US Jews and Israelis split on Obama

US and Israeli bloggers comment on growing Israeli hostility toward the US president.

A Jerusalem Post poll has revealed that only four per cent of Israeli Jews believe that Barack Obama, the US president, is pro-Israel [GALLO/GETTY] 

Israelis share their views on Barack Obama

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As Barack Obama, the US president, prepares to meet Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, a recent poll in the Jerusalem Post suggests that just four per cent of Israelis believe the Obama administration supports their country.

To learn more about how Israeli Jews view Obama, Al Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher toured West Jerusalem where he found widespread hostility toward the US president.

We showed the film to some American and Israeli bloggers and asked them whether there is a growing divide between the views of American Jews – 78 per cent of whom voted for Obama – and Israelis.

MJ Rosenberg – American blogger

This is a very disturbing clip. Israel has been galloping to the right since 2000 or so but this particular type of racist attitude appears new.

Of course, there are many people who speak that way about Obama here in the US too. 

The cable networks are full of hate directed against Obama, along with the insistence that he is a Muslim and a terrorist sympathiser.

The difference between these Israelis and the Americans who say the same things is that in the US, Jews do not talk about Obama that way. He received 78 per cent of the Jewish vote and still has a high level of support in the Jewish community.

This clip demonstrates that there is a wide gap between American Jews and Israeli Jews on Barack Obama. American Jews, who know him well, like him and trust him. Israelis do not.

“… There is a wide gap between American Jews and Israeli Jews on Barack Obama. American Jews, who know him well, like and trust him. Israelis do not”

MJ Rosenberg, American blogger

The racist attitude toward Obama that we see in this clip will make it harder for Obama to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Israelis miss George Bush who was very unpopular with American Jews. Israelis thought he was the “best friend” Israel ever had while American Jews thought he was disastrous for America and Israel.

The good news is that if the Obama administration decided to push hard for an agreement, it won’t matter what these racists on the Israeli street say. Even if these people represented a majority of Israelis, and I don’t think they do, their views would not matter. An American president has the power and authority to achieve an end to the occupation and peace if he has the will.

At this point, we do not know if Obama has the will. He should not be daunted by people like those in the clip. The racists will always be among us, in the US and in Israel. A president’s job is to ignore them and push ahead. 

But time is running out. If nothing comes out of Tuesday’s meetings between Obama, Abbas and Netanyahu, I will not be optimistic that anything will happen over the next few years.

One more point. Those people Clayton Swisher interviewed were open about their feelings. They are full of hate and proud of it. But the people in the US – in the [Israeli] lobby and in Congress – who will try to thwart Obama’s efforts do not speak like that. They say they support peace. 

They say they don’t hate anybody. But, in the end, they continuously block progress and sustain the occupation. These people, who talk more nicely, are also more dangerous than the people in the clip.

MJ Rosenberg is a senior fellow on foreign policy at Media Matters Action Network. He previously spent 11 years as the director of policy at the Israel Policy Forum, 15 years as an aide to various senators and congressmen and four years at AIPAC. Read his blog here.

Steve Clemons – American blogger

Al Jazeera has just run a provocative, but important clip capturing some public attitudes of Israeli Jewish views toward Obama. One of those questioned – an otherwise seemingly reasonable young man – said that he would shoot the president if he had the chance and others had no problem furthering the fabrication that he is an Arab or a Muslim.

Max Blumenthal, the author of Republican Gomorrah, did a similar experiment earlier this year around the time of Israel’s elections and found plenty of young and inebriated Israelis to publicly say some outrageous things about Barack Obama. 

Clayton Swisher’s subjects are not drunk but are offering their comments while sober and during the day. 

If one did a similar set of interviews in any number of Arab countries, I think it would be easy to find many who would say pretty awful anti-Semitic things about Israeli Jews, so there is no path to moral superiority on one side of the Arab/Israeli line over the other. 

