Aaron David Miller on Obama and US Jews

Aaron David Miller writes on The Israel Litmus Test in the Los Angeles Times.

Things seem different across the pond post Mearsheimer and Walt and their ‘expose’ of an Israel Lobby which seeks, and manages, to influence US foreign policy against its better interests and judgement. The classic theme of a small bunch of Jews exerting improbably influence over what is currently the world’s only superpower. This is as far-fetched as it ever was, and pretty much every worthwhile critic panned the book for poor scholarship (prejudice can have this effect on scholars) – though to the discredit of a small number, some could hardly manage to suppress their excitement about how transgressive it was and how upset it made people (Jews, mostly). My suspicion is that, despite their collective successes in the US and Europe, M&W gave Jews (whose – I hypothesise – interest and stake in Israel is indexed to how secure a future for Jews they perceive in the countries where they live) a sense of perchedness that they didn’t have before the London Review of Books published the work of M&W in 2006.

Miller thinks that some pro-Israel activists are “confused and ill-informed American Jews” (none of whom he names) who are making false charges about hostility to Israel on the part of Obama and his adviser Robert Malley. The first instance of this type of thing he refers to is from 1990 but this article focuses on the charges against Obama and Malley, who is his friend. His most serious assertion is that these charges:

“…reflect two troubling reactions, or, more precisely, overreactions, within the American Jewish community that undermine its credibility and harm American interests in the process.”

“Harm American interests”… Standing on its own, and put like that, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this observation. So what comes next?

He proceeds to make a number of points. He disposes with the charges, which are ‘ridiculous’ and goes on to talk about the character of American Jews in a way which has definite shades of the Tony Judt type of ‘concern’ which presents a lot of Jews as psychologically gone-wrong and in need of help “victim narrative”. It should be noted that Miller is treading a fine line trying to criticise a group that he is identifying as very sensitive, and it is probably for this reason that he adopts an overtly sympathetic and sometimes patronising tone to offset the hard words. The delicacy of his mission is probably why he identifies himself as Jewish – to earn himself the right to criticise Jews. Of course, being Jewish doesn’t – or shouldn’t – earn him that right, or rather, being from any other group does not preclude the right to criticise people who happen to be Jewish.

ADM basically says “Relax, Jews”.

The fact is (and many American Jews are reluctant to accept it), the conflict in the United States between Israel’s supporters and its detractors is over. And the pro-Israel community has won.

This might or might not be good advice (and according to the presenters at this conference on Israel and the Great Powers last week, it is). But the fact remains, he lumps Jews together in a morass of existential hypersensitivity:

The first piece of that dysfunction is what you might call the “cosmic oy vey” — the tendency of many American Jews active in pro-Israeli causes to worry about everything, without a capacity to identify what is important and what isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Jews – and yes, I am one of them – worry for a living. Their history compels them to and to be always vigilant.

This stereotype about Jews somewhat undermines his delicate handling of the overreactions “within the American Jewish community” above. What’s he going to do with this stereotype?

He chides. He has a good go at this nameless, ill-defined morass of hypersensitivity that he has set up for the readers as if we will know who he means:

This “us versus them” mentality still runs deep, and it is particularly harmful when it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue. That conflict is not some kind of morality play in which the forces of evil do battle against the forces of light. It is a conflict in which both sides have legitimate needs and requirements and do both good and bad things in pursuit of them.

He shoots at shadows and, amidst the sympathy and paternal indulgence of Jewish fears, somehow manages to allow the shadows to stand for all American Jews, imposing ‘litmus tests’ and inevitably evoking the idea of the Jewish Lobby.

I don’t intend to cast Miller in the same mould as Mearsheimer, Walt, Judt or any of the anti-Zionists or antisemites. The man is sticking up for his friend and trying to tell those Jewish voters who are acting racist to stop, think and pull themselves together. But his piece would have been immeasurably improved if he’d referred to examples and he also would have done well to mention that Jewish leaders and spokespeople (including him) are publicly calling on people to ignore the smears, as The Forward did in January:

a parade of Jewish politicians and organizational leaders, the elite of what’s called the Jewish lobby, has spoken out aggressively to reject the rumors and defend Obama — but it hasn’t helped much. Early indications are that Jewish voters will spurn Obama in numbers large enough to hurt him. And all the efforts of the vaunted Jewish establishment haven’t convinced them otherwise.

That’s the secret of Jewish lobbying success: It’s not about the professional influence-peddlers and fundraisers. It’s about frightened, angry Jews, thousands of them, determined to stop anyone they suspect is against them. Once they get going, no one can talk them out of it. They feel powerless and vulnerable before enemies great and small, and they have the clout to do something about it. And they don’t always check the details before hitting the barricades.

What “frightened, angry Jews, thousands of them” aren’t is a Jewish lobby, Zionist lobby, or any other kind of lobby. They’re crowd of unrelated people with the same thing on their mind.

Beyond the false smears on Obama (that he is a secret Muslim – and it’s safe to say that the emphasis in on the ‘Muslim’ bit rather than the ‘secret’ bit) Eric Trager in Commentary still has serious reservations about Obama. He wonders whether Obama accepts the idea “that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics, rather than strategic interest” whether this is altering his campaign strategy. Mearsheimer and Walt foster precisely this belief so it’s reasonable to ask whether the candidates – particularly the one with the ill-defined but portentous messages of “change” – believes it too and, if so, what he will do about it if he gets into power.

“Rather, Jewish concerns regarding Obama’s candidacy should focus on whether Obama and his posse view American Jewry as a stumbling block in the way of promoting U.S. interests in the Middle East. This is the insidious crux of the “Israel Lobby” thesis, and Obama’s prior statements to Abunimah—as well as the writings of Power and Brzezinski—are hardly reassuring.”

If Obama holds similar opinions to Miller, maybe he does.

Message to ‘American Jewry’? The one I’m taking is pretty inhibiting. Different from the one I’d have taken if there had simply been an article which said, as The Forward did:

We reject the politics of incitement and fear-mongering. We worry that this will be the 2008 equivalent of the Swift Boating of John Kerry. We do not endorse candidates, but we utterly reject attempts to demonize any candidate through the abuse of Jewish sensitivities. Barack Obama is a thoughtful, progressive American leader. To malign him is to deprive America of a powerful voice for the good.

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