Obama, Trump and the dangers of a ‘Jewish’ president
The great success story of American Jewry has created a phenomenon perhaps unprecedented since the Khazar king, Bulan, converted to Judaism around the ninth century. Beginning with Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, American presidents seem to so totally identify with aspects of Jewishness that their Jewish supporters regard them, only half ironically, as honorary Jews.
That is precisely how Obama described himself in a 2015 speech to the Washington DC congregation, Adas Israel – “an honorary member of the tribe, not to mention somebody who’s hosted seven White House seders and been advised by two Jewish chiefs of staff.” Obama reminded his appreciative audience that a member of their congregation, Jeffrey Goldberg, had once called him “the first Jewish president” – an epithet, he said, that “flattered” him.
And now we have a new contender for the title. A recent op-ed on the Fox News website predicted that Donald Trump would so vigorously defend Jewish interests that he may well become “the first Jewish president.” And while Obama can boast of two Jewish chiefs of staff, two of Trump’s closest political advisors are observant Jews who also happen to be his daughter and son-in-law.
Trump’s Jewish opponents would of course be appalled by the notion that a man who for them embodies the antithesis of Jewish values could be regarded as an honorary member of the tribe. No less, Obama’s Jewish opponents have been galled by the honorary Jewishness bestowed on a man they regard as the greatest threat to Israel’s well-being to ever sit in the White House.
And so here is the catch in this crowning American Jewish moment: Both Obama and Trump deeply identify with only one part of the Jewish community. And it is precisely that profound identification with “his” Jews that leads each man to resent those Jews in the opposing camp for betraying authentic Jewish values and interests. For the outgoing president and the president-elect, the Jewish people is divided between “good Jews” and “bad Jews.”
In his speech at Adas Israel, Obama defined social justice as the core value of Judaism. Even more than laying claim to a shared set of values with Jewish liberals, Obama was in effect claiming the right to define Jewish values. Being pro-Palestinian, along with being pro-Israel, he insisted, was the most authentic expression of Judaism. For right-wing Jews, of course, other Jewish values – the historic Jewish claim to the land of Israel, the security needs of the Jewish state – supersede Palestinian claims. Taking Obama’s worldview to its inevitable conclusion, those Jews aren’t just wrong politically but “un-Jewish” – betrayers of Judaism.
My point here is not to determine whether right-wing or left-wing Jews more faithfully represent Jewish values, but note that an American president saw fit to intervene in an internal Jewish argument and define “authentic” Jewishness.
The tradition of White House seders begun by President Obama will no doubt continue under President Trump, part of whose inner family, after all, is Jewish. But the substance of Trump’s White House seder will surely be different from Obama’s. Where the Obama seder stressed a universal message – guests greeted Elijah by reciting the Emancipation Proclamation – Trump’s seder will likely express a more traditionalist sensibility. In today’s America, then, one measure of how the worldviews of its leaders diverge is in their opposing understanding of Judaism. Trump and Obama reflect the divide between Jewish particularists and universalists – those whose primary Jewish commitment is protecting their people and those whose primary Jewish commitment is engaging in social action. Unlike many American politicians, Obama knows exactly how to pronounce “tikkun olam.” One wonders whether Trump knows the term.
The intense identification of Obama and Trump with opposing Jewish camps is a dangerous blessing. Affection for the “good Jews” can readily turn into contempt for the “bad Jews,” who betray the particular aspect of Jewishness each man has embraced.
That dynamic helps explain the depth of Obama’s antipathy toward Prime Minister Netanyahu. Yes, there is a history of mutual grievance between the two leaders, and both share responsibility for the mistrust between them. Still, Obama’s antipathy is extraordinary: He may well loathe Netanyahu more than any other world leader — all the more extraordinary given the competition. That contempt is clearly personal. In refusing to end the occupation of the Palestinians, Netanyahu is betraying tikkun olam, the President’s most cherished notion of Judaism, mocking the ethos of those White House seders. Obama, honorary member of the tribe, detests Netanyahu with the resentment of a liberal Jew.
A similar pattern was evident in Kerry’s recent speech on settlements and the peace process. Like Obama’s hatred of Netanyahu, Kerry’s obsession with settlements is extraordinary. Surely from both a strategic and moral perspective, there are more urgent issues in the region to confront.
Columnist Thomas Friedman tried to provide an answer to Obama and Kerry’s shared obsession: “I have covered this issue my entire adult life and have never met two U.S. leaders more committed to Israel as a Jewish democracy.” And true friends of Israel, Friedman concluded, need to warn it of potentially disastrous mistakes.
Still, that hardly explains the almost quivering tone in Kerry’s voice. On no other issue has he spoken with such passion and outrage, as though he had a personal stake in Israel’s future. Kerry seemed almost embarrassed by Israel’s perceived misbehavior, as only an insider can be by the actions of one’s own community. Just like Friedman himself.
