Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Silver-Lining in Obama’s AIPAC Speech

Progressive Jewish bloggers like Phil Weiss and Robert Dreyfuss in the Nation have found the silver-lining in Obama's predictable and depressing talk before AIPAC. Obama closed his speech with the following:

In the great social movements in our country's history, Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man--James Chaney--on behalf of freedom and equality.

Their legacy is our inheritance. We must not allow the relationship between Jews and African Americans to suffer. This is a bond that must be strengthened. Together, we can rededicate ourselves to end prejudice and combat hatred in all of its forms. Together, we can renew our commitment to justice. Together, we can join our voices together, and in doing so make even the mightiest of walls fall down.

Note to Obama campaign: playing the "Jewish-Black-civil-rights-coalition" card will get you a landslide Jewish vote in November.

For years many Jews in the US have looked with nostalgia at a period when they were the good guys -- not only in their own communities, or for the State of Israel, but for the civil rights of black people. Of course, the Jewish support for civil rights was not universal, unequivocal, or at all costs. It was one thing to deplore segregation in the South. but quite another to encourage open housing. It was one thing to fight racial discrimination and quite another to allign with other whites in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy of the late sixties. Good blacks were those who behaved well and dressed well like Dr. King, Jr. (before he started to comment about Vietnam), and believed in integration. Not-so-good blacks were those who dressed and talked like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) – the black power advocates who resented Jewish paternalism and saw the Jewish role in institutionalized white racism. Would it be churlish to recall that not all Jews were enthusiastic about Jews like Andrew Goodman and Michael Scherner going down to Mississippi?

Obama knows all this, of course. He knows quite a lot about the splits and fissures with the Jews during the waning days of the civil rights movement. But his belief in black-white coalitions is fundamental for him. The person who hired him as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago first was a Jewish leftwinger. Part of Obama's success in Chicago, and now in the Democratic primary, has been because Jewish liberal fat- and not-so-fat cats believe in his message.

Obama knows that saying "Some of my best friend are Jews" won't win him any points. But saying, "Some of the black people's best friends have been Jews" will. This is going to be a powerful message, especially since that message hasn't been heard since the late sixties. Even Podhoretz and the Commentary crowd will want to be reminded by Obama of the pre-Ocean Hill-Brownsville golden age. For the subtext is: I am here today because of what you people did for my people out of the goodness of your heart, and the morality of your tradition.

What Jew wouldn't kvell to hear that?


Anonymous said...

Here is Obama's quote about Jerusalem as reported in Ha'aretz:
Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," he added, in efforts to secure the Jewish vote.

That, of course, is a meaningless statement. He didn't say "undivided under Israeli rule" (assuming this quote is accurate). He could mean (and indeed, probably did mean) that it WOULD be divided politically but he would oppose Palestinian gunmen shooting into Jewish areas, reinstalling mine fields and anti-sniper walls that were taken down in 1967. This position is that now of most of the Left in Israel and including the Kadima party and Avigdor Lieberman's supposedly "right-wing" Israel Beitenu party, but it is NOT the position of the large majority of Israeli Jews, or American Jews, for that matter. We see here Obama, the slick politician, using the double-talk we hear from this type of politician.

Obama will get a majority of the Jewish vote, as has every Democratic candidate at least since FDR in 1933. However, I don't believe American Jews are dying to resurrect the supposed "Black-Jewish" alliance that you talk about here. As organized groups, there is a lot that potentially divides the two groups (affirmative action vs meritocracy, possibly Israel, taxation, welfare, 'law and order', etc). Obama claims to "transcend" the racial and ethnic divide, yet we see with his old political alliances and his close ties to Jeremiah Wright, that he has no problem with those who do play up the differences. Thus, don't get your hopes up too much. I don't believe that the resurrection of this supposed alliance that you posit will be the motivating factor of Jews to vote or not for him.

Jerry Haber said...

Bar Kochba,

As you yourself point out, Obama's statement on Jerusalem wasn't meaningless. He probably meant what you said he meant.

As for the position of large number of Israeli Jews and American Jews -- here I disagree with you. Most American Jews will be happy with anything the Israelis agree to. They could care less about East Jerusalem. Ditto for most Israelis. Take the religious right and the shrinking secular hardcore right out, and all the rest won't care. How many people mobilized in the past against Barak and Clinton. Jerusalem is already divided, blah, blah, blah. More people care about the Golan than about Jerusalem.

2) You may be right that I exaggerate the effect of mentioning the golden age of Black-Jewish relations. A lot of Jews won't vote for Obama no matter what he does. But there are a whole bunch of Jewish democrats out there who are nervous about Obama. Some of them will vote for McCain. Some may not vote. Those are the people who like to hear Obama talking about how important Jews have been to civil rights. I have some relatives like that.

How important is the Jewish vote to Obama? Depends on where. Florida is essential to his strategy. I was told that the Obama campaign is sending thousands of volunteers to Florida to talk to every single Jewish voter down there. Campaign research has said that you can flip democratic Jewish voters to Obama once people are assured of his stand on Israel.

By the way, I didn't say that Obama should actually try to revive some civil rights coalition. Those days are long gone. No, what he has to do is to say to Jews, "It's because of folks like you that I am here today. I appreciate that." That will win him votes. Of course, if he overdoes it, then people won't take it seriously.

Joachim Martillo said...

I may be too cynical, but Obama and the Freedom Riders contains some of my thoughts about American Jewish support for civil rights.

Anonymous said...

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Obama's remark's re Jerusalem: “This is the worst thing to happen to us since 1967…He has given ammunition to extremists across the region.”
[Al Jazeera]

I believe if Obama becomes president he will be worse for Palestine than McCain. Why? Because Obama has to lean over backwards to assure the Zionist part of the electorate that he is sufficiently pro-Israel. McCain has nothing to prove. Everybody knows he is.

In his AIPAC speech, Obama has already made a sharp right turn re Iran. Look for more of the same in the coming months. I share the fears of the Palestinians.