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Friday, May 23, 2008

Obama, the Jews of Florida, and this Jew in Florida

Apropos the increased chatter that Hillary may serve as BHO's veep and my friend Jodi Kantor's piece in today's Times on Obama's quest to calm the rattled nerves of Florida's Jewish Democratic population, I thought I'd register the following conundrum of ambivalence, which I wonder if others share, regardless of their demographic.  Jodi, who was a 1L at HLS for a semester back in the day, and who had the same fellowship in Israel the year after me, finds anecdotal evidence to support the view that many of Florida's alter kockers are skittish about Obama's worldview (and in particular Israel's place in it), while the younger generation of Jewish Floridians is enthusiastically behind him.* 

Anyway, if these anecdotes dug up by Jodi are indicative of real trends, I guess I've hit middle age at 35 and thus live in some kind of liminal time-space warp here in Florida.  On the one hand, I'm relentlessly inspired by Obama (and many of his supporters) and the exuberant and potentially transformative times his presidency may augur, both in the US and abroad. On the other hand, I am more than a bit anxious about various things.  Put aside the character judgment non-issue with Pastor Wright, or whether he's got passion for a secure Israel in his kishkes and that this promises to be a Philip Roth-refracted presidency. Consider instead: is someone with his relatively thin experience in an executive position, his "softish" view of foreign affairs generally, and his failure to show unflinching leadership on embracing universal health care, gay marriage, and robust free trade, the right choice for the challenges ahead?

The Dems among you can put aside any fears of actual influence since I remain a disenfranchised Canadian here. Still, I harbor these reservations. And despite these reservations, I look at the other candidates: Clinton and McCain, to my mind, give me some kind of inchoate reason to prefer their patently more hawkish worldviews on foreign policy and national security, but they otherwise have their equal or deeper flaws.  Neither of them for example has embraced gay marriage qua gay marriage. Neither has real executive experience. (And to the extent Hillary wants credit for proximity to the glory of the Clinton years, she must take some of the blame associated with its foreign policy blunders too.) Meanwhile McCain looks like a simpleton on economics.  If these were the choices only a few years ago, Obama would be a truly easy choice. But as the Democratic primary season winds down now, in a time of peril upon peril, I anticipate wanting to give, against the euphoric tides, only two and a half cheers for Barack Obama as he ascends the podium in Denver in late August, and God willing, a different podium, in DC, in January.

*I leave aside for now the question of whether the article was "good for the Jews." Maybe Adam Levitin will chime in with his thoughts. In the meantime, Happy Lag Ba'Omer.

Posted by Administrators on May 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Mathematically I don't understand why America is so concerned with Jews.

There are close to two billion Muslims in the world, and their collective GDP is equivalent to the EU. Fighting just one tiny Muslim country has destroyed the American economy, and altered the political landscape so greatly that we are about to elect a black man to the oval office. A war against Islam is unwinnable.

There are maybe 10 million Jews in the world. Half have organized an apartheid state, in which they use the military to starve and effectively destroy millions of Palestinians.

So why do politicians have to be so worried about Jews? Why not be at least equally worried about Muslims?

Posted by: anon | May 26, 2008 12:12:13 PM

"I thought our focus was on bettering the world. Surely any Democratic policy–-foreign or domestic–-would be preferable in that regard."

Right. And people vote Republican because they want to make the world a worse place! Come on, give your ideological opponents some credit--not every Jew (including my whole family, come to think of it), thinks that the Dems are the route to secular salvation. (Ya think the farm bill they all voted for, and McCain is against, is going to make the world a better place?)

Posted by: DB | May 23, 2008 8:03:50 PM

I view the preceding comment by GSC as an entirely friendly, welcome and warranted amendment. I hereby incorporate it by reference!

Posted by: Dan Markel | May 23, 2008 6:56:27 PM

I think it’s misleading to portray concerns about Senator Obama among older Jews (e.g., some of my relatives in Florida) as rooted only in a single issue – which is support for Israel. For one thing, it’s very hard to question the sincerity of his support for Israel’s right to security – given his statements as a Senator, e.g., about Israel 2006 war with Hezbollah and its attempts to stop rocket attacks from Gaza. For another, as the post above notes, it’s only one out of many critical foreign policy and domestic issues that voters have to think about as they choose the next President. And I think many Jews (and other voters in Florida and elsewhere!) recognize that some of those other issues, e.g., energy independence and environmental policy, may be even more important to the America’s (and the world’s) relationship with the Middle East than the US’s specific positions how best to advance the Middle East peace process. They also realize that some of those other issues will make a critical difference in their grandchildrens’ lives.

