Chapter 5: The Jewish President
If Stephen Wise were transported to the oval office to witness a meeting between the leaders of the American Jewish establishment and the president of the United States, he would find only one person whose view of Jewish identity, and of the Jewish state, approximated his own. He would find only one person who espoused the liberal Zionism that he championed in his own time. And it would be the black man with the Muslim name: Barack Hussein Obama.
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.
A short, round, bearded man whom one observer compared to a troll, Wolf was a most unusual rabbi: In 1969, after Judge Julius Hoffman gagged and shackled Black Panther Bobby Seale to prevent outbursts in his Chicago courtroom, Wolf stationed a gagged and shackled man outside the synagogue during services, which led some members of Temple Solel to quit. In the spring of 1970, one enraged congregant denounced Wolf in the synagogue newsletter, to which Wolf retorted, “One should not believe all one reads” in the synagogue newsletter. With his biting, confrontational style, Wolf stood at the vanguard of the liberal activism that helped shape organized American Jewish life. As one former synagogue member explained, “The core teaching of the Torah for him had to do with justice and one sometimes had to speak about that in ways that people didn’t care to hear.”
Wolf also challenged the narrative of perpetual victimhood that underpinned American Jewish institutional life. In 1979, in an essay entitled “Overemphasizing the Holocaust,” he lamented that in “Jewish school or synagogue . . . one does not now learn about God or the Midrash or Zionism nearly as carefully as one learns about the Holocaust.”
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. 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.
For Wolf, it was the beginning of a feud with the American Jewish establishment that would last to the end of his days. Breira, after all, was not merely challenging Israeli policy; it was challenging organized American Jewry. Echoing Brandeis and Wise a half- century earlier, the group demanded that “Jewish organizations and communal structures must be democratic and egalitarian.” Wolf also challenged the narrative of perpetual victimhood that underpinned American Jewish institutional life. In 1979, in an essay entitled “Overemphasizing the Holocaust,” he lamented that in “Jewish school or synagogue . . . one does not now learn about God or the Midrash or Zionism nearly as carefully as one learns about the Holocaust.” Worse, he continued, American Jewish leaders were using “the Shoah as the model for Jewish destiny” with the result that “‘Never again’ means nothing more or less than ‘Jews first — and the devil take the hindmost.’” In 1993, he objected to building a Holocaust museum on Washington’s National Mall. Given that it was Native Americans who had experienced genocide on US soil, Wolf argued, a Native American museum would better capture the true purpose of Holocaust memory, which was “not to give us Jews special rights or special roles, but to make us sensitive to the outrages that marred all of Western history and to the tasks of human rescue and succor that still remain.” Wolf loathed the way Jewish communal leaders used the Holocaust to perpetuate the idea that Israel would always be besieged by anti-Semites, thus fostering “a Zionism that sees all mankind as enemies.” For him, Zionism was not an alibi for what ever Jews did with power; it was a test of whether Jews could wield power in keeping with Judaism’s ethical commands. “I love Israel as the Prophets did,” Wolf explained, which meant “demanding that Israel be the Covenant people.”
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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, twenty-four-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. It had not always been that way. In the 1950s, crime and decay so menaced the neighborhood that university administrators considered moving the campus to the suburbs. But the university stayed, and with the help of Mayor Richard J. Daley, built Hyde Park into a class cocoon, an oasis for black and white professionals alike. “Everyone got along . . . everyone listened to NPR,” remembers Dayo Olopade, a child of Nigerian doctors who grew up in the neighborhood while Obama lived there. Olopade went to summer camp at the local Jewish Community Center, where she remembers making the blessing over challah bread on Fridays. Obama’s own daughters attended preschool at Hyde Park’s Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School.
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.
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?’ ”
The Jews of Hyde Park, in Wolf’s words, were “interfaith, left, liberal, integrationist.” In fact, Wolf had come to KAM Isaiah Israel after a stint as the rabbi at Yale University precisely because he wanted to lead a progressive Jewish community in an integrated neighborhood. And the synagogue’s progressivism enabled an extraordinary degree of interracial and interreligious harmony. It’s not just that as a state senator Obama spoke at KAM Isaiah Israel. Or that a small black congregation holds weekly services there. Or that the Catholic Theological Union uses the synagogue for its graduation ceremonies. Or even that Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian historian who befriended Obama, spoke at KAM Isaiah many times. Even more revealing, as a window into the ethos of Hyde Park, is that Khalidi regularly came to KAM Isaiah Israel to attend the bar and bat mitzvahs of his children’s friends.
