Yes We Can… We Hope

The election is over, and President-elect Obama has won his race in a landslide. Clearly, American voters, across all lines, were sending a message that the last eight years were essentially a train wreck, and that they saw in Senator Obama the promise of a better future for themselves and for our country. On the former, I think they’re right. On the latter, I hope they’re right; I hope I was right- I hope we’re right- because I voted for him as well.

Voting for someone- anyone- to lead our country at a time of crisis like this requires a leap of faith. No mortal man or woman will be able to solve the myriad problems that we face at home and abroad by sheer force of will. Those problems are too deep-rooted and systemic. It will require enormous strength and resolve, and wisdom, and time, and the cooperation of other forces that, as often as not, might well be out of our control.

But the other thing that the new president will require is the capacity to make us believe that our recovery is possible, and that we are capable of doing what it takes to get there. In that regard, Barack Obama has already proven himself to be a leader of almost mythical proportions. He has not painted a sugarcoated version of what ails us, but he has also, through the power of his ideas, allowed us to believe in ourselves and in a better future. I firmly believe that, in no small measure, that is why he won by such a remarkable margin.

And yet…

A congregant told me the other day of a cousin in the devoutly Orthodox community who had been told by his rabbi that, if Barack Obama were to win the presidential election, this would usher in the biblical “end of days.” And he wasn’t kidding or speaking metaphorically.

My sister, who has lived in Israel for the past thirty years, writes that her right-wing-leaning friends there are “shivering” with fear of what it now to come in the America-Israel relationship.

As late as Monday, I was receiving chain e-mails from friends- good, rational people- implying that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and trotting out all of the other urban legends that have been used to cast fear and doubt in the minds of Jewish voters.

What’s wrong with us? Why are so many of us in the Jewish community incapable of believing that President-elect Obama can be a good, if not great, and effective leader?

The answer to this question obviously roots in our deep and abiding concern for Israel, and a lingering perception that some of the President-elect’s friends and attitudes are not in lock step with Israel’s best interests- as they see them. The long-term membership in Jeremiah Wright’s church, the friendship with certain Palestinian figures… these concern us, as they should.

But there is a line between legitimate concerns on the one hand, and the kind of paranoid fantasies that see in Obama the end of days, or the need to circulate irrational and untrue accusations whose only goal is to scare Jews. We Jews are historically and existentially conditioned to believe the worst about anyone and anything. It is, I think, one of the most underappreciated and under-acknowledged long-term after-effects of the Shoah. Just tell us something to worry about, and we’ll worry, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Getting a Jew to worry that someone’s out to harm him is not a hard thing to do. We will tend to believe the worst, because we have known it.

I have no doubt that President-elect Obama has a much broader range of friends and acquaintances than President Bush. He is a more complex person, a thinker. He struggles with issues, and tends to see them in all of their complexities. He doesn’t shy away from alternate narratives, but rather sees them as a part of the greater whole.

Most of the world’s epic conflicts- including the experience of African-Americans in this country, and the Arab-Israeli conflict- have multiple narratives. I, for one, have always believed that there will never- can never-be any real reconciliation between the two sides unless they are both willing and able to empathize with the other’s narrative. To be sure, regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, I am a devout believer in our own narrative. I am a Zionist, a passionate Zionist. But I also recognize that there are those who see that conflict through other eyes. Having a president who understands this is not the beginning of the end of days for Israel, not by a long shot. It is the beginning of a new and different day, but not of the end of days. It might even be better for Israel.

It does not, in either the short or long term, serve the best interests of the Jewish community or of Israel to label as a threat anyone who doesn’t buy into our own sometimes myopic view of Israel’s best interests. And when that person is the newly elected President of the United States, someone who was elected by an historic margin, it is an even more ill advised tactic.

These are difficult times for America for reasons that are far greater than our own parochial concerns. America has spoken, and has rendered a clear and unambiguous message. The message is, yes we can. I, for one, hope we can. And I think we just might be able to.

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