The First Jewish President? Not Even Close.

September 21st, 2011 at 6:41 pm | 30 Comments |

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This week’s New York Magazine cover story, by John Heilemann, suggests that Barack Obama might be “The First Jewish President”. At any time this would be controversial. But this week it seems particularly provocative because of Republican Bob Turner’s historic victory over Democrat David Weprin in a special New York Congressional election. The outcome in the 9th District was widely attributed to the largely Orthodox Jewish electorate’s protest against Obama’s perceived hostility toward Israel.

Still, Heilemann maintains that Obama is “every bit as pro-Israel as the country’s own prime minister [Benyamin Netanyahu] — and, from the proper angle, maybe even more so.”

Heilemann asserts that the Jewish community’s suspicion of the deepness of the president’s bond with Israel was “present from the start”, but it was “always rooted in a reading of his background that was as superficial as it was misguided”. Heilemann writes,

“Yes he was black. Yes his middle name was Hussein. And yes in his time in Hyde Park his friends included Palestinian scholars and activists, notably the historian Rashid Khalidi. But far more crucial to Obama’s makeup and rise to prominence was his ties to Chicago’s Jewish milieu, whose players, from real-estate powerhouse Perry Pritzker to billionaire investor Lester Crown, were among his chief supporters and financial patrons.”

Once Obama became president tension between him and many Jews intensified largely because the his administration seemed to confirm suspicions about his hostility toward Israel. Heilemann places the blame primarily on Netanyahu for friction between the two countries. He accuses the Israeli prime minister of deliberately exaggerating small differences with Obama.

In a speech last May, Obama called for Israel to return the 1967 borders with territorial adjustments, Netanyahu chastised him both from Jerusalem and then in a joint public appearance with Obama a few days later in Washington for calling for the withdrawal to the 1967 borders — while conveniently failing to mention that the President’s proposal had also called for territorial adjustments to those borders.

Making things worse, Heilemann claims, was the press’s failure to present Obama’s overall Middle East policy accurately. This created the false impression that while the administration was calling on Israel to freeze settlements it was not asking for any reciprocal concessions from the Palestinians. Jonathan Prince, a senior State Department official tells Heilemann,

The Israelis would do settlements, the Palestinians would do some stuff on incitement [of violence against Israel] and security, and other Arab states would undertake a variety of measures that would be steps toward normalization. It could be reopening trade offices.  It could be opening cell-phone connections.  All stuff Israel said it really wanted. We spent many more hours  in meetings with Arabs about Arab steps then we did with the Israelis. We had equally tough conversations with the Arabs; the president had some hard meetings. But that didn’t get reported.

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel tells Heilemann that the Obama administration was also responsible for these misperceptions. While he make no apologies for the Obama’s tough stance on Jewish settlements, Emmanuel confesses, “(T)here was a sense that we were too one-sided. We had an obligation — and this is where we deserve a yellow card — to explain what we were doing with the Palestinians or Arabs, to put more air in the tires on that side. Not tone down what we said on settlements, but work harder so there was more recognition of the parity that existed with Arab violations.”

Heilemann’s narrative has serious flaws. Start with the cheap shots. Where’s the evidence for the contention that some Jews mistrusted Obama because he was black? Is Heilemann trying to tar critics of the administration’s Israel policy as racists?

When Prince claims that the administration tried to give Israel everything that it “said it wanted” was he implying that Israel’s public demands are less stringent than its actual demands? Or, was he trying to say, as many today do, the Netanyahu government will always refuse to make concessions necessary for peace, even if the Palestinians and other Arab countries fulfill all of Israel’s demands?

In fact, as the Israeli writer Daniel Gordis writes in this month’s Commentary magazine,

There was once an era when no major Israeli party recognized the Palestinians as a people. Today, they all do. There was a time when no significant Israeli political leader would entertain the notion of a two-state solution. Today, they all do, even Benjamin Netanyahu, which now heads the party led by [ultra-nationalist] Menachem Begin, has endorsed this position.

On what position, though, have the Palestinians changed their stance? On the refugees’ right of return (which would end the Israel’s Jewish character)? On recognizing Israel’s right to exist? On accepting the notion that Israel is, by design, a Jewish state. On their willingness to allow even some Jews to remain in Palestine, just as Arabs live in Israel? Tragically, they have not budged on any one of these issues.

Moreover, Israel has a right to expect more than Emmanuel’s “parity” from US policy. The Palestinians should acquiesce to at least some of Israel’s demands without expecting any reciprocity. For instance, Mahmoud Abbas’s regime should not expect anything in return for undertaking actions such as: removing material that demonizes Israel and Jews from its media and textbooks; arresting suspecting terrorists; and, stopping stipends to terrorists in Israeli jails.

