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Barack Obama: Good for the Jews. Tim Russert: Bad for the Jews. And for America.

February 27, 2008, 2:05 am

Tim Russert spent a portion of tonight’s debate bringing to life the hateful spam I occasionally get that might as well be titled, “Muslim Obama Will Kill Jews.” And while I agree with all of the prominent (and, as it happens, Jewish) bloggers (here, here, here, and elsewhere for all I know) who are saying that Russert really plumbed the depths with this line of so-called inquiry, the bigger shame was that there were actual issues of interest to American Jews left undiscussed with Obama tonight.

In fact, on Sunday Obama talked about some of those issues with machers in the Cleveland Jewish community. Which, if you don’t know, is a surprisingly large and very active community (check the previous link for some details), notable for giving enormous amounts of money to various causes, both Jewish and not. It’s also an important part of the Democratic machine in Northeast Ohio. Which is the bedrock of the Democratic machine in Ohio more broadly. Which, if you look at recent elections — up to the 2006 midterms and governor’s race — is a machine that’s been in very bad repair. Regardless, Jews matter in Ohio Democratic politics. So Obama went to talk to them last Sunday. And he had some interesting things to say.

Here he is, starting slowly, on Israel, offering up about what you’d expect (the interesting things come later), material that he recycled in the debate tonight:

I will also carry with me an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel. The US Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people. It is supported by a strong bipartisan consensus that I am proud to be a part of and I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries.

Right. Well, fair enough. Also: ethanol’s pretty great when you’re in Iowa. But Obama gets a bit better, even in the desultory context of an ongoing panderathon:

Two years ago I had a chance to travel to Israel and it left a lasting impression on me. I have long understood Israel’s great dilemma, it’s need for security in a difficult neighborhood and it’s quest for peace with its neighbors, but there is no substitute for meeting the people of Israel. Seeing the terrain, experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café. And I know how much Israelis crave peace.

Not all Israelis crave peace, it should be said. But the majority of them usually do. And even then, in mid pander, Obama doesn’t ignore the Palestinians’ struggle:

I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace. I will strengthen Israel’s security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side by side in peace and security with Israel’s status as a Jewish state ensured so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams.

The point here, it seems to me, is clear: there can only be peace if there are two states. The fate of Israel and Palestine are inextricably interwoven. Obama then talks about Iran before arriving at the nettlesome issue of his own church:

It is true that my Pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who will be retiring this month, is somebody who on occasion can say controversial things…He was very active in the South Africa divestment movement and you will recall that there was a tension that arose between the African American and the Jewish communities during that period when we were dealing with apartheid in South Africa, because Israel and South Africa had a relationship at that time…

But I have never heard an anti-Semitic [remark] made inside of our church. I have never heard anything that would suggest anti-Semitism on part of the Pastor. He is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don’t agree with. And I suspect there are some of the people in this room who have heard relatives say some things that they don’t agree with. Including, on occasion directed at African Americans.

So the point I make is this that I understand the concerns and the sensitivities and one of my goals constantly in my public career has been to try to bridge what was a historically powerful bond between the African American and Jewish communities that has been frayed in recent years.

Um, not only is the part about South Africa historically accurate, and pretty telling, but the later material on lingering racism in the Jewish community is gutsy and true enough. As for his own non-relationship with Farrakhan, here’s what Obama says:

Louis Farrakhan is a resident of Chicago and as a consequence he has been active in a range of community activities, particularly around ex-offenders and dealing with them. I have been a consistent, before I go any further, a consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan, nobody challenges that. And what is true is that, recently this is probably, I guess last year. An award was given to Farrakhan for his work on behalf of ex-offenders completely unrelated to his controversial statements. And I believe that was a mistake and showed a lack of sensitivity to Jewish community and I said so.

Yawn. Actually, double yawn. Because that’s the other part of Sunday’s speech we heard regurgitated in tonight’s debate. But Obama’s best lines Sunday come when he addresses the danger of the American Jewish community’s blind support for Israel:

I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.

Yikes! Did he really say that? Did he really allow that it might be okay to criticize the Israeli government? Oh, my pearls! And he went on from there, suggesting that the status quo in Israeli/Palestinian relations is unsustainable: reiterating that there will have to be a two-state solution, that the Palestinians will have to give up the right of return (perhaps in exchange for compensation), but that their state will have to be contiguous. Nothing specific on Jerusalem’s fate; that can come in time.

And then there’s this, a shout-out to the social justice wing of American Jewry, a historical appeal to the audience to look beyond positioning on Israel when choosing a candidate to back. Which would mean turning away from the Republican Party:

Well look, the Jewish community is a) diverse, b) has interests beyond Israel. There is a … the tradition of the Jewish community in America as a progressive force that is concerned with the poor, is concerned with the vulnerable, is concerned with children, is concerned with civil rights, is concerned with civil liberties. Those are values that I believe are much more evident in our Democratic Party and that can’t be forgotten. I think that what I’ve seen, and you would know better than I would, is that to the extent that there’s been bleeding over into the Republican Party, it all has to do with this issue of Israel. And what I would simply suggest is look at the consequences George Bush’s policies.

It takes real courage to walk into a room full of Jewish leaders and tell them, among other things, that unequivocal support for Israel stands in the way of peace. And also that it’s not okay to use the word schwarze. That’s a major political risk, a roll of the dice that might cost Obama Ohio, but could, beyond that, help bring pressure to bear on Israel to change its egregious policies. Because most American Jews, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, are far more progressive than their ostensible leaders.

But Tim Russert doesn’t want to hear about any of that. Because if he could have had just one more minute tonight to work through his interrogation techniques, Obama would have cracked under the harsh glare of the lights. He would have broken wide open on national television, screaming that the guy, yeah, that one, in the third row, with the curly hair and the Chai necklace, is a kike. Then Obama would have admitted that he is a Muslim. And that he’ll choose the reanimated corpse of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as his running mate. And America would have had the answers it needs. Because Barack Obama isn’t courageous. Tim Russert is.

[Thanks to my dad, who sent me the JTA story linked way above. Dad has been a die-hard Hillary supporter. Now he's wavering. Also, Unfogged had a post up on this story earlier today. At least I think so. You can see for yourself.]

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