The concerns, I think, aren’t specifically about the policy positions he’ll likely take toward Israel (which is likely to be at least as favorable as Bill Clinton’s was). They’re rather about whether he is hawkish enough to deal effectively with some of America’s enemies in 21st century, many of whom, like the current Iranian President, often mix their anti-Americanism with virulent anti-Semitism. In this regard, I think at least one of Senator McCain’s questions of Senator Obama deserves an answer: What would he say or do in tough negotiations with Iran, Venezuela, or other countries with anti-American leadership that would make them start behaving differently than they do now? And what kinds of military or economic pressure would he consider bringing to bear on such countries if and when such diplomacy fails (as it has been failing in the discussions we have been conducting with Iran by proxy through the Europeans)? Just promising that tough diplomacy can work with our enemies isn’t much more reassuring than promising a secret plan to win a war. So I think he’d do himself a lot of good, with these voters and many others, if he’d offer more specifics about how his diplomacy will better results than the diplomacy that’s occurred so far. He’d also do himself a favor (especially among Jewish voters) if he made it crystal clear that whatever diplomatic contacts occur with Iran will not involve a Presidential handshake with the world’s most famous Holocaust-denier.

Posted by: The Ghost of Scoop Jackson | May 23, 2008 4:46:39 PM

Jonathan, I can imagine that. Hence, 2.5 cheers for BHO!

Posted by: Dan Markel | May 23, 2008 2:22:09 PM

Imagine Barack going to Jerusalem and giving a speech on the Israel/Palestine struggle akin to his magnificent remarks on race in America? Imagine a President that might make achieving real peace there a first term priority instead of a last year melodrama!

Posted by: Jonathan Simon | May 23, 2008 1:45:25 PM

I don't know how many Prawfs readers are part of the demographic the article discusses, so as a 24 year old Jew born and raised in Palm Beach County I thought I'd share some thoughts on the issue.

It is unfortunate that older Jews in Florida are apparently skeptical of Obama. But it is not surprising, as they tend to take a hawkish view on American policy toward Israel. I remember a Hebrew school teacher (now decidedly middle-aged) telling us how she and others uncorked a bottle of champagne when Israel won the Six-Day War. My sense is that those who were contemporaneously aware of Israel's creation and its birth pangs have a stronger innate connection with Israel, which translates into it being a more central political issue for them. That those generations were temporally closer to the Holocaust and its survivors no doubt strengthens that connection (see Bart's comment on that above).

I read in U.S. News a few months back that American Jews in my age range feel a disconnect with Israel. One girl I knew was distraught that she did not feel a strong connection with our nation's homeland. Indeed, I have not yet been, despite Birthright Israel's offer of a free trip and my own desire to go. While we as a group understand Israel to be our "homeland," we are less likely to self-identify so completely with it.

Perhaps older Jews' views on Israeli foreign policy can be likened to Cuban-American's overriding focus on American policy toward Cuba. Law school has kept me from following politics as closely as I like, so I'm pretty sure that this observation is unoriginal. But I tend to think that the distinction, like so much in American politics, is based on irrationality. While a Democratic domestic policy would benefit a broader segment of our population, often times foreign policy takes the forefront, especially for those interested, discrete segments. American Jewry's more successful attempts at assimilation, however, might account for the difference between older and younger Floridian Jews.

In the end, the whole thing is hogwash. I am perpetually surprised that one issue, no matter how much of an interest we as Jews have in it, is so central a consideration for some in their decision-making process, even considering the issue independent of the misinformation about Obama. Indeed, I was surprised when even 25% of American Jews voted for Bush's re-election, ostensibly on the strength of his pro-Israel position. I thought our focus was on bettering the world. Surely any Democratic policy–-foreign or domestic–-would be preferable in that regard.

I'd like to think that Jewish voters in Florida would engage in the analysis Prof. Markel does, but that apparently isn't happening to the extent it should.

Posted by: Adam Richardson | May 23, 2008 11:43:49 AM

I think what will be good for Jewish-black relations and by extension good for the Jews, is the Obama campaign's plan to emphasize the Jewish vanguard role in the civil rights movement. The article was a bit of a shock for me, because old Jews to me = stories of activism, of marching in civil rights marches, with top honors going to actual marches with Martin Luther King, Jr.

I thought the anecdote of the Holocaust survivor's racial attitudes was particularly sad and touching.

Posted by: Bart | May 23, 2008 10:31:27 AM

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