Editor’s note: The following article was adapted from a chapter in Peter Beinart’s book “The Crisis of Zionism.” Read the full chapter here.
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To understand how Obama came to embody the Jewish liberalism that America’s leading Jewish organizations have abandoned, one must understand his relationship with a rabbi named Arnold Jacob Wolf. And to understand Arnold Jacob Wolf, one must understand his relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Heschel arrived in the United States in 1940, having spent most of his life in the cloistered embrace of Hasidic Poland. He walked off a boat in New York City and saw a black man shining a white man’s shoes. It was the first black man he had ever seen, and he identified with him fiercely, as a Jew.
Over the next three decades, Heschel — with his unruly hair and snow-white goatee — became America’s image of a Hebrew prophet. Again and again, he invoked God to challenge unjust human power. Heschel denounced McCarthyism, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and erupted in anger during a meeting with Robert McNamara at the height of the Vietnam War. Again and again, he chided Americans, and American Jews, for their smug indifference to the evil done in their name. “Above all,” he wrote, “the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
At Hebrew Union College, where he was studying to be a rabbi, Arnold Wolf served as Heschel’s private secretary, frequently accompanying him to the movies, which Heschel attended in hopes of losing his Yiddish accent. A Reform Jew and a fourth-generation American whose grandmother had seen Abraham Lincoln campaign, Wolf’s background was worlds away from that of his mentor. But he sponged Heschel’s prophetic example.
In 1957, Wolf established Temple Solel on Chicago’s North Shore and began causing trouble. He brought Martin Luther King Jr. to speak; he took congregants to Selma to march for voting rights; he picketed a Jewish hospital on behalf of striking black workers even though some of Temple Solel’s most prominent members served on the hospital’s board. He so passionately denounced the Vietnam War that in 1967 FBI agents infiltrated the synagogue and recorded one of his antiwar sermons.
Turning anguish into a crusade
Abraham Joshua Heschel died in 1972, just as American Jewish organizations were turning against the prophetic liberalism he embodied. In his declining years, he had grown increasingly anguished by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Arnold Wolf turned that anguish into a crusade. Like his mentor, Wolf was a committed Zionist: For twelve straight years, Temple Solel paid for its Hebrew school graduates to spend the summer in Israel; on the eve of the 1967 war, Wolf mortgaged the synagogue’s building and sent Israel the money.
Hyde Park was, in its way, a lot like the Harvard Law Review. It was intellectual (the neighborhood’s largest employer was the University of Chicago), it was racially integrated, it was heavily Jewish, and it was hegemonically liberal.
But by the 1970s, Wolf’s devotion to Israel was leading him toward a confrontation with its government. In 1973, he helped start Breira (“Alternative”), the first American Jewish group to endorse a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
The reaction from the organized American Jewish community was savage.
Benjamin Epstein, coauthor of “The New Anti-Semitism,” urged the ADL’s parent organization, B’nai B’rith, to fire employees who associated with Breira. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly denied Wolf — who had branched beyond Reform Judaism — a seat on its executive council. Members of Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League attacked Breira’s inaugural conference, trashing the hall and beating conferees.
What does all this have to do with Barack Obama? Actually, quite a bit. Far more than any previous president, Obama spent his adulthood in the company of Jews. His most important professional mentors were Jews; most of his big donors were Jews; many of his neighbors were Jews; his chief political consultant was a Jew. As Wolf himself would later say, Obama was “embedded in the Jewish world.”
But Obama was not embedded in the Jewish world; he was embedded in one specific Jewish world — a world of Jews who in the 1960s had opposed segregation and the Vietnam War and after 1967 applied the same liberal democratic principles when it came to Israel. Woven into the life stories of many of the Jews who most influenced the young Barack Obama was a bitter estrangement from the see-no-evil Zionism of the American Jewish establishment. In Chicago, those Jews constituted a geographic and moral community, a community that bred in Obama a specific, and subversive, vision of American Jewish identity and of the Jewish state. And at the heart of it all was Arnold Jacob Wolf.
In 1985, 24-year-old Barack Obama answered an ad in The New York Times. Three white community organizers, two of them Jewish, were looking for an African American colleague to give them credibility on Chicago’s largely black South Side, and Obama answered the call. Their leader was Jerry Kellman, who as a Jewish teenager in New Rochelle, New York, had petitioned the school board to stop teaching “Little Black Sambo” and had boycotted his high school graduation in protest against the Vietnam War.
