Musings —03.23.2013 08:41 PM—
Watching Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel was revealing – but probably more for what it said about his hosts than it said about him.
The U.S. president’s two-day journey to the Holy Land looked forced. Obama was finally spending a couple days with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he detests. Netanyahu, meanwhile, was obliged to appear chummy with Obama – after he had made unprecedented interventions in the U.S. election campaign, and all but openly endorsed the Republican’s Mitt Romney.
The state visit had the feel of a strained family get-together, one that neither side particularly wanted, but which both sides felt compelled to do.
Being all about symbolism, then, Obama’s trek was rich in optics. There were the obligatory dark mutterings about Iran’s nuclear program, and the requisite visits to Yad Vashem and Bethlehem. There were also treks to the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls. But little else.
Even when standing beside Israeli President Shimon Peres at an event on Wednesday in Jerusalem – a legendary practitioner of statecraft, whose progressive roots should have put Obama at ease – the U.S. president looked like he was waiting for a bus that was late. On that occasion, and throughout Obama’s Israeli jaunt, he appeared decidedly wary. His smiles, affected.
Kremlinology is an inexact science, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. But there can be no doubt that progressives like Obama feel frustrated by leaders like Netanyahu, or the leaders of the North American Jewish Diaspora. Jewish leadership, which has traditionally (and shrewdly) cultivated support on all sides of the ideological spectrum, has lately pursued a self-defeating political strategy.
They have rashly thrown their lot in with conservative causes, evangelical Christians, and far-right conservative nutbars. Alienating, in the process, the likes of Obama – and progressives in both Canada and the United States.
Historically, Canada’s Jewish community’s lobby efforts were always smart. The Canadian Jewish Congress on the centre-left, the B’nai Brith on the centre-right, and the Canada Israel Committee (CIC) handling “international” issues. Then, in 2011, these organizations were effectively destroyed to create something called the Council for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). CIJA then promptly transformed itself into a propaganda arm of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Full disclosure: I was proudly on the board of the CIC for a while, but became incensed when I learned that far-right Muslim-haters were being feted in Israel, and travelling there with CIC leadership. My experience was not unique. Many progressives have watched, in despair, as Jewish leaders have moved ever farther to the right.
There are myriad reasons why they should not do so. The Christian right seeks to create Christian nations, and see the conversion of Jews as a scriptural pre-condition for the Messiah’s return. Jews have always been at the forefront of trade unionism, as well as the women’s and civil rights movements.
Finally, as American Jewish sociographer Milton Himmelfarb once memorably said, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” That is as true in the United States as it is in Canada (except Episcopalians are called Anglicans up here). In the US, three out of every four Jews vote Democratic.
In Canada, it has been even more. The combined Jewish left-wing vote – that is, Jewish votes going Liberal or NDP – has been at about 85 per cent in past years. Why would Jewish leaders turn their backs on a political formula that has been a winner?
Warily surveying his hosts this past week, Barack Obama should be forgiven for wondering the same thing. In an era where most North Americans align themselves with Obama’s progressive politics, Jewish leaders have been running, full-bore, in the opposite direction.
Like we say: Obama’s visit to Israel was revealing. And, for those of us who love Israel, what it revealed was anything but comforting.