Friday, October 16, 2009

Being Noble About Nobel

While the Nobel Prize to Barack Obama was off the charts as a surprise and probably not a favor to the President, the reaction of our ever-agitated right wing was perfectly predictable. From the moment that he took office he has been mocked and demonized by the far right, led by Rupert Murdoch’s troupe of Foxtrotters and the irrepressible Rush Limbaugh who demonstrates the truth that there are vulgarities that are far worse than four letter words.

Politics is not a gentlemanly activity and all presidents, from George Washington on, have suffered scurrilous attacks. As a rule, there is a first-year honeymoon until the rats come out of their holes. Not for Mr. Obama who has been viciously targeted by the far right from before day one. I do not mean criticism by conservatives, whether of domestic or foreign policies. That’s fair, even necessary, in democracies. The anti-Obama rhetoric includes more than a touch of racism, combined with ample servings of hate, rage and distortion. This is dangerous stuff.

It is disheartening that many Orthodox Jews have joined the right-wing chorus, how many cannot utter the President’s name without virtually spitting out the words. Too many have joined the hate brigade, going beyond the social and ideological commitments that may be rooted in their religious beliefs. There is unbridled contempt for a man who in his brief tenure has advocated moderation on issue after issue.

Judaism is not about politics, not about Democratic or Republican or any party, nor about being conservative or liberal. On some public issues conservatism may seem more faithful to our teachings, while on other issues liberalism may seem more faithful. Strong adherence to ideology is adherence to a false god that enslaves the intellect and emotions. Those of us who embrace the right wing seem to neglect the horrific experience of European Jewry just two generations ago. For that matter, they are oblivious to the agenda of right wing groups in America that includes anti-Semitism as a centerpiece.

We Jews have much to worry and be nervous about, past and present. Severe persecution has mutated us into a people who can see the worst in nearly all that is on the political horizon and it has infused us with a touch of paranoia. This is understandable and, for now, it is also inevitable. Just the same, we need to retain the capacity to be fair and, hopefully, clear-minded.

Our greatest worry these days is about Iran and there are plenty of reasons for Jews to be hyper-anxious. This is no license for unfairness. No one could ever doubt the commitment of George W. Bush to Israel. It remains, however, that in the course of his eight years, the Iranian threat to Israel grew enormously, without any effective countervailing policies. Mr. Bush did not authorize U.S. military action against Iran and he forbade Israel from taking any action. He was unable to mobilize other countries to punish Iran.

This record should be contrasted with Mr. Obama’s brief tenure. There are good reasons to believe that as happened in Lebanon, the new president had an enormous salutary impact on the Iranian election which was stolen by Ahmadinejad. There is a new determination among the major powers to enforce sanctions against Iran. Iranian authorities have yielded to pressure to allow inspection of its nuclear development program and although it remains to be seen how reliable this is, surely the move represents progress. In short, Iran is more isolated than it was a year ago and the key figure in all of this is Barack Obama. Yet, there is much Jewish talk critical of his handling of Iran.

There are grounds to challenge the President’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, notably his apparently abandoned attitude toward what he and his administration wrongly refer to as settlements. In his desire- it is understandable but I think na├»ve and doomed to failure- to send a new message to the Muslim world, he has sent the collateral message that Israeli interests can be ignored. In all politics, perception is a major part of the equation.

In recent weeks, there has been a change in attitude and course. A key Jewish leader who was close to the Bush White House tells me that he is greatly pleased by the messages now being sent by Washington. It is obvious that American officials, doubtlessly acting with the full approval of the President, have taken critical steps to scuttle the notorious Goldstone Report. This may be short-lived in view of Islamic pressure, yet the administration’s intent is clear.

To speculate a bit, a beneficial by-product of the Nobel award to Mr. Obama is the possibility that Richard Goldstone was one of the runner-ups. Unfortunately, there is next year and this may afford another opportunity.

In the months and years ahead, the American-Israeli relationship will be frequently tested, at times severely, repeating the pattern for every U.S. administration since the establishment of the Jewish state, with the possible exception of the first, Harry Truman’s. There will be times when we will have good reason not to be happy. We must always remember, as I have tried to underscore over the years, that the president of this country inevitably sees things through a frame of reference that varies to one extent or another from how Israelis and most American Jews look at the same issues. He is the president of the United States, not the prime minister of Israel.

I hope that it is not too much to hope that when we express disagreement with American policy, we can do so without embracing the nastiness and worse of the hate-mongers.