Emmanuel’s principle of “parity” also ignores the inherent uneven distribution of risk in the concessions demanded that Israel and the Palestinians as well as other Arab states could conceivably make. Israeli civilians have to put up with either terrorist or missile attacks from almost every territory from which Israel has ever withdrawn. And the cooling of its relations with Egypt has exposed the fragility of even Israel’s longstanding relations with Muslim countries. However, Arab regimes can make every concession that Israel has ever made of them without endangering or even imposing any hardship on their citizens.

Gordis writes of, “peacemakers” who “will continue to coddle [the Palestinians], helping them avoid the soul-searching that Israel has undertaken and to delay further the Palestinians’ need to take responsibility for their contribution to this endless conflict”. Since the Obama administration has asked the Palestinians and other Arab states to make only token concessions, the President and his team should be counted among the “coddlers”. And that makes the notion of Obama as the “first Jewish President” absurd.

Recent Posts by Martin Krossel

30 Comments so far ↓

  • dubmod

    Lets go with Perry and have a holy war. You end terrorism by treating the general population like human beings. You support terrorism when you engage in collective punishment. This is not rocket science.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    yeah, ok it was a stupid premise to call Obama “Jewish” as it was to call Clinton the first black president. But good lord, the notion that Jewishness is completely and utterly tied to Israeli policy is also bonkers. I have ancestors from Ireland (as, funny enough, does Obama), when Presidents who have Irish ancestry go to Ireland no one grills them on the Northern Ireland question with the answer attesting to how Irish they are. I am Irish Catholic yet I completely condemn the IRA, does this make me less Irish Catholic?

    I think it is anti-semitic to allude that American Jews must support a President based on somekind of Israel first stance and that any Jew who does not stand in full accord with the Likud party is a bad Jew, or somehow not a Jew, for that matter I have zero problem with an American Jew who has absolutely zero interest in Israel (except in the manner that which I view Ireland, a bit of ethnic pride and goodwill but I couldn’t tell you the name of the Irish PM if my life depended on it)

    I think an argument can be made that Obama is more comfortable with Jewish people, certainly more than most of our previous Presidents. Many of Obama’s long time closest friends are Jewish. Take that for what it is worth. I don’t think that makes him Jewish, I just think it shows he hangs around with people of his own intellectual capability and disposition and that many of these people just happen to be Jewish.

    • jakester

      While I agree with most of your point, the comparison Ireland- Israel fails on the main salient point. Britain & the Orangemen had no planes to retake all of Ireland nor were the Fenians and the Irish Free State going to push the Orangemen into the sea.

      • Frumplestiltskin

        what do you mean? of course the Irish of the IRA would have been happy to drive all of the Protestants back to England, if they could have. Don’t kid yourself about that. And the British were driven out of most of Ireland because the occupation got too damn expensive.
        And who is the British in your point? The Israelis or the Palestinians? Israel is slowly taking over most of the West Bank so it is not a question of retaking it, and as to Gaza, it is the worlds largest refugee camp, one that they no longer have to run. Why would they want to retake it? As to the Palestinian desire to push the Israels into the sea, they have about as much as chance as the IRA does of driving every Protestant out of Ireland, ie none.
        I will agree that the PLO and Hamas have about the same moral boundries of the IRA (that is, pretty much none) but don’t confuse the corrupt thugs (the PLO) and the terrorists (Hamas) with the whole of the Palestinian people, who right now have no status. Hell, at least Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland have British citizenship. What do Palestinians have?

        I accept that the analogy is not perfect, I only made it because, well, I am Irish. My point simply is that Jew does not equal Israeli.

        • jakester

          okay you made a good point. I was just pointing out that officially neither the Republic of Ireland or the UK were planning on escalating the essentially guerrilla war into a war of conventional conquest. As a matter of fact both countries worked together amicably, usually

    • Bulldoglover100

      Frumplestiltskin… Great take on reality. +1

  • baw1064

    I really have to take issue with this statement:

    “Moreover, Israel has a right to expect more than Emmanuel’s “parity” from US policy. ”

    Um, Israel doesn’t have a right to expect anything at all from U.S. policy. Moreover, the idea that a U.S. president should be “pro-Israeli” means that fundamentally, you are expecting him to commit treason. The President, and all members of government, are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, not to be pro-Israel. They should support american interests. If the Israelis want to try to convince us that some policy which they believe would be beneficial to them would also be in our best interest, they’re welcome to do so.

    But fundamentally, we don’t owe them anything.

