Obama and the Orthodox, Revisited

In a recent article in HaAretz, reprinted on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran offered several explanations why there seems to be an Orthodox “animus” against President Obama. He discounts theories like racism and Obama’s social liberalism before arriving at the one he prefers: a lack of hakaras hatov — gratitude.

I have always greatly respected Rabbi Shafran and his writing, and consider him a personal mentor. And I think it is unquestionably true that some people have made “over the top,” irrational criticisms — not that I feel that these reactions are unique to the Orthodox Jewish community, or unique to our current president. But on balance, I think Rabbi Shafran must revisit not only that social liberalism, but the very areas in which he feels our thanks are due, in order to understand why there is so much negativity about the Obama presidency from Orthodox Jews.

Here’s what I wrote about Obama’s election, in November 2008:

I believe that getting America to the point of electing a black President was one of America’s finest hours.Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, November 12.

He beat me to it, as I was going to make a similar comment. As a strong McCain supporter, I did not expect to have such positive feelings about the statement made by Americans about America today, through this election. Less than 50 years after whites had to be forced to share classrooms and bathrooms with black Americans, they elected one to be President of the United States. If I read the electoral college numbers correctly, then although it is true that over 90% of African-Americans voted for him, Obama would have won without the black vote.

Despite his selection of the very partisan Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff, Obama has begun with a number of overtures across the aisle. If he governs the way he campaigned — namely, in the center — then the next four years may be a pleasant surprise, and we should give him the chance to prove himself.

I said it, I believed it, I think we gave him that chance, and I think he disappointed us overwhelmingly.

Rabbi Shafran focuses upon foreign policy, and Israel in particular, as the area in which we owe the current administration “special good will.” He points to Obama’s Cairo speech, in which he mentioned the “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel.

What he does not mention is that Obama visited Cairo immediately, and didn’t visit Jerusalem until his second term. Nor does Rabbi Shafran mention Obama’s declaration, among other troubling statements, that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” which includes new neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh, not just new outposts between Palestinian towns.

History shows that Ronald Reagan called new settlement activity legal if “ill-advised.” George H.W. Bush, a Republican widely regarded as unfriendly to Israel, said “we do not believe there should be new settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem,” permitting normal growth of existing towns. A Clinton-Era Assistant Secretary of State explicitly allowed for that natural growth. And George W. Bush said to Prime Minister Sharon that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome… will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

And Rabbi Shafran would have us believe that Obama’s position is consistent with “the declared American position over several administrations?” If he meant the Carter administration, he’d be right. But I don’t think anyone regards Jimmy Carter as a friend of Israel.

Indeed, following the Cairo speech, Senior Israeli officials accused the President “of failing to acknowledge… clear understandings with the Bush administration” that allowed Israel to continue limited settlement construction even during the “freeze” during negotiations. Yet in 2011 UN Ambassador Susan Rice reiterated the administration’s new position, “reject[ing] in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity” of any kind.

Rice was one of three Obama appointees whom Rabbi Shafran jokingly called “a stealth bomb aimed at Israel,” as if, in reality, none of them were of concern. Let’s look at another of the three, Chuck Hagel.

In October 2000, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska was one of only 4 Senators who refused to sign a letter in support of Israel during Arafat’s renewed intifada. The next year, he was one of only 11 Senators who refused to sign a letter urging President Bush not to meet with Arafat until his forces ceased violence against Israel. And in August 2006, Hagel was one of only 12 Senators who refused to call upon the EU to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization.

The source of that information, by the way, is the National Jewish Democratic Council. You see, Hagel was a Republican Senator. Predictably, the NJDC reversed course, choosing to “trust” that “former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel.” And somehow I doubt J-Street would have called Chuck “Jewish lobby” Hagel “pro-Israel” (not that J-Street terming a person “pro-Israel” is ever particularly comforting) when he was a Republican Senator. If some Jews are simply being knee-jerk partisans, it’s not the Orthodox, whose concern about Hagel is entirely consistent with how pro-Israel voters on both sides of the aisle regarded him prior to the appointment.

It remains true, for a variety of reasons, that the medina shel chesed, the kind nation in which we live, shares an “unbreakable bond” with Israel. But that is something that Obama inherited, not something which he has actively encouraged or strengthened.

