Friday, November 07, 2008

America the Beautiful

Except, I think, for Blacks, race was not a good reason to vote for Senator Obama and it certainly was not a good reason to vote against him. Candidates should be judged by their character and the policies they advocate, not by the color of their skin.

Yet, it is right to celebrate on account of his race the Obama victory, to rejoice that this country has traveled so greatly away from the admittedly ineradicable stain and shame of slavery and racism which is its offspring. Although history cannot be changed, the consequences of what flowed from the past can be altered and in the election of Senator Obama we have a forceful repudiation of the sins of the past. America has overcome.

As I write these lines, I think of the day in June 1954 when as a Beth Medrash student at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on the Lower East Side I rejoiced along with other students when the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. That was a transformative moment in the history of this country, a major step on the road that has now led to the election of a greatly gifted man who just happens to be Black. I rejoice because equality is a G-D-given gift, as well of course a constitutional requirement. I rejoice also because there is gladness in the heart and tears in the eyes of millions of Blacks who are witness to a reality that even not long ago seemed not to be blowing in the wind.

Racism and bigotry will remain facts of life, as will poverty and other social pathologies. People are morally frail and bad things happen. No election and no cluster of elections can alter human nature. But something noble has happened and whatever tomorrow brings, today is a time to marvel at the grandeur of this great country.

There is another reason to celebrate. Our politics have become nasty, with negative campaigning the preferred way to run for office. Senator McCain, a good man, unfortunately went down that road, redeeming himself somewhat with his gracious concession speech. Senator Obama chose a different script, taking the high road and elevating in the process our political discourse. In the process, as well, he seemed to grow in stature, which is remarkable after more than a year of exhausting campaigning. It seemed, at times, that he was transformed, that he came to the recognition that if elected, he would urgently want to be a unifier, a president who at least attempted to reach out to all Americans.

There is in him the prospect for greatness. He will be tested early and severely by multiple crises, economic and foreign. I sense in him a determination to be moderate, which may surprise those at either end of the political and ideological spectrum.

There will be times when Mr. Obama will disappoint some or many who voted for him and I suspect that, in a sense, he will disappoint himself by the choices that he makes. This is a large country with a crowded agenda of crucial issues and what seems to be an infinite number of interest groups. Like all presidents, he will be forced to go in directions that he prefers to avoid. In the pursuit of major goals, he may have to yield on matters of lesser importance.

For Jews, the Obama ascendency raised alarm bells regarding his attitude toward Israel. Although it appears that he did about as well among Jewish voters as recent Democratic presidential candidates, a number who voted for him did so with misgivings. Putting aside for this column the too frequent descent into bigotry and even lunacy that characterized certain anti-Obama Jewish pronouncements, such as the reprehensible ad last week in this newspaper that linked him to the Holocaust, there are legitimate reasons for concern.

Any new president is a question mark regarding Israel, for whatever he has said or voted for in the past is of little relevance to the challenges and pressures he will face in the White House. He will have information he did not have previously and diplomatic responsibilities that are new and difficult. Furthermore, in assessing Mr. Obama’s Middle East policy options, we should be mindful that for about a decade the shape of a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians has been on the table and what has prevented it from being entered into is the absence of a Palestinian partner. We may not like this reality, but our objections to the terms of any peace agreement cannot change the record. Of note, as well, just the other day Prime Minister Olmert put forth a list of Israeli concessions that are far-reaching and perhaps frightening.

We should keep in mind also that although President Bush is certainly a strong friend of Israel, during the past year his administration has put great pressure on Israel to make new concessions and Condoleeza Rice is now in the Middle East doing lame-duck arm twisting.

Iran is the focal point of Jewish unease about Obama. He has stated flat out that he is willing and even eager to negotiate with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which is a direct reversal of President Bush’s policy and contrary to Israeli wishes. It is not entirely clear why Libya and North Korea, countries that have been rabidly anti-American and which invested heavily in developing nuclear military capabilities, were deemed as suitable candidates for negotiations while Iran was not. The question is sharpened because diplomacy apparently brought about beneficial outcomes in U.S. relations with these countries. Just the same, it is necessary to be vigilant regarding the next administration’s approach to Iran, which is not to say that we American Jews should advocate military action.

For the moment, and I hope for a long time to come, there are reasons to celebrate what occurred on Tuesday.