Middle East studies in the News
Our Concerns Can't Be Wished Away [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
by Michael M. Rosen
Exactly 30 years ago, Isaac Bashevis Singer told The New York Times that "doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters." The Jewish tradition, of course, embraces skepticism, and this year the Jewish community is experiencing widespread, justifiable doubt about Barack Obama.
Obama's candidacy unquestionably has its allure for American Jews, as it does for all Americans. The Illinois senator is a bright, ambitious, eloquent and charismatic figure who has energized the disaffected, and his generally liberal views have attracted the majority of Jewish Americans who, rightly or wrongly, equate a Democratic social welfare state with the concept of tikkun olam.
But Obama's history, his choice of advisers and his ties to virulently anti-Israel groups have prompted serious concerns that are contributing to an unprecedentedly high level of support for his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain - as much as 40% according to some polls.
These ties are by now well-known to Post readers, and earlier this week Daniel Pipes offered new details about Obama's alleged connections to the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Nation of Islam that add salience to persistent concerns about his past relationships with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rashid Khalidi and Ali Abunimah.
These individual ties indicate a general trend: at the beginning of his political career, Obama immersed himself in a fetid pool of leftist activism inimical to the Jewish state. What remains questionable is whether Obama has completely shed these influences.
Furthermore, understanding the potential impact of an Obama presidency on Israel requires deeper consideration paid to those who have effusively praised him and previewed his Middle East policies. Hamas enthusiastically endorsed Obama earlier this year, as did Louis Farrakhan. Columnist Michael Freund adds Muammar Gaddafi and the Iranian parliamentary speaker to the list. And Jesse Jackson reportedly mused that an Obama White House would display less solicitude to the Jewish state.
IN THESE pages, Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, recently did his level best to quell some of these doubts, but in an article riddled with inconsistencies and non-sequiturs.
Berman contends that McCain will perpetuate "more-of-the-same" policies initiated by President George W. Bush. Putting aside the fact that Bush has been a stalwart supporter of Israel even during perilous times such as the 2006 Lebanon War, Berman ignores the fact that while McCain agrees with many of Bush's core principles, including an unswerving dedication to Israel's security, he has frequently defied the administration's way of acting on those principles.
On one hand, Berman assails the strategy of encouraging our European allies to engage diplomatically with the Islamic Republic - a gambit that has manifestly failed. On the other, Berman contends that Obama will somehow eliminate Iran's weapons by "regaining the respect of the international community." Clearly, our attempts at multilateral diplomatic engagement haven't gotten the job done, so how will more of the same succeed? Perhaps Berman believes that a direct conversation between Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to produce results?
Finally, Berman asserts that only Obama "thinks through his positions before he acts," and that Obama will form "an executive team that can perform at the highest level." Can he really mean that men such as Bush and McCain simply act without thought? Banalities aside, does he truly believe that other presidents prefer advisers who perform at low levels?
The pertinent question is who will populate that executive team - responsible (if misguided) foreign policy hands like Dennis Ross, or problematic and even overtly hostile voices like Samantha Power, Robert Malley or Merrill McPeak. Again, this larger question pervades any honest assessment of Obama; he will fill about 3,000 vacancies in the executive branch, and at least a few bad apples will surely find their way in.
BUT WHILE Berman's reasoning is unsound, much like a recent case made here by Stuart Eizenstat, at least it's respectful. The same, sadly, cannot be said for other Jewish Obama supporters, for whom no calumny or tactic is beyond the pale.
Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, led a scurrilous attack on Gov. Sarah Palin, relying on discredited reports to suggest that she supported Patrick Buchanan, banned books, supported creationism, and seeks to convert Jews. Wexler's claims, all of which have been meticulously refuted, unfairly tarnished Palin's image in the Jewish community.
More recently, former congressman Mel Levine, one of Obama's Jewish outreach specialists, abruptly withdrew from several Southern California community debates and urged the hosts to bar the Republican Jewish Coalition from participating. The RJC, which has respectfully but unapologetically challenged Obama's positions on Israel, had previously conducted numerous debates with Jewish Democrats, including Levine himself. To their credit, the (nonpartisan) hosts of these forums, some of which I am participating in, refused to bow to the Obama campaign's pressure.
Ultimately, a candid discussion of the candidates' respective merits is precisely what is warranted by our democracy and the Jewish tradition. The concerns that have been raised about Obama cannot simply be wished away or suppressed by a refusal to acknowledge them. Many of my own Jewish friends who still have not yet made up their minds deserve the information needed to reach an educated decision.
No matter how the Jewish community ends up voting, we would do well to keep Singer's admonition in mind, and approach our polling places with our skepticism firmly in hand.
The writer is an attorney in San Diego and the local chapter leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
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