Several years ago, a friend and I were discussing yet another of then-President Barack Obama’s seemingly endless clashes with Israel, and I suddenly said, “Wait till he’s out of office, then you’ll really see it.” I felt that, like his predecessor Jimmy Carter, once Obama was unrestrained by the responsibilities of office, he would finally tell us what he really thought — and it would likely be very problematic indeed.
If reports of the contents of Obama’s new presidential memoir are accurate, it gives me little pleasure to say it appears I was right. Obama, apparently, says of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his “vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power,” including an “orchestrated” campaign against Obama himself. This campaign was apparently so effective that it revealed to Obama that “normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister exacted a domestic political cost.”
This cost, it appears, was exacted by the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. As a result of AIPAC’s extraordinary powers, Obama charges, politicians who “criticized Israel policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly antisemitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.”
It hardly needs saying that this is remarkably ugly stuff. Nonetheless, it is worth examining, because Obama’s attitude toward Israel remains one of the most hotly contested aspects of his legacy. The debate is largely split between liberal Jews, who view Obama as a critical but genuine friend of the Jewish state; and conservative Jews, who see him as anti-Zionist at best and antisemitic at worst.
Netanyahu, of course, is at the center of this debate, given the famously contentious relationship between the two men. And it must be said that not everything Obama says about him is untrue. Netanyahu is an unscrupulous politician, and while I doubt he would do “almost anything” to remain in power, he certainly does not shrink from some rather nasty tactics. I have often thought that, as was once said of Napoleon, he is as great as a man can be without virtue. But I do not think that this was the source of the animosity between the two men. Obama and Netanyahu, after all, were diametrically opposed ideologically, and it is difficult to bridge a gap between basic values.
Obama’s comments about AIPAC are far more problematic. Put bluntly, they reek of conspiracy theory. Obama doesn’t have to like AIPAC, but his obvious attempt to give it a sinister cast plays into some of the most barbaric and — it must be said — racist stereotypes regarding Jewish power and influence. He appears wholly ignorant of what kind of fire he is playing with. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, the mind reels at such epic obtuseness.
But this only points us toward a much deeper issue: whether Obama, intentionally or not, fostered an atmosphere of systemic antisemitism in his administration. Because even if we, once again, give him the benefit of the doubt, it is very clear — though usually not publicly stated — that there were powerful antisemitic elements within the Obama White House.
It is remarkable to me, in fact, that no one I know of has remarked on a passage in former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren’s memoir Ally in which Oren reveals that, during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, White House officials were blaming Israel for the ensuing Muslim pogroms against European Jews. This is monstrous racism under any definition, but it is also more than that — it points to an atmosphere of antisemitism capable of holding Jews responsible for antisemitic violence without the slightest sense of cognitive dissonance. Such an atmosphere must be at the very least tolerated by those who, like Obama, ought to know better.
The inevitable response to this is that Obama and his people were merely “criticizing Israel” or “opposing Israeli policies.” Putting aside the fact that this is self-congratulatory goysplaining, it is clear that, given the current zeitgeist, it is a very bizarre argument. Much of the left is, after all, willing to see racism almost everywhere, including in themselves, leading to some remarkable examples of public self-flagellation. Yet they often seem hellbent on claiming antisemitism does not exist. They say, in effect, that everything is race and nothing is antisemitism. And denial of antisemitism, even if only by the simple dismissal or gaslighting of Jews who raise the issue, is endemic to antisemitism itself. Antisemites, after all, always believe they are simply telling the truth.
The case of Obama, however, is not really a question of personal antisemitism or lack thereof. Most Jews know that while not all non-Jews are antisemitic, almost all of them do have stereotypes and prejudices that they project onto Jews. That they are, in other words, ignorant. You hope that non-Jews can be educated. But Obama and his people always, to a man, refused to be educated. Obama knew that there were Jews who had concerns about him, and he was never interested in finding out why. It was far easier to simply blame Netanyahu and AIPAC and be done with it. And this must, at the very least, be admitted to and discussed openly. What the debate over Obama and the Jews requires is not so much outrage as something like an honest reckoning.