Why Obama is good for Israel


BOSTON (JTA) – The 2008 primary election already is shaping up to be one of the most interesting, and unpredictable, in years.

Never before have both parties lacked a clear frontrunner with, as of this writing, at least three Republicans and two Democrats all having a plausible shot at their parties’ nominations. Moreover, in an unusual reversal from recent experience, most Democrats express satisfaction with all of their leading candidates – perhaps eight years of “Anything But Bush” has lowered their standards – while most Republicans are dissatisfied with theirs.

But where is the “Jewish vote?”

In the Democratic Party, which is my focus here and which usually attracts three times as many Jewish votes as the Republicans, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) seems like the safer bet. Both candidates support roughly the same center-liberal social policies that resonate with many American Jews, but when it comes to Israel, Clinton benefits from her husband’s track record, which, while controversial at the time, is now generally regarded positively by American Jews.

Of course, during her time as First Lady, Clinton herself rankled segments of the Jewish community, most notably when she met with Suha Arafat and seemed to call for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. But today, she seems to hold an edge.

I want to suggest, however, that an Obama presidency would be of enormous benefit to a 21st century Israel, not because Clinton is dangerous in some way, but because Obama could reverse eight years of deepening hatred of America.

The guiding principles of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy have been unilateralism and exceptionalism. With contempt for international institutions such as the United Nations, and with a neo-conservative policy of remaking the world in capitalism’s “democratic” image, the Bush administration has managed to alienate traditional U.S. allies and further enrage America’s enemies.

By invading Iraq on the thinnest of pretexts, by ignoring international efforts on climate change and human rights, and by its demonstrably cavalier attitude toward cooperation, the Bush administration managed to move world opinion from one of intense sympathy with America after 9/11 to almost worldwide hatred of all that we stand for.

Traveled in Europe lately? People shake their heads when they find out you’re American.

For some conservatives, none of this matters much. They’ll hate us anyway, the reasoning goes, and we weaken ourselves by trying to make them like us. What matters is strength and solidity of purpose.

Of course, many American Jews and Israelis make the same argument about Arab nations and the Palestinians: Carry a big stick, and talk however you want. Whether for vaguely racist reasons – “Arabs only understand violence” – or for strategic-political ones, many Jews have argued that only a policy of strength and resolve will succeed. And so they have applauded Bush’s support of the Israeli government, which generally has followed such a policy.

Yet even if this policy of fear-us-don’t-love-us makes sense for Israel itself, it is dangerous for Israel when it is applied to America.

Israel long has been regarded as an American proxy state, not only on college campuses and in French coffeehouses but throughout Europe and Asia. But now it is seen as the proxy state of imperialism. Israel is widely regarded as the baby brother of a violent, selfish bully, oppressing the Palestinians and pointing to its mean elder sibling if anyone dares to complain. This may not be how Israel actually has behaved, but it is how it is perceived.

Enter President Obama. Yes, it matters that he is black, that his first his name is Barack and that some people keep mispronouncing his last name as Osama. Internationally, it matters for the good.

But beyond these superficial aspects, Obama is a different kind of politician: eloquent, sincere, talented and visionary. He is an internationalist, educated abroad as well as here. Yes, Clinton, too, likely would be an internationalist, but Obama is the real deal: He has lived overseas, and his multi-ethnic background is a truthful representative of the minority-white America that soon will come to pass.

Even more than a female president, Obama meaningfully could shift the way America is perceived in the world, both through his simple appearance and his more significant substance. No more America versus the world; Obama represents an America that is connected to the rest of the world.

All this would be of great benefit of Israel. Obviously, Israel still will be demonized, hated and misrepresented throughout the Arab world and beyond. We should not be naive. But the less stark the opposition between America/Israel and the Muslim world is perceived to be, the better for all of us who want to find some way to coexist – not love each other, not embrace one another, but share a small strip of land and reduce the appeal of extremists.

This is why the outrageous “Obama is a Muslim” e-mails, circulating widely in the Jewish world and duly condemned by all responsible Jewish leaders, are as wrongheaded as they are inaccurate: It’s precisely Obama’s international, multicultural background that makes him such a promising leader for Israel’s greatest ally.

Of course, we ought not elect our president based on what we think will please our enemies. But, lest we forget, the president of the United States used to be called the “leader of the free world.” That title has been a joke for the last eight years, but it’s a phrase worth remembering.

This isn’t about pandering to those who hate us; it’s about leadership, and rebuilding badly frayed relationships. Israel needs an American ally who inspires not intimidation – Bush – or even mere respect – Clinton – but a sense of commonality around the globe.

Just imagine yourself waking up in Tel Aviv on Jan. 20, 2009. If you don’t think the world changes when President Barack Obama takes office, and if you don’t see how important that could be for a malaise-ridden Israel, you’re obviously still asleep.

Jay Michaelson is a visiting assistant professor of law at Boston University Law School and the founding editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought & Culture.

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