While working with Kellman, Obama gravitated toward Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church, partly because of the church’s deep commitment to social justice, partly because it offered him the authentic African American experience he craved, and partly because it provided him a potential power base in black Chicago. But despite his yearning to be accepted in African American circles, and despite jeers from black nationalists, Obama always kept his community organizing work multiracial. As his biographer David Remnick has noted, he had come to Chicago not merely to find a black community, but to find a latter-day civil rights movement, and that movement, he believed, required whites, and especially Jews.
After community organizing, Obama attended Harvard Law School, where he became president of the law review. Accounts of Obama’s law school career sometimes describe Harvard as a place of bitter racial tensions, which Obama helped to soothe. But on law review, where Obama spent much of his final two years, there was also considerable ideological harmony. Some of Obama’s associates on law review were black, many were white, many of the whites were Jews, and with the exception of a few marginal conservatives, liberalism reigned across the color line. In his campaign for president of the law review, Obama’s main rival was David Goldberg, a Jewish New Yorker who, if anything, stood slightly to Obama’s left.
“On the law review,” remembers one of Obama’s colleagues, “the black-Jewish alliance was intact.” Blacks and Jewish liberals “saw the world in pretty much the same way.”
When Obama returned to Chicago after law school, he settled in Hyde Park, whose largest synagogue, KAM Isaiah Israel, was led by Arnold Jacob Wolf. Hyde Park was, in its way, a lot like the Harvard Law Review. It was intellectual (the neighborhood’s largest employer was the University of Chicago), it was racially integrated, it was heavily Jewish, and it was hegemonically liberal.
So as in his community organizing, and as on the Harvard Law Review, Obama found himself not merely in the company of Jews, but Jews who, like him, wished to reconstruct the civil rights coalition. When Obama ran for the Illinois state senate in 1996, Wolf was one of his earliest and most prominent supporters. By the time he ran for president twelve years later, Obama had moved across the street from KAM Isaiah Israel, and the synagogue took a proprietary interest in his campaign. “This is a congregation,” explained Darryl Crystal, who became the rabbi after Wolf retired, “where the question wasn’t, ‘Are you going to vote for Obama?’ The question was, ‘What state are you going to help canvass?’”
Stressing the similarities
How did all this shape Obama’s view of Israel? In his pre-presidential career, the answer is clear: Obama saw Israel in much the same way Wolf did. In 2000, he reportedly told a Palestinian American activist named Ali Abunimah that he supported American pressure to make Israel change its policies, a view with which most of his Jewish friends would have concurred.
During his run for the US Senate in 2004, in response to a questionnaire from the Chicago Jewish News, he criticized the barrier built to separate Israel and its major settlements from the rest of the West Bank, a remarkable statement given that that same year, after the International Court of Justice condemned the barrier, 361 members of the House backed a resolution supporting it. When his US Senate campaign — at the request of local Jewish activists — submitted a position paper on Israel, the activists deemed it too weak, and obtained a rewrite.
Obama’s description of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” is also telling. In the one paragraph Obama devotes to the conflict, his central theme is the similarity between Israelis and Palestinians. He describes talking “to Jews who’d lost parents in the Holocaust and brothers in suicide bombings” and hearing “Palestinians talk of the indignities of checkpoints and reminisce about the land they had lost.”
During his run for the US Senate in 2004, in response to a questionnaire from the Chicago Jewish News, Obama criticized the barrier built to separate Israel and its major settlements from the rest of the West Bank, a remarkable statement given that that same year, after the International Court of Justice condemned the barrier.
Flying by helicopter over Israel and the West Bank, he says he “found myself unable to distinguish Jewish towns from Arab towns, all of them like fragile outposts against the green and stony hills.” While such rhetoric is hardly radical, it subtly contradicts the view of major American Jewish leaders, who usually reject any equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian suffering. The American Jewish establishment generally stresses the moral dissimilarity between Israelis and Palestinians; Obama in “The Audacity of Hope” does the opposite.
Perhaps most revealing of all, as an insight into Obama’s view of Israel’s occupation, is the fact that he read, and vividly remembers, David Grossman’s 1988 book, “The Yellow Wind.” Grossman is not only one of Israel’s leading novelists, he is among its leading intellectual doves, and “The Yellow Wind” is his searing account of the occupation, as he witnessed it during seven weeks on assignment in the West Bank for an Israeli newsweekly. It is difficult to read “The Yellow Wind” without being profoundly disturbed by its portrait of Palestinian life under Israeli rule. That Obama read it, along with the novels of another famed Israeli dove, Amos Oz, lends further credence to Arnold Wolf’s claim that in his pre-presidential years, Obama “was on the line of Peace Now.”
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