Obama’s Jewish Problem

10 principles that have guided the president’s most difficult conversations with Jews.

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at the Adas Israel Congregation on May 22, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Racism, sexism, and discrimination of all kinds are hard to talk about. One reason why we don’t make progress on these issues is that we get locked into roles. Some of us feel mistreated or ignored. Others feel silenced or unjustly accused. Sometimes it’s hard to see anything from the other person’s point of view.

One way to break out of this stalemate is to switch the colors. Every now and then, a situation comes up in which the usual suspects are the victims, or vice versa. That’s what’s now happening to President Obama. The nation’s first black president stands accused of animus against Jews.

The accusation stems largely from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and his perpetual friction with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As a member of the ostensibly targeted class, I find the charge ludicrous. It’s one of the few things that has wounded Obama personally, and it’s painful to watch him agonize over it. But it’s also instructive. How does a black president defend his disagreements with the Jewish state—not just on West Bank settlements and discrimination against Israeli Arabs, but also on the genocidal threat posed by Iran—while assuring Jews that he has nothing against them? How do you take on people who claim to speak for a racial, ethnic, or religious group without coming across as a bigot?

In many ways, anti-Semitism differs from racism and sexism. Still, it’s awkward to watch Obama suck up to Jews the way defensive white politicians fawn over blacks or Latinos. His White House has posted twice as many items about Jewish concerns as George W. Bush’s did. Obama talks endlessly about his “sympathy and identification with the Jewish experience,” his “passions for Israel’s survival,” his “closeness to the Jewish American community,” and “the deep affinities that I feel for the Israeli people and for the Jewish people.” Some of his best aides are Jewish: “I’ve got a chief of staff named Rahm Israel Emanuel,” he once said. “My top political adviser is somebody who is a descendent of Holocaust survivors.” He says he has “hosted seven White House Seders.” He jokes about his daughters hiding the afikomen and attending bat mitzvahs.

But now comes the hard part: standing up to Israel. How does Obama handle it? Here are some principles that have guided him.

1. Don’t whitewash prejudice. Last Friday, in a webcast with Jewish organizations, Obama said Israelis have good reason to fear Iran: “When you have a regime that denies the Holocaust, that’s going to make you worried. You got to take that seriously.” Three months ago, in an interview with the Atlantic, he told Jeffrey Goldberg that “the environment worldwide is scary for a lot of Jewish families”:

You have a Middle East that is turbulent and chaotic, and where extremists seem to be full of enthusiasm and momentum. You have Europe, where, as you’ve very effectively chronicled, there is an emergence of a more overt and dangerous anti-Semitism. And so part of the concern in the Jewish community is that, only a generation removed from the Holocaust, it seems that anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-Israeli rhetoric is on the rise.

These acknowledgments are important. If you’re going to argue that a historically oppressed group is misapplying its anxieties to a current question, it’s best to stipulate that the anxieties themselves are well founded.

2. Don’t whitewash history. In speeches and interviews, Obama has acknowledged “centuries of persecution and pogroms” against Jews, from “Inquisition-era Spain to Tsarist Russia to Hitler’s Germany.” On Friday, he told the Jewish groups that this “tragic history” underlies his commitment to Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors. In his interview with Goldberg, Obama defended Zionism this way:

Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism, that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current—if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology—if you acknowledge those things, then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake …

Basically, Obama’s argument is that the history of anti-Semitism warrants special protections for Jews: a state of their own, plus military superiority. In theory, this is discrimination. In reality, it’s a well-earned hedge against persistent persecution. The same could be said of affirmative action. Dismissing it is historically naive.

3. Guarantee security. Obama told Goldberg, “I’ve got Israel’s back.” In a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman in April, he assured Israelis:

Not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.

This pledge, too, is important. To take risks, people need some measure of safety. If you want American mosques to cooperate with the FBI, you’d better make clear that you don’t see Islam as the enemy. And if you don’t want Latinos to freak out about tighter enforcement of immigration laws, you’d better stipulate that you’re not going to mess with the 14th Amendment.

4. Reject litmus tests. Obama told Goldberg:

[T]here has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government. So if you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish. If you express compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth, who are dealing with checkpoints or restrictions on their ability to travel, then you are suspect in terms of your support of Israel. If you are willing to get into public disagreements with the Israeli government, then the notion is that you are being anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish. I completely reject that.

He’s right. Disagreeing with Netanyahu doesn’t make you anti-Semitic. Disagreeing with the NAACP about Michael Brown doesn’t make you racist. Disagreeing with the National Organization for Women about late-term abortion doesn’t make you sexist. Don’t let anyone tell you that your position on one issue or one arbiter makes you a bigot.