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If Arnold Wolf stood at the geographic center of Obama’s Jewish world, he stood near the center in other ways as well. One of Obama’s key mentors at Harvard Law School was Martha Minow, whom Obama would later call the “teacher who changed my life.” Minow was a native Chicagoan, and her family had been members of Temple Solel, where Wolf introduced her to the writings of Heschel, and where, she recalls, she “grew up not understanding there was a difference between religion and politics.” The two reconnected when Wolf worked at Yale, where Minow was attending law school. When Minow got married, Wolf performed the ceremony.
In 1989, near the end of Obama’s first year at Harvard Law School, Minow called her father, Newton Minow, a partner at the Chicago firm of Sidley and Austin, and urged him to give Obama a job. Obama spent only a summer at Sidley, but he met his wife there, and Newt Minow became a key mentor, a bridge to many in the city’s legal and business elite. As personalities, Minow and his longtime rabbi, Arnold Wolf, were acres apart. Wolf was incendiary; Minow was formal and discreet, the kind of man to whom the rich entrust their affairs. But ideologically, the two had much in common. In the 1950s and 1960s, Minow had been an establishment liberal, a protégé of Adlai Stevenson who chaired the Federal Communications Commission under John F. Kennedy. But in the early 1980s, a few years after Wolf formed Breira, Minow began his own break with the major American Jewish organizations over Israel. During the Lebanon war, which he opposed, Minow told a meeting of the American Jewish Committee that while American Jews should donate to Israel, they should also “tell Israel our opinions about world affairs. Where did we get this idea we needed to keep our mouths shut?” The crowd, he recalled, “almost threw me out.” Minow never attended another AJC event.
Over time, as the American Jewish establishment shifted right, Minow grew even more alienated. In 2003 he appeared at a press conference organized by Americans for Peace Now and later joined the advisory council of J Street. He repeatedly took to the local papers to criticize the Israeli government for expanding settlements and to criticize the “American Jewish leadership for failing to distinguish between supporting the State of Israel and supporting whoever happens to be in the current, transitory government of Israel.” No wonder he had felt so comfortable at Temple Solel.
One of Minow’s closest friends was Judge Abner Mikva, who was born four days after him in their mutual hometown of Milwaukee. When Obama graduated from law school, Mikva offered him a clerkship. Obama turned it down, but Mikva became another important mentor. While Minow introduced Obama to the city’s legal and business world, Mikva, a former state representative and member of Congress, tutored him on Chicago politics. Mikva was also a former congregant of Wolf’s, in his case at KAM Isaiah Israel. And just as Wolf had influenced Minow’s daughter Martha, he also profoundly influenced Mikva’s daughter, Rachel. From 1990 to 1994, in fact, Rachel Mikva served as KAM Isaiah Israel’s associate rabbi and director of religious education.
Not surprisingly, Rachel Mikva, who currently serves in J Street’s rabbinic cabinet, shared Wolf’s views on Israel. So did her father. Like Minow and Wolf, Abner Mikva was exhilarated by Israel’s victory in 1967 but disquieted by its occupation, a disquiet that alienated him from the major institutions of American Jewry. In 1969, he visited Israel for the first time. “It was a very moving experience,” he remembered, “but as excited as I was, and the people were after their victory, we went to an Arab town and you could see that the Jews weren’t treating them very well.” In 1977, Mikva traveled to Israel again as part of a congressional delegation that met newly elected prime minister Menachem Begin, and came away disturbed by Israel’s rightward drift. He is no more enamored of Israel’s current Likud prime minister, about whom he quipped, “Netanyahu speaks excellent English and that’s the only positive thing I can say about him.” In 2010, Mikva and a number of other prominent, left-leaning American Jews issued a public statement declaring, “We abhor the continuing occupation that has persisted for far too long; it cannot and should not be sustained.” Abraham Foxman denounced the statement as “sophistry.”
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In 1992, Obama took his first step toward electoral politics by directing the Illinois chapter of Project Vote, a nationwide effort to register poor and African American voters. There he grew close to yet another politically connected Chicago Jew who was profoundly alienated from the American Jewish leadership over Israel: Bettylu Saltzman. Saltzman’s father, Philip Klutznick, had been a legendary figure in organized Jewish circles. A wealthy real estate developer, he began in the 1950s to devote his time to Jewish communal work, at various times heading B’nai B’rith, the United Jewish Appeal, and the World Jewish Congress, as well as helping to found the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. In 1957, Israeli finance minister Levi Eshkol tasked him with building Ashdod, a new city on Israel’s southern coast.
