Israel After Bush

Now that the love-fest is over and President Bush has “left the building,” so to speak, Israelis are left to ponder life after him. The conference on tomorrow organized by Shimon Peres afforded the Israeli government the chance to say thank you to the man who has been, in his gut, arguably the most sympathetically inclined towards Israel’s precarious security position of any American president in recent memory.

But George Bush is a lame duck, and like Americans, Israelis are contemplating what is to follow. To be sure, the average Israeli cares not a whit about American domestic policy, what kind of judges the next president is likely to appoint to the Supreme Court, or the future of Social Security. Israelis care only about how the next president will feel about their particular situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Hamas, and Hizbullah, and George Bush’s imminent departure from office has them feeling downright queasy.

Nowhere was this more apparent to me during my recent visit than when I spoke with people in what we might call here the “modern Orthodox” community- the religious Zionists most commonly identified by their kippah s’rugah (crocheted kippah).

Almost to a one, the religious Jews that I spoke to evidenced a visceral distrust of Barack Obama, bordering on hostility. At first I thought it had mostly to do with Senator Obama’s minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his bizarre take on Israel and the world. But after having many of these conversations (transplanted Americans were so anxious to talk about this!), it became much clearer to me what the source of their anxiety was. They were used to Bush and his certainty about things. Black is black, white is white, you know who the good guys are and who are the bad guys are, end of story.

Not so with Barack Obama, they said. And the truth is, they’re right. Barack Obama is, by all appearances, a much more cerebral and contemplative person than George W. Bush. He doesn’t see the world in absolutes, and is much more inclined to appreciate and embrace the complexity of an issue- any issue- than to whole-heartedly adopt one side to the exclusion of the other.

Here in the United States, there is mounting evidence that large numbers of Americans are yearning for just that kind of president. Many Americans are maxed out on post 9-11 anxiety, and regard the ongoing war on terror and its accompanying assault on civil liberties as a catastrophe for this country. Abu Ghraib, water boarding, checking library records, wiretapping… one has the sense that there is a collective readiness to breathe in different air, and work towards repairing America’s eroded position in the world as a beacon of freedom and liberty. They do not see a war on terror and the civil liberties that are the hallmark of this country as mutually exclusive.

For my friends and family in the religious community in Israel, this willingness to not only admit to the existence of gray areas but actually predicate policy on it is terribly threatening. What many Americans see as President Bush’s simplistic view of the world, they see as moral clarity. For them, of course, it is an existential issue. There’s little room for gray in the world as they see it, when katyushas are landing on your shopping centers, kassams on Sderot, and the president of Iran is declaring you to be a “rotting corpse.” But they also know that Americans have concerns other than Israel… and that is terribly unsettling to them.

I understand them, and I understand us. What makes it so complicated, of course, is that I- and so many like me- are both them and us. For me, what Abu Ghraib represents is the nadir of American foreign policy. I abhor the idea and reality of Americans torturing prisoners. But I abhor terrorists and terrorism too, and like every lover of Israel, I know that terrorism is real, and threatening.

There are miles to go before I make any kind of decision in all this.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.