Obama, the ‘Birthers’ and the Jews

You can show birthers a copy of the announcement in the Hawaiian papers of Obama’s birth and they will still doubt what lies before their eyes.

republican (illustrative)_521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
republican (illustrative)_521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
TRUE, NO ONE IS MAD AT THE JEWS BECAUSE HE OR she believes that US President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was forged. It is certainly not the fault of any Jew that Obama might be a foreigner or a Muslim who should not be president according to American law.
But this attack on an elected leader has a lot more to do with us than might seem. This “birther” business has brought more than half of all Republicans in the United States to believe that the democratically elected president is illegitimate. Perhaps the numbers of birthers reach over a hundred million. A new conspiracy theory has spread across this vast country faster than a blood libel could have run through a Polish village a century ago. It is not subject to rational proof. You can show birthers a copy of the announcement in the Hawaiian papers of Obama’s birth and they will still doubt what lies before their eyes.
So the belief that the president is an outsider is not subject to reason. It can be manipulated to stir up a crowd. It can be used to justify an unwillingness to accept the elected leader. This unwillingness amounts to a kind of mutiny on the ship of state. It is dangerous stuff in a democracy that depends on the losing side accepting defeat and waiting until next time, while living under the laws of the land.
Yes, this widely accepted lie about Obama is not directed against Jews or a Jewish leader. However, if we look at those birthers and understand what prompted their doubts, we Jews can’t avoid a shiver of fear or a fast-beating heart. Barack Obama is a black man with an African name and that makes him alien to the white Christian who did not vote for him and who feels as if an enemy, a foreign man, has taken his country away from him.
And here is the strain in American culture that has always threatened Jews and may very well do so again. If the president’s name were Bernstein and his daughter were to have a bat mitzva ceremony at some prominent Washington DC synagogue, the same Christian who thinks someone planned this black stranger’s entry into this country, who suspects forgery and fakery, will be easily convinced that Bernstein stole the election or is ineligible to lead the country for some other reason.
What we see here is racism not quite daring to call itself by that name, but expressing all the fear and anger at the other that we recognize from past centuries. What we see is the American white Christian population seething at the variety of American citizens. They are not happy with Mexicans and Guatemalans. They do not like Indians or Pakistanis or Asians who climb to the top of the academic mountain. Their demagogues feed their hunger for a stranger to dislike. They insinuate and accuse and promote anger against those who have come to this country legally and illegally and their anger burns unto the next generation. And this is where Jews should grow alarmed.
We too are not exactly like the Christian family next door. We too have exotic names and different holidays and our success may also seem to come at the expense of the other. Right now we are ignored in the ethnic battles between groups of Americans, but that could change. What we see here is the rejection of a state with many kinds and colors of folks making up its population, each with an equal claim to protection and a good life under law.
The racism and the provincialism reflected in the success of the birther movement is frightening for Jews because it tells us that the American public is not unanimously gracious and accepting of difference. The success of the birther movement tells us that rampant in this country is the fear of someone different, someone whose Sunday school or whose color is unusual.
The birthers are not the majority of Americans and most likely will never get to be so. But the numbers are still appalling. It doesn’t take a majority of people to agree to a nasty doctrine. It only takes a passionate minority and a quiescent citizenry for ugly things to be put into law and ugly passions roused. We have seen this in Nazi Germany. And we have seen the lynch mob in the southern United States.
Yes, we have laws to protect us. Yes, the society has not broken apart. But it is alarming to look into the faces of the birthers and see the America they want and believe in, and to know that we really are not a part of their homeland and, if push were to come, we would be shoved. I know this sounds alarmist but I am alarmed that there is so much hostility against the other in this country and there is so little reason and rationality abroad in the land, leaving the populace vulnerable to the haters and those whose vision of America is not inclusive, perhaps not of you and me.
Contributing editor Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York.