    That’s the argument that’s always missing from these posts about the Middle East. It’s always about what the U.S. should do that would best serve Israeli interests. I have no fundamental opposition to Israeli interest, but I’m only inclined to support them with my tax $ if it’s in my best interest as well.

    What’s in it for me as an american with no particular connection to the middle east or any group of people there?

    • Redrabbit



      We cannot continue to unconditionally loan out our entire foreign policy to Israel.

      • paul_gs

        The US is pro-Israel because Israel is an ally. Allies support each other and stand up for each other.

        Not treasonous (how absurd to even suggest such a thing) but how democratic nations interact with each other.

        • gmat

          “The US is pro-Israel because Israel is an ally.” Why is Israel an ally?

          The alliance itself needs to be re-examined. What’s in it for the US? Alliances are supposed to benefit both parties.

        • baw1064

          Let me deconstruct that phrase you used.

          Allies support each other and stand up for each other.

          Let’s review what Israel had been up to the last few months.

          -The PM trash-talks our President in front of a joint session of Congress.

          -They act like they have unlimited license to meddle in our internal politics.

          -Think they are entitled to $3 billion (or whatever the exact amount is) of our money, even though we apparently don’t have money for anything else.

          -Think they can dictate our votes in the UN.

          What have they done for us? And why don’t any of our other allies (Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, etc.) treat us this way?

    • jakester

      You sound as dimwitted as Perry tossing around the treason charge. If the American people want to elect politicians who support Israel, that is their right, Foreign policy here isn’t some cold French “what’s in it for us” affair. Things are done on a visceral level since the Arabs don’t relate well to us, like 9/11, Hamas, heads getting chopped off or Saddam. But you point is fundamentally sound. Israel is in no danger of being over run, so they have to give in a bit since like 99% of the world is NOT on their side now and they are outnumbered and out moneyed by the Arabs surrounding them.

      • gmat

        Hardly. US policy toward Israel is what it is because of strong pro-Israel lobbying, and the absence of any other kind of lobbying about Israel. Nothing “visceral” about it.

        As to Americans and whom they elect? Americans would have a very difficult time electing anybody who does not support Israel, because there are powerful disincentives for any politician to take such a position, and no upside to speak of.

  • Primrose

    I am a STRONG supporter of Israel. My step-grandmother fled her home of Czechoslovakia on the last train out and caught a plane to Paris, only to have it refused entry. They went to England, same deal. Luckily for her, she had connections in the British Consulate. So I get why Israel needs to exist. I get that it has a need to defend itself.

    However, it is not anti-Israel to suggest that the settlement movement needs to end. The support for the settlers by Israeli politicians is motivated by purely domestic politics.

    Because Israel has such an exuberant multi-party system, even quite a minority party like Likud can have power. Likud represents a group of people who have intense pressures for cheap housing, strong ability at block voting, and no fear that their children’s lives will be sacrificed in military conflict.

    So settlements serves their interests. That is not the same as saying it serves the interests of the larger Israeli populace, or Israel itself.

    Personally, I thought Israel should have embraced this amendment, insisting only that the borders are still fluid, and that as a UN member, the Palestinian’s must also recognize Israel.

    The US is not abandoning its commitment to Israel (which I support) because it is not strengthening the position of one small segment of the Israeli population.

  • Oldskool

    Perry was blistered by most everyone on Morning Joe today. Apparently his presser in NY made Obama look like a rabbi.

  • Demosthenes

    One can be Jewish without being Zionist, Zionist without being Israeli, Israeli without being Likudnik. The idea that (good) Jew = Zionist = Likudnik is the cancer that is destroying Israeli civil society as well as American credibility in foreign policy.

    Some of my ancestors on my mother’s side were Sephardic Jews who survived the Inquisition as “crypto-Jews.” Even without that, I am sympathetic to the Israeli people, which is why I am so concerned about the policy of settling/occupying the West Bank. If Israel continues on her current course, she will have to choose whether to remain Jewish or democratic. Obama is a far cry from the “first Jewish President,” but at least he seems to understand that the real danger to Israel is from the settlements, not from the PLO or Hamas. Which is not to say that terrorism should be tolerated, only that it should be seen for what it is (a political tactic), instead of what it is not (an existential threat).

  • slater

    Wrong all the way! We’ve had Jewish (proxy) presidents for some time. The current one (trying to determine our destiny) is called Netanyahu.

  • armstp


    A poorly written piece. The title, as usual on FF, is much stronger than the case you present why Obama is not Israel’s best friend or the first Jewish President. Your criticism is very weak and you spend more time talking about Emmanuel and “parity”and no time actually talking about Obama. Your quote from Commentary magazine says nothing about Obama. John Heilemann makes some very good points. Jews and Israel should be lucky to have a President like Obama.