In the end, of course, neither Kerry nor Obama has a personal stake in the future of a Jewish and democratic Israel. Jews are permitted, perhaps obliged, to obsess about Israel’s soul. But when outsiders adopt that obsession the result can be deeply destructive. An honorary member of the tribe, frustrated by the tribe’s failure to fulfill his highest expectations, may even, in a fit of pique, facilitate a UN resolution that transforms the Western Wall into occupied territory.
The phenomenon of disappointed love turning into its opposite may also explain the relationship of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, toward his version of “bad Jews.” A key piece of evidence cited to prove Bannon’s alleged antipathy to Jews was an article he published while editor of the right-wing web magazine, Breitbart, attacking Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, for opposing Trump’s candidacy. The article was titled, “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”
In fact that article was written by a Jew, David Horowitz, editor of another right-wing web magazine, Frontpage. In publishing Horowitz’s article with that headline, Bannon was no doubt affirming his identification with a good Jew like Horowitz against a bad Jew like Kristol, who spurned the pro-Israel Trump. Bannon’s contempt for Bill Kristol as a “betrayer” of Israel is the equivalent of Obama’s contempt for Netanyahu as a “betrayer” of tikkun olam.
How should American Jews navigate this seductive era of selective philo-Semitism?
First, by resisting the impulse to demonize each other. Denouncing J Street members as “worse than kapos” – in the words of David Friedman, Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel – not only debases memory and discourse but opens the way to outsiders adopting our internal language of contempt for their own purposes. One can readily imagine the new President invoking that kind of language toward his Jewish opponents. Trump’s election ad targeting financiers, all of whom happened to be Jewish, may have been innocent of anti-Semitic malice, as his campaign insisted, but it was also a warning. In the era of good Jews/bad Jews, we need to be especially wary of becoming unwitting enablers of outsiders’ attacks on fellow Jews.
The demonization of Jewish opponents is hardly confined to the right. During the debate over the Iran deal, J Street, like Obama, referred to opponents – in particular, AIPAC – as “warmongers.” The term has an ugly American pedigree: In the 1930s, isolationists like Charles Lindbergh accused American Jews of agitating for war against Nazi Germany, and during the two wars in Iraq, Pat Buchanan, along with Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, made similar accusations against neo-conservative Jews.
The danger that the venomous nature of internal Jewish argument will be adopted by outsiders and ultimately turned against all Jews has a precedent. Early Christian polemics were an internal argument among Jews about the nature of Jesus. But when Jesus’ gentile followers adopted the language of contempt of his Jewish followers toward fellow Jews who rejected his messianic role, that became the basis for two thousand years of Jew-hatred.
In their selective philo-semitism, Obama and Kerry, along with Trump and Bannon, all share an antipathy toward “treasonous” Jews, whose treason is made all the more despicable by their Jewishness.
Consider the example of one public figure who clearly is an anti-Semite: alt-right leader Richard Spencer. Yet even Spencer, who recently led his followers in a “heil” chant, has learned to adapt to the era of good Jew/bad Jew. Spencer doesn’t hate all Jews, he insists, only “your average eastern seaboard liberal Jew, who takes his marching orders from the New York Times.” One can, of course, hear similar critiques in many Orthodox synagogues on a Shabbat morning. But that easy contempt for fellow Jews becomes pathological when adopted by an admirer of David Duke.
For American Jews, all the guidelines that once helped define their community have eroded. The generation of American Jews after the Holocaust was united around two commitments: support for Israel and opposition to anti-Semitism. American Jews have long since lost their ability to unite around Israel. And now, with this election, they have lost their final common ground – the ability to agree on anti-Semitic threat.
For many Jews, the primary threat comes from the far left, which seeks to isolate and demonize Israel. For other Jews, though, the threat comes from the far right, revitalized and legitimized by Trump’s rise. There is ample hypocrisy on both left and right. Who could have imagined that left-wing Jews, who ridiculed Prime Minister Netanyahu for comparing the threat of a nuclear Iran to the 1930s, would invoke the ’30s in response to an American election, however traumatic? And who could have imagined that right-wing Jews, who constantly warn their fellow Jews against passivity in the face of threat, would dismiss the seriousness of anti-Semitic expressions only because those emerge from their political camp?
American Jews need to resist the temptation of totally identifying their preferred president with Jewish interests and values. Revering any American president as an honorary member of the tribe risks debasing Jewish identity and communal discourse. Like Obama, Trump will pursue his own agenda – sometimes overlapping with a Jewish agenda, and sometimes fatefully clashing.
Obama’s legacy is a decimated Middle East, along with the unleashing of an imperial Iran that remains on the nuclear threshold. As for Trump, he has already created a legacy – a vulgarized politics, a society poisoned against itself. Candidate Trump declared war against precisely those pluralistic values that have allowed American Jewry to become the most successful Diaspora in Jewish history.
Neither man is worthy of Jewish adulation. In the era of “Jewish” presidents, American Jews need to avoid the dangers of a treacherous philo-Semitism and maintain the integrity of their communal discourse.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.