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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Is Obama Good for the Jews?

As Official Guest Jew (and understudy for the PrawfsBlawg Hofjude), let me take Dan's bait and opine on whether Obama is good for the Jews.  Comments will be closed for this post for obvious reasons. 

                The split American Floridian Jews on Obama reflects a larger generational divide among American Jews over where Israel falls within their political thought. For older American Jews (and I’m not sure where the cut-off lies), Israel is a leading question in American national electoral politics. For many younger American Jews, Israel is simply not that important. There’s a lot that could be said on why this generational difference exists. It is hard to discuss this in anything other than generalities, so I want to make clear that there are plenty of exceptions, e.g., religious Jews and the surprisingly large demographic of Israeli-Americans.

                Overall, I think the divide relates to American Jews’ changing sense of security and belonging in America and how Israel is refracted through that shifting lens. I say this as a positive statement of how things are, rather than as a judgment on them.  The more comfortable American Jews feel in America, the more uncomfortable they are, if not with Israeli policies, than with Israel’s international image. Younger American Jews have no experience of antisemitism. They don’t know Henry Ford and Father Coughlin or deed restrictions or university quotas or neo-Nazis marching on Skokie or the antisemitism of the militant left.  At most they’ve seen some snippets of black antisemitism from Farrakhan and Leonard Jeffries and co. and heard rumors that the Porcellian, Bones, and Ivy will only take a few token deracinated Yidlekh. Maybe they remember James Baker saying “Fuck the Jews." But these aren’t attacks experienced first hand. Instead, they are experienced through the media.

                To see the change, consider this: fifty years ago white shoe law firms would scarcely look at Jews for associates, much less partners (maybe for real estate departments), and they wouldn’t touch “Jewish” practices like bankruptcy. Now the managing partner of Cravath, the whitest of the white shoes, is a Jew. That’s all a good thing, but it makes Israel and Zionism much less salient concerns for many younger American Jews—their identity is not being defined for them by their Jewishness, so they are not as concerned about Jewish pride symbols or the necessity of a Jewish state in which they could ultimately take refuge.  This is why the older, established Jewish community is desperate to increase young American Jews' engagement with Israel--witness programs like Project Birthright, which tries to foster a connection by sending young American Jews on a short guided vacation of Israel.

So what does all of this mean about Barack Obama? Or put another way, is Obama good for the Jews? 

                It is a pretty pointless question to ask, if Israel policy is the metric of "good for the Jews," meaning good for the Jews qua Jews.  American Middle East policy will remain fundamentally the same regardless of who is in the White house (I am hardly alone in claiming this--I believe either/both Marty Peretz and Leon Wieselthier, lehavdil, argued this fairly recently in the New Republic, but couldn't find a link). A two-state solution and a negotiated land-for-peace deal are core American policies that transcend administrations. There might be some variation in style and on the margins, but the essential position is fixed. (For that matter, changes in Israeli administration are not particularly meaningful on the Arab-Israel question. Whether Labor, Kadima, or Likud is leading the government, Israeli policy still operates within the same parameters.)

Voting for any of [Obama, McCain, Clinton] on the basis of Israel policy makes little sense to me, as I don’t think there is any fundamental difference in their policies—the differences among them are not about the sort of details that get worked out by the President, but by career State Department officials.  At most there are stylistic differences not substantive ones. To my mind the differences among them are akin to those between the Clinton and Obama healthcare plans--details that get worked out in Congressional conference committee. 

                Of course, this is, arguably the very problem with US Middle East policy—an unceasing commitment from successive administrations to trying the same old unsuccessful methods in the hope that they will somehow produce different results. The treaties between Egypt and Jordan and Israel are seen as the models, rather than as each reflecting sui generis conditions. 

                Still, as someone who teaches secured credit, I know quite well that style (or form) can be substance.  But the truth is no amount of American coaxing, wheedling, cajoling, or bullying will matter unless both Israel and its Arab neighbors are really looking to work out a deal.  Other than at the very margins, the US cannot change the sides' willingness to pay/accept and their evaluation of the alternatives to a deal. If they do not both want to cut a deal, then the signals sent out by the US administration are meaningless other than as an excuse or a club with which to blame the other side.

              Unfortunately, most American Jews do not hold such an apathetic view of US Middle East policy. Some are apathetic about the issue in general, but for those who care, every little variation is treated as if it were of fundamental significance. The forest gets lost for the trees. I don’t think there is anything that can be done about this.  There are reasons to be concerned about how all of the candidates would perform overall as president and, perhaps more importantly, who they would appoint to handle the details.  But none of this is really about good/bad for the Jews qua Jews.  It's about larger questions about the direction of American society.  The issues up for debate in this election simply don't include Israel.

              In a world where everything is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews, it is hard to admit that some things don't really matter a lot for the Jews.  It would make all the tsedreyte alte kakers in Boca feel too unimportant.   

Posted by Adam Levitin on May 24, 2008 at 01:00 AM | Permalink

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