Friday, May 23, 2008

Obama the Zionist

In the wake of my rather radical post on the ability of non-Jews to defend the Zionist project, I suppose I should note this article in the Jerusalem Post, by a former Bush-supporting Jew who has come out for Obama, in part because of this interview in the Atlantic.
SENATOR OBAMA's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic represents some of the most reassuring words I have heard from the Democratic front-runner regarding his Middle East policy, and especially his support for Israel. Rather than only seeing Israel as a "strategic ally" or as the "only democracy in the Middle East" - the standard clichés of support - Senator Obama identifies with the "Zionist idea" and believes that a secure Jewish state is "fundamentally just."

Now, that is refreshing. When was the last time we had heard the word "Zionist" being used in a positive way and described as "fundamentally just" by a non-Jew? Senator Obama evoked the Zionist idea because he does not think of Israel only as a geopolitical ally, and does not base his support on a cost-benefit analysis of the "special relationship." Rather, his support for Israel is anchored in a true understanding of the need for the Jewish people to have a homeland where Jews "can take care of themselves no matter what happens," where we can feel rooted, where our culture can be preserved, and where the Jewish values of social justice can flourish. He especially identified with Zionism's quest "to start over and to repair the breaches of the past."

Obama's connection to Israel is much more personal and, therefore, much stronger, genuine and uncompromising than your traditional candidates. It is not a support based on interests, politics, or a quid pro quo with the Jewish state. It is a support based on identity, on a genuine understanding of the needs of a people to have self-determination, and a conviction that regardless of day-to-day policies, the idea of a Jewish state is fundamentally just.

This is much more reassuring than a candidate that repeats the traditional catch phrases of "strategic ally" and "only democracy in the Middle East." These phrases always make me feel like I constantly have to "make the case" for Israel because, if I cannot prove Israel's "worthiness" to the US, then support will diminish. On the other hand, Obama's rationale for supporting Israel is much simpler. He respects, understands and identifies with the desire of the Jewish people to be a fulfilled and independent nation in their own homeland. In his eyes, Israel and the Zionist idea are important and fundamentally just in their own right.

So basically, much the argument I alleged non-Jews likely would not make in public discourse about Zionism. Obama's interview is, in fact, fantastic -- it hits every base I could have asked for. He called Zionism "just". He related it to anti-Semitism -- not just as something in the past, but as something Jews need to worry about today. And he seemed to truly "get" why the Zionist idea has such a hold on Jews -- not just intellectually, but in his gut and soul.

So, to an extent, I was wrong (admittedly, Obama is still the exception it seems). But what motivates Obama to be different?

One explanation (the optimistic one) is that Obama's experience as a Black man (and thus, as someone who has experience with marginalization) makes him more likely to "get" the reasons why Jews support Israel, rather than lazily adopt the majoritarian framing of the issue that does not take account of Jewish subordination. I wrote that last post in a rather radical mood -- normally, I'm much more optimistic about the ability of empathic approximating experiences to be a route towards coalition-building amongst oppressed people. Obama's superior grasp of why Jews are Zionist may be a function of that. Certainly, his relation of his own experience as someone "uprooted" to the Jewish history of exile indicates this might be the case.

Another explanation, more cynical, is that Obama was pressed into making this statement in order to shore up nervous Jewish voters -- a bloc that remains quite important to the Democratic coalition. Because he was "under suspicion", in part because of his association with Jeremiah Wright, in part because of broader concerns (mostly, but not entirely, off-base) about the degree to which the Black community supports Israel, he had to come back with more than the standard pro-Zionist fare in order to assuage Jewish fears. Remarking on Zionism's fundamental justness was a way to allay those concerns -- particularly since so much of the anti-Zionist argument we hear nowadays is centered around how morally atrocious and inherently unjust Zionism is.

In any event, what I gather from the interview is that Obama is likely to be the most pro-Israel -- in the best sense of the word -- President in a long time. Because his support is rooted in what makes Jews Zionist, it take seriously the conflict on the terms that matter to Jews. What some of our putative friends do not understand is that keeping Israel looked in perpetual, apocalyptic conflict (either with its neighbors or the Palestinians) is not in Israel's interests. It's a concept they don't get because their people aren't the ones who end up in the body bags from it. Nor is it consistent with the progressive Zionist ideal to maintain the occupation forever and prevent Palestinians from achieving their own self-determination. Obama's support for Israel means getting it out of the ultimately untenable position it is now, in a manner that maintains its security, respects its dignity, and affirms its legitimate and just place in the world community as a Jewish state.

There's nothing more I could ask for.

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