Little Rock, Ark. — Bill Clinton was affectionately introduced as so pro-Israel that he was effectively “the country’s first Jewish president” on Saturday night. In town to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Jewish Federation of Arkansas., Clinton was awarded the group’s Tikkun
Olam Lifetime Achievement Award.
In September, New York Magazine ran a contrarian cover story characterizing President Obama, who has been criticized as insufficiently pro-Israel by some, as “The First Jewish President.”
The headline quote for that story came from Abner Mikva, who said during the president’s ’08 campaign, “When this all is over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” The author of the piece, John Heilemann, argued that while it hadn’t quite worked out that way, there was more truth to that assessment than one might think.
There was no mention at the Jewish Federation of Arkansas event of any intention to strip Obama of that distinction, never conferred in earnest in the first place.
Since his days as governor, Clinton has had a close relationship with the state’s Jewish community.
But “since I’ve seen you, I acquired a Jewish son-in-law,” he said as the crowd laughed. He really feels part of the Jewish community, he said, since Chelsea Clinton's 2010 marriage to Marc Mezvinsky.. He even celebrates the Jewish holidays, he said.
Among the 500 who attended were Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and one-time presidential candidate and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Wesley Clark. Clinton also posed for photos with teenagers who weren’t born when he took the oath of office.
“I have a zillion friends here,” he told the crowd in his keynote speech.
Clinton said he wanted to talk about the current situation in the Middle East, but felt he should hold back:
“You can say whatever you want [as a former president], unless your wife happens to be Secretary of State.”
He did, however, recommend two books for the crowd to read.
He also suggested The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart, which will be published next month. Clinton said he’d written a blurb in which he called it, “a deeply important book for anyone who cares about Israel.”
Many in the crowd dutifully jotted down the names.
He told a story about how he used to walk alone in the Jewish cemetery in Hot Springs, Ark., where he grew up.
And he said he prays that in “twenty, thirty or forty years” the entire Middle East region will be strong and Israelis will have “genuine partners of peace” in the region.
After his speech, Clinton had planned to exit quickly and hop a plane to New York. But he was having such a good time he nixed that idea at the last minute and stayed for the rest of the awards ceremony.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker