Although we need calm, smart, nuanced, conversation about Israel and its challenges, an epidemic of stupid has broken out on the subject. On the right, many refuse to admit that President Barack Obama can believe in Israel’s right to exist even if he dislikes some Israeli policies or Israel’s prime minister. Instead, extremists call Obama anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. The blogger Pamela Gellar said Obama was "wet-nursed on Jew-hatred" in Indonesia. The left is equally idiotic. Last fall, a New York Magazine cover story proclaimed Barack Obama Israel’s “first Jewish President,” echoing the African-American novelist Toni Morrison’s foolish, borderline racist, characterization of Bill Clinton as “the first black President” because he was “born poor,” loved “junk food” and suffered as his “unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution.” Apparently, in his forthcoming book, Peter Beinart also calls Obama “a Jewish President.” Last week, Thomas Friedman proclaimed Obama “Israel’s best friend,” wondering in the New York Times whether Obama “is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.” As the Republican presidential campaign proves, political hysteria these days is not limited to the Israel file. Two unfortunate modern political phenomena are reinforcing each other, creating this scourge of rhetorical exaggeration when talking about Israel.
The first is the broader problem of political polarization in American politics – and other democracies. With the hysterical blogosphere, hit-and-run talk radio, trash-talking media outlets, and my-way-or-the-highway extremist politicians, too many people try making too many issues make-or-break, zero-sum choices. Partisan aggression trumps consensus building. Viewing politics through a Democratic-Republican or left-right prism distorts. As New York Mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”
Yet, AIPAC can host 13,000 Jews and non-Jews, blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans at its policy conference but rather than marveling at the broad consensus supporting Israel and complimenting this extraordinarily impressive bipartisan organization, with, if anything a liberal bent because of American Jewry’s liberal tendencies, it has become fashionable to call AIPAC “right-wing.”
Similarly, in hailing Obama, Thomas Friedman only blamed the Republicans for politicizing the Israel issue, making it a “wedge issue” to play for Jewish support. Friedman was half right. Some Republicans have demagogically tried to make supporting Israel exclusively their partisan domain. But the other half of the story involves the way the Democratic Party has made itself vulnerable on the issue, thanks to the unfortunate spread of leftist anti-Zionism. The Democratic Party is emerging as the home of the loud minority of anti-Israel voters and politicians, from former President Jimmy (Israel = Apartheid) Carter to Virginian Congressman Jim (blame the “Israel lobby” first) Moran. The Democratic Party remains the home of passionate pro-Israel politicians, and is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Still, ignoring the Democratic left’s growing Israel problem, like claiming Obama as the most enthusiastic pro-Israel President ever, on the planet, strains credibility.
The other phenomenon distorting the debate is the systematic, four-decade-old campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel. The Soviet propagandists who characterized the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a racial struggle, casting this regional fight between neighbors as an imperial, colonial power-grab by the Jews, still haunt us, 21 years after the Soviet Union fell. We see the Soviets’ posthumous victory, the Arab world’s continuing enmity, and the collaboration of the radical left, in demonizing Israel, singling out Israel, obsessively focusing on Israel, and constantly attacking Israel’s right to exist. That kind of pummeling does damage. Opponents magnify minor Israeli missteps into major sins, trying to justify their assault. In response, too many pro-Israel activists become too thin-skinned, too quick to assume that a criticism is condemnation and condemnation is repudiation – because they often are.
For a politician like Barack Obama, the delegitimizers make life easier and harder. On the one hand, they set the “pro-Israel bar” ridiculously low. Of course Obama is “pro-Israel,” because he vows “we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism” and insists that Israel deserves to exist in peace. Moreover, Obama has endorsed the idea of a Jewish state passionately, poetically, embracing the romance of Zionism, riffing, in his 2008 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, about “the incredible opportunity" that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And,” he added, making it personal, “obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.” But delegitimization complicates Obama’s relationship with Israel, because his clear sympathy for the Palestinians, his hostility to Israel’s post-1967 borders, his disdain for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his occasional obtuseness on Israel’s valid security fears mark him as a critic, in a world where too often Israel’s critics become Israel’s enemies – even as the first “Jewish President” school of thought condescends toward Israel by suggesting it needs tough love to save Israel from itself.
Asking whether Obama is pro-Israel or anti-Israel is immature and reductionist. The more important question is “have Obama’s Middle East policies succeeded”? So far, he has failed to reassure many Israelis of his support, which is needed to create the atmosphere for the kinds of concessions he wants from Israel. He created a new obstacle to negotiations by bungling the settlement freeze issue, practically forcing the Palestinians to embrace a new precondition. He has bristled repeatedly in Netanyahu’s company. And he has dithered on Iran, cold-shouldering the 2009 Green Revolution and now seeming more worried about an Israeli strike against Iran than a nuclear Iran. That does not make him anti-Israel; only naïve and ineffectual. This is not an issue of loyalty but competence.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. Follow Gil on Twitter: @Gil_Troy