First, they said that he was anti-Israel.
Then, some actually said that he was anti-Semitic.
Can we — pretty please — ease up on President Obama already?
I will freely admit it: In many ways, I have found Obama’s presidency to be a disappointment, especially in foreign policy. He was once considered a protege of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who believed in “Christian realism” in dealing with human evil. The president could use a refresher course in Niebuhr.
Also true — he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have not exactly been BFFs.
But, anti-Israel? Anti-Semitic?
Obama might not be the honorary “member of the tribe” that he proclaimed himself to be in a speech two weeks ago at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. But .
* Obama’s earliest political supporters were prominent Jews: Abner Mikva, the Crown family, Newton Minow — not to mention Rahm Emanuel.
* In Chicago, the Obamas lived across the street from KAM-Isaiah Israel, a historic Reform synagogue. He was close to its late rabbi, Arnold Jacob Wolf, and when Wolf died, Obama sent a eulogy to be read at the funeral — the only time a president has sent a eulogy to a rabbi’s funeral.
* Obama addressed the 2011 biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism. This was a first for a sitting president.
* He has held Passover seders in the White House — the first in American history.
* In his address at Adas Israel, he affirmed the linkage between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism.
But for Obama’s Jewish critics, none of these are quite enough.
Those Jewish influencers: the “wrong” kind of Jews — liberals, all of them.
The speech at Adas Israel: Some didn’t like it. They say that he “lectured” the Jews on Jewish values and had the audacity to use the term “tikkun olam” (the healing of the world, in Hebrew.) They might have given him credit for graciously using the moral language of his hosts.
The president’s high expectations of Israel: How dare he? (In fact, the vast majority of American Jews have similar hopes and aspirations.)
Some have said that Obama engaged in nostalgia for an earlier, “whiter,” idealistic, Ashkenazic version of Israel, of Golda Meir and Ben Gurion.
You mean most American Jews don’t automatically retreat to their old memories of “Exodus” and kibbutzniks doing the hora around the campfire? And, if we do, isn’t that equally problematic and unrealistic?
Let’s leave Barack Obama aside for a moment and take a stroll down the lanes of presidential “Jewish” history.
* George H.W. Bush. In September 1991, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbied in support of the proposed $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel, the elder Bush whined: “I’m one lonely little guy up against some powerful political forces made up of a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” Shades of Jewish conspiracy theories.
* Ronald Reagan sold AWACS to the Saudis, in defiance of Jewish requests. Thirty years ago, he visited the SS cemetery at Bitburg, Germany, for which Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel publicly castigated him: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
* Richard Nixon. History will probably record him as being a great friend of Israel. Of the Jews — not so much. He once counseled his daughters not to be involved in the arts because of the Jewish presence and influence there.
* Harry S. Truman. Yes, he was pivotal in creating the state of Israel. But, he wasn’t always such a philo-Semite. As I write in “Righteous Gentiles In the Hebrew Bible,” Truman’s business partner, Eddie Jacobson, had to browbeat the president into supporting the nascent Jewish state. Truman referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about pressure from Jews, saying that “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?”
(No, I haven’t forgotten Jimmy Carter, or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But you get the picture.)
Were these presidents anti-Semitic? To be sure, some of them used anti-Semitic language and themes. Others, like Reagan, simply engaged in realpolitik. He thought it prudent to engage the Saudis (which, while controversial, hardly made him a foe of Israel). Regarding Bitburg: He probably thought that his appearance there was good for German-American relations.
And yet, we try to judge these presidents fairly, through the lens of history.
Just as there are Jews on the left for whom Netanyahu will never do anything right, the same thing is true about Jews on the right regarding Obama.
Perhaps we can declare a fast on the politics of vituperation and vilification.
Some will accuse me of being “political.” If you define “political” as defending a sitting American president against gratuitous charges that he is anti-Israel or anti-Jewish — then, guilty as charged.
This is not about politics; it’s about politeness.
You don’t have to love, or even like, President Obama. But, at the very least, let’s be fair to him, and speak responsibly about his relationship with the Jewish community.
That’s called “hakarat hatov” — mentioning the good that people have done.
And, last time I looked, that was also a Jewish value.
(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the editor of “Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens.” )
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