Saltzman also introduced Obama to the man who would become his closest political adviser, David Axelrod. For Axelrod, who considered Robert Kennedy’s assassination one of the defining events of his youth, reassembling the civil rights alliance was an obsession.
But like his longtime lawyer, Newt Minow; his mentor in Jewish communal affairs, Nahum Goldmann; and his friend, Arnold Wolf, Klutznick began to break with the Israeli government in the 1970s. Upon returning from a trip to Israel following the Yom Kippur War, he warned that Israel’s occupation was unsustainable because “any government of military occupation is an imposed government whose decisions — even the most nobly intended — always arouse suspicion and provoke opposition and revolt.” By the late 1970s, his views on Israel were straining relations with other American Jewish leaders. And many of those relations ruptured completely in 1982 when Klutznick, Goldmann, and the former French premier Pierre Mendes-France publicly called on Menachem Begin to halt Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and negotiate with Yasser Arafat’s PLO. “That was the end of my dad in the Jewish community,” remembers Saltzman. “They lambasted him.” That fall, when Klutznick delivered a speech at the Jewish Community Center in Omaha, Nebraska, where he had attended law school, local Jewish groups organized a boycott. At the Chicago Federation, the local Jewish community’s fund- raising arm, word went out that Klutznick was never to be honored, nor even publicly mentioned. In 1984, when AIPAC led a campaign to oust Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had helped shepherd the Reagan administration’s sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, Klutznick, then nearing eighty, wrote a letter in Percy’s defense. The man who had spent most of his adult life as the quintessential communal insider was, by its end, a near pariah in the organized Jewish world.
All this made a deep impression on Klutznick’s eldest daughter, Bettylu, who still seethes with hostility toward the mainstream Jewish groups that assailed her father. The “AJC used to be a nice organization,” she says of the American Jewish Committee, until it began focusing so much on Israel. As for the Presidents’ Conference, her father would “blow up the organization today. What it’s turned out to be would make him sick at heart.” When the head of the Chicago Federation asked her to serve on the board, she refused because “I didn’t like what they did [on Israel].” Instead, she became vice president of the New Israel Fund, which helps American Jews fund human rights and other progressive Israeli groups. Like Minow, she has worked with Americans for Peace Now and sits on the advisory council of J Street.
Saltzman met Obama when she was working on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and he was registering voters. Like Minow and Mikva, she became a conduit to the wealthy North Shore Jews who helped fund his state senate, House, and US Senate campaigns. In 2002, it was Saltzman and Marilyn Katz, another veteran progressive activist who currently serves on J Street’s advisory council, who organized the rally against the Iraq War where Obama proclaimed his opposition to an American invasion.
Saltzman also introduced Obama to the man who would become his closest political adviser, David Axelrod. For Axelrod, who considered Robert Kennedy’s assassination one of the defining events of his youth, reassembling the civil rights alliance was an obsession. As a political consultant, he specialized in helping African American candidates win white votes. Like many of Obama’s early Jewish supporters, Axelrod put the “progressive social justice tradition” at the core of his Jewish identity, and in his view, “Obama was very much a part of that and was very much a product of it.” That tradition also informed Axelrod’s relationship to Israel; every year from 1991 to 2002, he and his wife donated to the New Israel Fund. In 1994, Axelrod went on an AIPAC- sponsored trip to Israel. He remembers someone in the group asking three Israeli leaders the same question: “What would you tell the settlers if there is a peace deal?” Labor Party stalwart Shimon Peres answered: “I would tell them they can live in the West Bank.” Benjamin Netanyahu, then a rising star in Likud, replied: “I wouldn’t tell them to leave.” Finally, the questioner asked Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “I’d tell them,” Rabin replied wearily, “peace has a cost; too many children have died.” It’s clear which answer impressed Axelrod the most.
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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 Minow, Mikva, Saltzman, Axelrod, and 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.” 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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Jews were not the only influence on Obama’s views of Israel. Unusually for an American politician, he spent a great deal of his early life in the presence of Muslims. Not only did Obama live in Indonesia from ages six to ten, but at both Occidental College and Columbia University, he developed close friendships with students from Pakistan, a country he visited in 1981. Obama also took a keen interest in colonialism. He attended a class at Columbia taught by the famed Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, and in his autobiography, he wrote at length about the impact of British rule in Kenya, his father’s native land. In Hyde Park, Obama grew friendly with Rashid Khalidi and other Palestinian intellectuals. And, of course, he spent two decades as a parishioner in the church of Jeremiah Wright, a man bitterly hostile to the Jewish state.
Despite Obama’s interactions with people who saw Israel as a colonial venture, however, there is no evidence that he ever echoed those views. He did sometimes criticize Israeli and American Jewish leaders. But far from questioning Zionism itself, Obama generally criticized those leaders for not living up to the liberal aspects of Jewish and Zionist tradition that he admired, the aspects embodied by Israelis like David Grossman and American Jews like Arnold Wolf. In a May 2008 interview with the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama mentioned his “great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz.” He later added, “What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they’re asking themselves moral questions. . . . My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought.” While presented as a compliment, Obama’s comments were subtly subversive since neither the Israeli government nor its supporters in the American Jewish leadership were noted for “anguishing over moral questions.”
After the talk, a woman asked Obama to sign his autograph for her two sons. While he wrote, she began sounding out their names: “Meyer, M-E-Y-E-R,” she spelled, and “Heschel, H- . . .” Obama interrupted her. “Like Abraham?” he asked.
In another bit of damning praise, Obama told a Cleveland crowd in February 2008 that “one of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States.” Two months later, in Philadelphia, he repeated the point, declaring, “One of the things I loved about visiting Israel was to see Israelis argue among themselves. There is just a healthy debate that takes place that sometimes is not as open . . . in the United States.” With those statements, Obama challenged one of the core contentions of the American Jewish establishment: that the American debate over Israel should be more constrained than the debate inside Israel, since it is up to Israelis — not Americans — to determine their government’s policies. Obama, by contrast, not only insisted that Americans have the right to openly debate Israel’s actions, but allied himself with one side in that debate, the side more concerned with “social justice” and more prone to “moral anguish.” In Cleveland, he remarked, “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti- Israel,” implicitly revealing his view of Benjamin Netanyahu’s party.
After the talk, a woman asked Obama to sign his autograph for her two sons. While he wrote, she began sounding out their names: “Meyer, M-E-Y-E-R,” she spelled, and “Heschel, H- . . .”
Obama interrupted her. “Like Abraham?” he asked.
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Over the course of his presidential campaign, Obama accumulated a broader array of Chicago Jewish supporters, including some, like billionaire businessman Lester Crown, lawyer Alan Solow (who would later become chairman of the Presidents’ Conference), and venture capitalist Lee Rosenberg (who would later assume the presidency of AIPAC), with more establishment views on Israel. But unlike many national politicians, whose first sustained experience with Jews comes via groups like AIPAC, Obama befriended supporters like Crown only after having developed an inner circle of Jewish advisers like Minow, Mikva, Saltzman, and Axelrod, whose views on Israel leaned left. And that meant that he was repeatedly reminded, in a way most American politicians are not, that when it comes to Israel, many American Jews disagree with their communal leaders. In the summer of 2008, for instance, Crown organized a meeting between Obama and roughly a dozen of his prominent Chicago Jewish supporters, most of them people with establishment views. The supporters took turns detailing the Iranian nuclear threat and insisting that the Israeli government be spared U.S. pressure. But when it came Newt Minow’s turn to speak, he declared, “These guys don’t speak for me; they don’t speak for most American Jews. They think they do — I’m not questioning their sincerity — but no one elected them. Most American Jews support Israel but think it should get the hell out of the settlements.” Abner Mikva, who also attended the meeting, told Obama he agreed.
Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign and the American Jewish establishment viewed each other with suspicion. In the spring of 2008, Obama attended a Passover Seder organized by some of his Jewish campaign staff. He was no stranger to the custom, having attended Seders for the previous nine years. But this Seder, like those he had attended with Mikva and other Jewish friends in Chicago, stressed broad themes of persecution and liberation. It reflected, in other words, the universalism that the American Jewish leadership has turned against. The event, which Obama continued once in office, featured many black as well as Jewish staff . At the 2011 White House Seder, Obama read the Emancipation Proclamation. No Jewish communal leaders were ever invited to attend.
The universalism of the Obama Seder annoyed some in the Jewish organizational world. (“You’ve got ten people, seven of whom are not Jewish,” quipped one staffer at a major Jewish group. “That’s not a Seder. That’s dinner with matzah ball soup.”) But the distrust ran much deeper. In January 2008, the Jewish newspaper The Forward published excerpts of an internal American Jewish Committee memo, later disavowed, which warned that Obama “appears to believe the Israelis bear the burden of taking the risky steps for peace.” Malcolm Hoenlein declared that there is “a legitimate concern over the zeitgeist around the campaign” and later hired a campaign adviser of Sarah Palin’s to run a group created by the Presidents’ Conference to oppose a nuclear Iran. In private, a congressional staffer and an Obama campaign adviser each heard Hoenlein call Obama “anti- Israel.” Hoenlein denies ever having made such a statement and emphasizes that if he considered Obama to be “anti- Israel,” he would have said so in his many public speeches.
