stalwart friend to Israel throughout my career, I deeply share.”

Robbins heard one thing. The president said something very different.

Many heard this as holding Jews responsible for the war in Iraq and not people by the names of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell.



Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that if the Iran deal fails to pass Congress, the United States and Israel would be isolated and blamed for its failure, also has been criticized. Am I naïve to assume that his statement is a candid assessment of the situation, a reality that virtually every commentator acknowledges rather than a threat to isolate Israel? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Congress to attack the deal, standing in direct opposition to the president of the United States and to the other five nations that signed the accord. One can’t do that without assuming that if he succeeds in derailing the US consent to the agreement, Israel will be isolated.

In his American University speech, the president attacked the predominance of money in our political life. Many in the Jewish community, Robbins among them, added the word “Jewish.” And the words “Jewish money” immediately conjures up the ancient anti-Semitic canard of Jews and money.

The president didn’t use the word “Jewish,” but there is a massive ongoing lobbying effort against the agreement. AIPAC has amassed a $20 million fund and flown in 700 of its top supporters to oppose the agreement. Full-page ads appear in prominent newspapers. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to 10,000 American Jews. American Jewish organizations are mobilizing significant resources. In calling attention to that lobbying effort, is one somehow saying that lobbying is not within the general practices of the American populace? As to the charges of dual loyalty, I find American Jewry deeply insecure and unwilling to speak candidly. We deny who we are and what we value because we fear what anti-Semites might think. Many Jews – I wish it were many more – love the State of Israel.

These very Jews also love and are loyal to the United States, the land in which they live and vote. The best of US values and interests often coincide with the best of Israeli values. When they clash, American Jews are torn. To be torn is not to be treasonous or disloyal. It is to be loving, committed and concerned. President Obama said: “No one can blame Israelis for having a deep skepticism about any dealings with a government like Iran’s – which includes leaders who have denied the Holocaust, embrace an ideology of anti-Semitism, facilitate the flow of rockets that are arrayed on Israel’s borders, [and] are pointed at Tel Aviv. In such a dangerous neighborhood, Israel has to be vigilant, and it rightly insists that it cannot depend on any other country – even its great friend the United States – for its own security. So we have to take seriously concerns in Israel.”

The president and the administration he leads clearly believe that the agreement is in the best interest of both the United States and Israel, and he has staked his historical legacy on it.

The American Jewish establishment has pushed itself into a lose/lose situation. If the president’s veto is overturned, most of the sanctions will end anyway, the US and Israel will be isolated, Iran will be unencumbered to develop a nuclear bomb, US leadership will be diminished – which is profoundly dangerous to Israel – anti-Semites will have what they will regard as clear and convincing evidence that Jews control America and many American Jews will be further alienated from Jewish institutional life.

There are real anti-Semites – dangerous anti-Semites – in the world. Jews uniquely understand the history of people who have hated and murdered us just for being Jewish. To say that Barack Obama is an anti-Semite or even insinuate he hates Jews or points to Jews is beyond absurd; it dangerously misrepresents the real danger of actual anti-Semites and anti-Semitism.

To do so for partisan political advantage even in a debate this consequential is obscene.

The author is the professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

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