Did the US refuse to participate in joint exercises with Turkey if Israel wasn’t invited? Yes. Turkey disinvited Israel because Turkey was blaming Israel for its soldiers having the audacity to defend themselves against the knife-wielding, bulletproof-vest-wearing flotilla “peace activists” who jumped them when they boarded to enforce the Israeli embargo on shipping to Gaza.

Without Israel’s participation, it is difficult to imagine the threat against which joint US-Turkey military exercises would help prepare. But Netanyahu’s ridiculous, demeaning apology for troops defending their lives, complete with “reparations” to the families of the terrorists, is widely attributed to pressure from Washington. Obama called Erdogan a “trusted friend,” while his relationship with Netanyahu is commonly described as “icy.”

Like most false gestures — and most of Obama’s foreign policies — the Netanyahu apology proved completely ineffective. Today Israeli-Turkish relations remain at an all-time low, the US (in another slap at Israel) has effectively blocked any credible effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities, the US reaction to Assad’s use of chemical weapons left Israeli leaders horrified and appalled, and the “Arab Spring” brought Hamas allies to power in the same Cairo (before the Egyptian military removed them, without American help).

The BBC, which like most of Europe adulated Obama prior to his election, said that US credibility is now “in tatters.” And that’s only foreign policy.

The president who made those “overtures across the aisle” has rarely been in evidence since taking office. The voters of very liberal Massachusetts elected a Republican State Senator, instead of the Democratic Attorney General, to take the remainder of the late, very popular, and very liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy’s term. The AG had led throughout the race, and the reversal was widely regarded as a last ditch attempt to stop ObamaCare. The Obama administration’s reaction was to strong-arm Democratic members of the House to make sure they could ram through this “key legislative achievement” without returning it to the Senate, which would, without a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, have required bipartisan support.

The result is a “non-tax” which is only Constitutional because it is, in fact, a tax, in which we can “keep our doctor” and “keep our plan” except that we really can’t. Those who said Bush “lied” for relying upon the unanimous opinion of every Western intelligence agency (with regards to Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMD’s) needed a lesson in what it actually means to be lied to by a U.S. President.

I was advised to renew my insurance policy two months early, exchanging coverage for a new and relatively high deductible, in order to avert the much higher cost increase for policies renewed after the ACA took effect this month. My agent tells me he is unaware of a single person who has managed to navigate the “Maryland Health Connection” ObamaCare web site and come out with insurance. Similarly, the person with whom I spoke at BlueChoice told me that to her knowledge, no one has saved money. The greatest beneficiaries of the ACA thus far are the insurance companies. In fact, it is due to ObamaCare that Maryland’s oldest historically black college, Bowie State University, announced that it would drop health care coverage for students, instead allowing them to attend with no insurance.

As I mentioned, both Rabbi Adlerstein and myself found it extremely heartening that America had proven itself sufficiently race blind to elect a black president. Unfortunately, that president has proven himself not to be at all race blind. He has twice injected himself uninvited into racially-charged situations. Both times he has inflamed tensions, and both times he has been wrong.

And the list goes on. Obama’s “fiscal stimulus” has resulted in an unparalleled increase in federal debt, and one of the most anemic and prolonged economic recoveries in US history.

Yes, I’m a Republican. I certainly favored John McCain with his tremendous pro-Israel track record. But I was among those who shared the feelings of an Israeli political commentator who hoped “the Bush will burn” on the eve of the 1992 election, and in retrospect I believe Clinton proved to be a reasonably effective and pro-Israel president. I expressed hopes for our first black President, perhaps biased by the fact that I went to college with his wife, Michelle Robinson Obama.

So no, I don’t think it’s a lack of gratitude, hakaras hatov. I don’t think it’s racism. I don’t think it’s because he’s a liberal and Orthodox Jews tend to be conservatives. And I certainly don’t think it’s because “we humans don’t like to admit that we were wrong.”

After all, I’ve admitted error on Cross-Currents before. Both times I made one.

I hope you knew that I was kidding. But I do think that although Rabbi Shafran is always insightful and usually demonstrates a clear understanding of Jews both Orthodox and otherwise, this is one of those few times he has erred.

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