  • TJ Parker

    The First Jewish President will be Dirk Perry because Dirk is an Evangelical Christian (i.e. a Jew) and he loves Israel because Israel will be the landing pad for Christ Jesus when He returns to destroy the World.

    Amen! And vote Perry/Palin in 2012! And send in your votes early in case you’re raptured before election day! (*)

    By the way, please consider for your after-Rapture pet care! Not a paid adversement!

    Update. Ooops. Perry is a Dick, not a Dirk.

  • sinz54

    “Is Heilemann trying to tar critics of the administration’s Israel policy as racists?”

    Of course.

    Today, it is standard operating procedure for Obama’s supporters to tar anyone who criticizes Obama’s policies as racist. I’ve been tarred that way myself, repeatedly, on any blog that is open to Obama’s supporters. They flick the word “racist” around with abandon.

    This tactic was originally invented by the New Left in the 1960s, to whom the modern Left owes just about everything. The purpose, of course, is to shame their opponents into just slinking away with their heads low.

    But those who try that stuff on me, don’t know me very well. I don’t do “slink away.” And neither do the Tea Partiers nor many other conservatives, who are quite prepared to call out these leftists for what they are. Scum.

    • llbroo49


      Admittedly some accuse Obama’s detractors of racism – but that is because they believe that sin is more plausible and even understandable compared to the reality. The reality is a cynicism and/or nilishm that allows Obama’s detractors to ignore or give a pass to past President’s actions, but to actively attack this president. So what if Obamacare was originally a conservative idea, so what that our support of Lybian rebels would have been a Bush admin wet dream. So what that even the Death Panels accusation was really a conservative response to the Terry Schivo incident. So what that Obama stepped up US action in Afghanistan and Pakistan- because now wars are bad and just liberal ideas. So what that Obama’s mid east policy is no different than past presidents.
      So what that Obama is labeled a reparationist despite the fact that racial minorities have been hit harder by the economic downturn.

      There should be enough real complaints lodged

      • llbroo49

        There should be enough real complaints about this president without having to manufacture false reasons to dislike the president.

        Again the pettiness of the attacks over Obama’s action compared to previous presidents lead many to suspect the only difference is the messenger and not the message

    • Primrose

      In the 1960′s, Sinz, with the Jim Crow still active, and the White Citizens Councils active, and KKK membership as often as not being a way to help a political career, most of the people the left considered racist, were.

  • Bulldoglover100

    LOL So calling you a racist is bad yet you calling an Obama/leftist supporter scum is O.K…. and yet people of your ilk wonder why you get called out so often……. Get over it. I personally don’t care if your actions color you racist, I don’t care if you choose to hide behind the Tea Party and lastly I don’t care what anger flows through your tiny brain. What I DO care about? Is that your actions prey on the uneducated with lies and distortions that damage MY country. You want to dislike Obama? That is your right but do so with FACTS and not anger that dribbles spittle down your little chin. So come on back at me LOL I will continue to laugh at you as do the other 91% of the public who not identity as members of the Tea Party…. which is pretty racist LOL I mean come on! Show me a picture of a crowd of tea party supporters which DON’T have a poster of Obama with a bone through his nose or some other idiocy and I might defend you but so far? Actions speak louder than words. Attack this President with facts and someone with a brain, somewhere, may show you the respect you apparently crave.

  • valkayec

    My problem, as I noted in David Frum’s post today on Obama’s speech before the UN, is that it ignores actual facts. I think the one that bothers me the most is continuing to equate Fatah (or the West Bank Palestinian government) with Hamas (in Gaza). West Bank Palestinians have rejected terrorism, have offered to recognize Israel as a nation in return for an independent, free Palestine, have worked hard to create a thriving economy, and coordinated their police with Israeli police to provide security. For all these actions, West Bank Palestinians get what from American pundits?

    What Mr. Krossel or any other pundit writes regarding Israeli-US relations means little to me. I’m with the others here who believe, as United States citizens, US foreign policy should put the US and US interests first.

    Oh, one final note. If Israel were to negotiate an all Jewish state, would that, too, take away citizenship from all the Christians living in Israel? Moreover, the name Palestinian applies to the Christians living on the West Bank.

  • zaramart kippot

    Israel is a very small nation that has made mistakes, but along the way has fought and survived and is flourishing in a way that puts great nations such as the US and Britain to shame.The safety and security of Israel is vitally important .Obama finally understood that the has to change the music he is playing if he wants to get reelected.