Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Avishai on Obama

Bernard Avishai has come to my attention at just the right moment. This morning's essay should be a must-read for anyone feeling shaky about Obama.

The essay is written by a Jew, for other Jews to read. It has been quietly mentioned that Obama has a "Jewish problem" because he hasn't performed the usual oblations in that direction, that this breach of conventional political etiquette will cost him dearly in the long run. Maybe even the nomination since the Clinton machine has been so well-oiled along those lines. Wasn't it President Clinton who got extra points by placing a Jew on the Supreme Court...and a woman at that? The shadow of Ruth Bader-Ginsberg is a long one indeed.

But this essay, though focused (and titled about) Obama's gingerly handling of Kosher politics, is better seen as a case study in the man's surgical political finesse.

If you're Jewish, read the essay through the glasses of your faith and the open mind for which Jewish reflective thought is famous. But if you're not Jewish, like me, read with another thought drumming in the background: How has and does this man, Barack Obama, a half-black Senator from one of the most emphatically black political foundations in America, one that goes so far as advertising the anti-white, anti-Jewish Farrakhan as a noble figure...How does this unlikely product of that background expect to win any important measure of Jewish support in November?

Clearly he has won at least one Jewish heart. Fortuntely, this man is articulate enough to explain how that came about. And looking into the details, one discovers how Barack Obama is able to look way into the future whenever he takes the first step in any direction.

This is not skimming stuff. The reader should go slow and digest what is being said, drilling into many links along the way. It is in the links, not the text, that the clues are to be found. The text is for Jews. The well-read Jew already knows what's in the links. The links are there for those of us who haven't been reading through Jewish glasses.

THIS IS, PERHAPS, a very roundabout way of saying that Barack Obama got me with hello. Pretty much everything he’s said and done since he started his campaign makes me proud to have voted for him (by absentee ballot, from Jerusalem). But I would be less than honest if I did not explain why voting for him makes me feel like a Jew in America, and in Israel for that matter, in a way I haven’t felt for a very long time. I think of Obama’s candidacy a little like the way I think of my first vote for Pierre Trudeau in 1967, or the emergence of the European Union in my lifetime. It is a kind of show-me-don’t-tell-me proof that the essential premises of liberalism, which Jews have championed since 1848—by which they have defined themselves since Heine—are, well, true.

I know there is something terribly uncool about this. If I were not myself something of a racist, presumably, I would focus on the subtle differentiators of Obama’s policies, like Paul Krugman and the mandates. I would shrug off Obama’s attacks on anti-Semitism and at least take seriously that his church once honored Farrakhan, as Richard Cohen warns us. I would be skeptical about callowness, as Leon Wieseltier warns himself, plumping for the new McCain; I would, like Wieseltier, not be taken in by Obama’s suave, since Wieseltier (“I am myself not unsuave”) troubles to instruct us on “how much it accomplishes and how little.” I am old enough to know better, or certainly old enough to know how suave it is to show off that I know better.

Indeed, if I weren’t uncool I would just focus on Obama’s political virtues, his detailed progressivism, his efforts to run without polarizing electors, his hundreds of thousands of donations, his courses on the constitution, his intellect, his story, his cadences. I would, like Andrew Sullivan, want to see his as the face of America, as we try to redeem America’s place in a dangerously small world. Since I live half my life in Israel, I would emphasize his evolving approach to Middle East peacemaking, his hint that we all know what the deal is, that it is time to get it, his reliance on foreign policy people who seem both realist and fair, his even-handedness, his cosmopolitanism, his willingness to talk with all parties, his insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed cannot be ignored any longer.

I clipped those paragraphs partly because they summarize the main threads of Avishai's essay, but also because of the links. Remember the links? That's where the treasure is buried. That's where we learn the subtleties of Obama's political genius. Look particularly at this one from The Jewish Standard.

Ask about Barack Obama’s natural constituencies and you might hear that he’s the first black with a viable shot at the White House, or about his Kenyan father and his childhood in Indonesia, or the youthfulness of his followers, or the millions of Oprah junkies swooning over his candidacy.

What you might not hear is that the Illinois senator, who made history last Thursday by winning the Democratic caucus in Iowa, has made Jewish leaders an early stop at every stage in his political career.

There follows not one or two, but a string of casses in point. Don't take my word for it. Read for yourself.

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