In public, AIPAC remained neutral during both Obama’s primary battle with Hillary Clinton and his general election campaign against John McCain. People close to the organization stress that internally, staff are warned to avoid even the appearance of partisan favoritism. And in their personal capacities, prominent AIPAC lay leaders supported each of the major candidates. Still, some Washington Democrats believed that AIPAC was subtly sending anti- Obama messages. At one point during the presidential primaries, a half dozen or so large AIPAC donors expressed anxiety about Obama to top congressional Democrats in what struck one congressional aide as a coordinated campaign. In the race between Clinton and Obama, notes the aide, “Every Jewish member [of Congress] knew where AIPAC was.” Nor did the suspicion end when Clinton left the race. At a rooftop reception during the Democratic National Convention in August, one party official accused AIPAC staffers of disseminating anti- Obama material.
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Among actual Jewish voters, Obama held his own in the Democratic primaries, losing the Jewish vote to Hillary Clinton in states with older and more Orthodox Jewish populations like New Jersey, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, but winning it in states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California, where the Jewish population skewed younger and less observant. But by the spring of 2008 it was clear that while Obama might wax dovish when speaking without a script, his campaign was determined to reassure American Jewish leaders that his views on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict differed little from those of his opponents. After Obama told an Iowa crowd that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” a campaign spokesman explained that what he really meant was that “the Palestinian people are suffering from the Hamas- led government’s refusal to renounce terrorism.” In his first address to AIPAC, in May 2007, Obama had ventured that Israel would have to take “heavy and tough” steps in the search for peace. But by June 2008, when he addressed the organization again, this time as the presumptive Democratic nominee, he was so eager to dispel any peacenik reputation, that he vowed never to permit the re-division of Jerusalem, a statement so baldly hostile to a two-state solution that the campaign had to retract it the following day. In July, the Obama campaign hired a former AIPAC staffer to lead its Jewish fund-raising effort.
That same month, Obama journeyed to Israel as part of an eight country tour designed to burnish his foreign policy credentials. Hours before he arrived, a Palestinian man in Jerusalem slammed his truck into several cars and a bus, injuring twenty- four people. The Israel Defense Forces retaliated by ordering the man’s home bulldozed (a decision that was later reversed). The advisers traveling with Obama drafted a statement that took no issue with Israel’s response. Obama told them he disagreed, saying he doubted that bulldozing houses deterred terrorism and that the man’s relatives were being punished for a crime in which they played no part. But then he added, “I’m not going to say that” in public.
As Obama’s public statements on Israel grew more conventional, so did the ideological character of his Middle East advisers. A key reason is that those advisers were judged not merely on their policy acumen, but on their ability to assuage the organized Jewish community’s fears.
As Obama’s public statements on Israel grew more conventional, so did the ideological character of his Middle East advisers. A key reason is that those advisers were judged not merely on their policy acumen, but on their ability to assuage the organized Jewish community’s fears.
Advisers who aggravated those fears were dealt with ruthlessly. In February 2008, a right- leaning website called American Thinker attacked Obama foreign policy adviser Samantha Power for her past criticisms of Israeli behavior. In response, the Obama campaign noted that she was not an adviser on the Middle East. After the website assailed former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski for, among other offenses, advocating that the United States talk to Hamas, the Obama campaign volunteered that Obama had not spoken to him in months. Harshest was the treatment of Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer who had infuriated Jewish leaders by meeting with representatives of Hamas and claiming that Israel bore part of the blame for the failure of the Camp David peace talks. Not only did a campaign aide promise that Malley would not receive a job in an Obama administration, but the campaign distributed an article by Martin Peretz, the hawkish editor in chief of The New Republic, which praised Obama while calling Malley “a rabid hater of Israel.” Malley discovered what the campaign had done when the mass e-mail arrived in his inbox.