5. Respect diversity. Obama reminded Goldberg that Israelis argue about their country’s policies every day. On Friday, he told Forward:

American Jews, like African Americans or any other cohort of Americans, [have] a wide range of concerns. They care about student loans; they care about housing; they care about poverty; they care about women’s health issues. … I get probably more offended when I hear members of my administration who themselves are Jewish being attacked. You saw this historically sometimes in the African American community, where there’s a difference on policy and somebody starts talking about, “Well, you’re not black enough,” or “You’re selling out.” And that, I think, is always a dangerous place to go.

Right again. Jews disagree about settlements. Blacks disagree about gun control. Hispanics disagree about the death penalty. The enforcement of orthodoxies within a minority group is just another form of stereotyping.

6. Transcend history. Three months ago, in a speech at Adas Israel in Washington, D.C., Obama said he admired Israelis for rising above centuries of Jewish suffering:

And to a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world—that idea was liberating.

Amen. Just because your people were victimized doesn’t mean you have to think like a victim. You can change your mentality and your future.

7. Appreciate America. Four years ago, Obama told the Union for Reform Judaism:

Like so many ethnic groups, Jews faced prejudice, and sometimes violence, as they sought their piece of the American Dream. But here, Jews finally found a place where their faith was protected; where hard work and responsibility paid off. … My father was from Kenya. … When my Jewish friends tell me about their ancestors, I feel a connection. I know what it’s like to think, “Only in America is my story even possible.” 

This isn’t naiveté about American injustice. It’s a simple recognition that this country, for all its failings, offers freedoms and opens doors that were once closed to minorities here and elsewhere.

8. Friendship includes criticism. In June, Obama told Israel’s Channel 2, “Part of my obligation of being a friend of Israel’s is to speak the truth as I see it.” Last week, he told Forward: “If you care deeply about Israel, then you have an obligation to be honest about what you think, the same way you would with any friend. And we don’t do anybody, any friend, a service by just rubber-stamping whatever decisions they make.” In the webcast with Jewish groups, he added: “What I’ve found after 54 years on this Earth is that my best friends are the ones who I can be honest with. And if I think that they’re wrong on something, I’ve got to be able to say it. … That’s what being good friends means.”

Those words of wisdom don’t just pertain to Jews who defend segregated buses. They also apply to Muslims who condone violent extremism and to Christians who excuse the Crusades. Stifling disagreements on account of religion, race, or ethnicity would be patronizing.

9. Criticize from within. If you’re going to criticize members of a minority group from the outside, you’d better ground your criticism in the group’s own institutions. That’s what Obama did when Israel’s Channel 2 asked him about the segregation of Palestinians on buses:

[T]he Israeli people I think don’t have to look to me to determine how to feel about a law like that. I think the Israeli people need to look within their own traditions, because the Jewish traditions that helped found Israel have a direct point of view on an issue like that. And I always tell people here, when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause line I got was when I said, “I know that the people of Israel care about those Palestinian children.” And the applause was overwhelming, because there was a self-recognition. This wasn’t me lecturing them. It was simply reflecting what I’ve seen in my interactions with Israelis, what I’ve seen in terms of Jewish values here in the United States …

Every religious or ethnic group has traditions and sentiments that express universal values. If you want to promote those values, locate them within the group.

10. Praise from within. You can’t just challenge members of a minority community, no matter how constructively, and expect to be heard. You can’t just assure them that you understand their fears and their predicament. People of one faith or color are just like people of any other: They don’t care what you believe till they believe that you care. That’s one reason why Obama spoke at Adas Israel, as he has many times before, about the role of Jews in the civil rights movement. Two years ago in Israel, Obama explained his feelings of kinship this way:

This story—from slavery to salvation, of overcoming even the most overwhelming odds—is a message that’s inspired the world. And that includes Jewish Americans but also African Americans, who have so often had to deal with their own challenges, but with whom you have stood shoulder to shoulder. … African Americans and Jewish Americans marched together at Selma and Montgomery, with rabbis carrying the Torah as they walked. They boarded buses for freedom rides together. They bled together. They gave their lives together: Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner alongside [an] African American, James Chaney. … Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Poland and lost his mother and sisters to the Nazis. He came to America. He raised his voice for social justice. He marched with Martin Luther King. … Rabbi Joachim Prinz was born in Germany, expelled by the Nazis and found refuge in America, and he built support for the new State of Israel. And on that August day in 1963, he joined Dr. King at the March on Washington.

These 10 principles have guided Obama in his relations with Jews, including the disagreements of the past year. Some of these guidelines may irk you. If you’re accustomed to being in the dominant group on racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious issues—white, male, straight, Christian—you might prefer to wipe the slate of history clean and tell everybody else to get over it. If you’re in a group that often feels vulnerable—black, Latino, Muslim, female, gay—you might feel threatened by, and resent, open criticism. Part of the reason to study Obama’s example is that with the colors reversed, you can get out of your skin, if only briefly, and see how it feels to be on the other side. And that, in turn, might make these conversations a little bit easier to have.