After the recent period of cool treatment of Israel by the Obama administration, the New York Times reported that there will be a Seder in the White House this year to commemorate Passover. One wonders if the well-timed and prominently placed piece is supposed to cause American Jews to forget the substantive activity of the past few weeks and suddenly celebrate this new symbolic gesture.
The Seder, as the Times eagerly reported, is the second one taking place in the relatively new administration, and seems as if it may be part of a new tradition for the White House. The Bush administration, after all, basked in its creation of the White House Hanukah party. Yet the truth is that, Seder or no Seder, Jews have had reason to be concerned about President Obama and Israel since the 2008 presidential campaign. At the time, McCain’s Jewish representatives made the case that Sen. McCain had a 30-year record of strong and solid support for Israel, while Sen. Obama had a mostly blank slate on the Israel policy front. And to the extent there were hints about Obama’s views, they were worrisome ones, such as his affiliation with the church of Jeremiah Wright, his relationships with Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, and the advisory roles Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Malley played in his election organization.
To counter these concerns, vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden went to Florida, dropped some Yiddish words— mishpocha, or family, and zayde, grandfather —and gave Jews his word “as a Biden” that he “would not have given up (my) job to be Barack Obama’s vice president if I didn’t in my gut and in my heart and in my head know that Barack Obama is exactly where I am on Israel.” Hillary Clinton, who as Obama’s rival for the nomination worked to highlight Jewish concerns about Obama, changed her tune once Obama became the nominee. She told attendees at the 2008 AIPAC conference that “I know that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel.” With these “vouches” of support reassuring them, American Jews backed Obama overwhelmingly, giving him about 80 percent of their votes in 2008, a boost over John Kerry’s 75 percent backing in 2004. This boost was helpful to Obama in carrying purple states like Florida and Ohio, both of which Kerry lost and which have sizable Jewish populations.
As president, Obama has done little to earn the Biden and Clinton pledges, and much to remind American Jews about their initial concerns. From the beginning of the administration, Obama has been pressuring Israel over settlements. He selected Israel critic Charles Freeman to head his National Intelligence Council. Freeman was forced to withdraw over his controversial views, and his withdrawal speech served to justify the worries about him. Obama also selected Mary Robinson, who was one of the leaders of the anti-Israel Durban conference boycotted by the U.S., to win a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The worst part about the Robinson pick was that the White House should have known, from even the most cursory vetting, that she was anathema to the Jewish community.
Despite all of these hints, signals, and problematic picks, the American Jewish community seemed unprepared for the diplomatic assault unleashed by the Obama administration against Israel over the last month. First Joe Biden, on what was supposed to be a feel-good tour, reacted to a surprise Israeli announcement about building new housing in East Jerusalem by keeping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting while he and his staff banged out a statement “condemning” Israel for the announcement. “Condemn,” it should be said, is a word usually reserved for violent attacks and severe human rights violations. Then, instead of letting the incident die after Netanyahu apologized, Secretary of State Clinton blistered Netanyahu over the phone in a call that was said to have been prompted by the president.
Things did not improve when Netanyahu visited Washington last week, as Obama’s treatment of the Israeli prime minister was somewhere between harsh and shameful. He refused to have the traditional handshaking picture with a foreign leader, and did not issue a joint statement, both breaches of diplomatic protocol.
The mounting evidence about the administration’s coldness towards Israel has Israeli Jews understandably worried. One poll a few months ago had Obama’s approval rating in Israel at a measly 4 percent, prompting what could be a Yiddish joke: Obama has a tremendous talent at uniting the Jewish community—he unites the American Jews for him and the Israeli Jews against him. Israeli Jews don’t vote, but American ones do, and all the Seders in the world are unlikely to make them any happier.