But even advisers who were not publicly rebuked paid a price for crossing the Jewish establishment. The Obama campaign’s first fulltime adviser on Israeli and Palestinian affairs was a young former congressional aide named Daniel Shapiro. From the beginning, Shapiro’s duties were described as both Middle East policy and Jewish outreach, and he performed the latter in part by avoiding controversial statements on the former, despite what associates call personally dovish views. More troubled was the experience of Daniel Kurtzer, who joined the campaign near the end of 2007. A former ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Kurtzer was more senior than Shapiro. But despite being a Hebrew-speaking Orthodox Jew, Kurtzer had alienated American Jewish leaders by too openly confronting the Israeli government about settlement growth during his ambassadorship and by later suggesting that the Clinton administration had worried too much about the domestic constraints faced by Israeli leaders and not enough about the domestic pressures on their Palestinian counterparts. In April 2008, American Thinker warned that Kurtzer’s record “may displease many supporters of the American-Israel relationship.” And while the campaign never repudiated Kurtzer, the attacks limited his utility as an emissary to the organized American Jewish world. “They hid Dan Kurtzer during the campaign,” noted one Washington observer. “They didn’t send him to [Jewish events] in Florida; they didn’t even send him to New Jersey, where he lived.”
As it turned out, Kurtzer’s predicament shaped Middle East policy not only during the Obama campaign, but during the Obama administration. Given his stature, and the fact that he had endorsed Obama when other senior Middle East policy experts were either staying neutral or supporting Hillary Clinton, Kurtzer might have become the dominant Obama adviser on Israeli and Palestinian affairs. But his inability to reassure an anxious American Jewish leadership left a void, which in the summer of 2008, Dennis Ross began to fill.
Kurtzer and Ross had once been friendly. They had worked together on Middle East policy in the Reagan administration, and when Ross became the State Department’s director of policy planning under George H. W. Bush, he helped Kurtzer gain an appointment as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. The break came in the Clinton years, when Ross became the administration’s dominant Middle East adviser, in part through his relationship with Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s powerful chief of staff, Tom Donilon. Bureaucratically, Ross marginalized Kurtzer, who eventually left Washington to become ambassador to Egypt and then Israel. The two men fell out ideologically as well, with Kurtzer disapproving of what he considered Ross’s excessive deference to the Israeli government. For that very reason, Abraham Foxman later praised Ross as a “melitz yosher” — an ancient Hebrew term for advocate — “as far as Israel is concerned.”
Even many of Ross’s critics conceded that he came by his views honestly. He sincerely believed that reassuring Israel, rather than pressuring it, would usually prove more successful in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. But his views also proved politically convenient. After leaving the Clinton administration, Ross took a senior position at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded as an off shoot of AIPAC. He also published a 2004 memoir that placed less blame on Israeli leaders for the failure of the Camp David talks than did his colleagues on the Clinton Middle East team. In tandem, these moves transformed Ross into a favorite of the American Jewish establishment, a transformation that further alienated Kurtzer. In 2008, Kurtzer coauthored a book on the peace process peppered with blind hostile quotes about Ross, the gist of which was that Ross was not “an honest broker” because he “tilted too much towards the Israelis.”
After Hillary Clinton exited the race, Ross moved aggressively to join the Obama team. His involvement worried some Obama loyalists, who appreciated Ross’s value as a campaigner but warned against rewarding him with an administration job given the discrepancy between his views and Obama’s. Ironically, however, it was precisely that discrepancy that made Ross so useful as an emissary to the organized Jewish community. “Dennis Ross was the biggest tool in the toolkit that the campaign used to push back the sense that Obama was going to be soft,” explains one executive at a Jewish organization. Among the elderly, and often hawkish, Jews of Florida, the only Obama surrogates whose appeal exceeded Ross’s were a group of Jewish doctors from Sloan-Kettering who promoted Obama’s position on stem cell research. By contrast, Kurtzer, who had publicly expressed views that more closely reflected Obama’s own, was, for that very reason, of limited political value.
In large measure, Obama’s inoculation strategy worked. As the fall progressed, American Jewish groups muted their criticism, partly because Obama looked increasingly likely to win, but also because Obama had muted his own criticisms of Israeli policy and the American Jewish establishment. His campaign had succeeded: on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it had made him safe. With their friend on the verge of the presidency, many of Obama’s longtime Jewish backers were euphoric. But there was a discordant note. In October, the Chicago Jewish News asked Rabbi Arnold Wolf to reflect upon what Obama’s election would mean for Jews and Israel. Wolf, now eighty-four years old, and only two months from death, was oddly somber. “He’s going to go very cautiously and not do anything that shakes up the Jewish community,” Wolf said about his famous neighbor. “I’m not sure I agree with that, but that’s what’s going to happen.”