However, there is a question of whether more Jews in Israel – who feel threatened because of what the media has been feeding them or feel threatened by the prospects of Obama seriously pursuing a peace plan – are diverging from American Jewish views or not in their perspective about the president. 

This video clip is not scientific and cannot really answer that question, but my own sense of leaders in the American Jewish community, whether from [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] AIPAC leaders or from the American Jewish Committee, is that they would strongly protest the kind of statements that people in the Swisher/Al Jazeera video are making. 

What is more disconcerting, however, is the seeming absence of criticism of this kind of threatening and racist commentary by leading Israeli government officials. 

Over the last few years, until the healthy national shift represented in the election of the Democratic Party of Japan, I wrote now and then about the growth of a strident, dark, pugnacious nationalism in Japan in which violence – threatened and real – were more and more a part of the tool kit of Japan’s far right nationalists.

They intimidated leading elected and civil service officials and their families for expressing what they believed were unacceptable views on China, on the imperial system, or Japan’s past historical deeds.

What was disconcerting was the reluctance of both Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his successor Prime Minister Abe to criticise this violence and to speak out against Japan’s growing thuggery.

Today, what is more worrisome than the views on the street that Al Jazeera was able to record is the absence of national condemnation of those views. 

I remember when a former deputy spokesman of Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs once told me that Israel’s diaspora – including AIPAC – often try to help so much that it hurts, that Israel’s view of the world sometimes was different and less dire and certainly more complicated than the diaspora groups could comprehend.

Well, in this case, I think it is the American Jewish community that has a far greater fix on appropriate conduct with regard to Barack Obama than some of the rank and file citizens of Israel. This is a time when listening to the diaspora voices would be important. 

And reversing the obvious ignorance of many in Israel about Barack Obama’s faith and background is long overdue.

Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Read his blog here.

Roi Ben-Yehuda – Israeli blogger

As the report by Clayton Swisher illustrates, many Israelis are distrustful of Obama’s policy vis-à-vis their country. Regrettably, sometimes this distrust is expressed through a vile form of ignorance and racism. 

But this should not distract us from the core motivation animating these attitudes: insecurity. The general feeling in Israel is that Obama has thrown the country under a bus. 

To remedy this, some have suggested that Obama speak to the Israeli public in the same heart-felt manner that he addressed the Arab/Muslim world in Cairo. This is undoubtedly a good idea.

However,  Obama is not the only one who can help Israel. 

One interesting aspect of the growing tension between Washington and Jerusalem is that by and large, American Jews have been and remain resolute supporters of Obama. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of American Jews back the US president (compared to a minuscule percentage of Israelis).

While it is possible that American Jews support Obama despite his position on Israel – they could, for example, be really receptive to his health care initiative – it stands to reason that Obama’s position on Israel factors into their overall assessment.

Given Netanyahu’s chronic intransigence regarding the peace process, it is likely that the emerging ideological cleavage between the two communities will continue to grow. 

It is precisely at this point of dissonance that American Jewry needs to step into the picture. 

“The general feeling in Israel is that Obama has thrown the country under a bus. To remedy this, some have suggested that Obama speak to the Israeli public in the same heart-felt manner that he addressed the Arab/Muslim world in Cairo”

Roi Ben-Yehuda, Israeli blogger

Instead of divorce (a secret desire of some liberal Jews), American Jews should make a concerted effort to come closer to Israelis – to engage them in dialogue and debate. American Jews need to successfully make the case to their brothers and sisters in Israel that Obama’s policies are in the interest of both countries.

In addressing Israelis, American Jews should be cognisant of and sensitive to the fact that there is a big difference between living in and talking about the region. But that should not dissuade them from taking a principled and informed stand.   

In many ways American Jewry is an ideal community for this task.

First, there is location. Distance is both a handicap and an advantage. It allows people to see the forest for the trees and gain a valuable and wide-ranging perspective.

Second, the old notion of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is no longer applicable to the region. What happens in Israel and Palestine has direct bearing on the future of the US.

Third, and most important, American Jews have the advantage of responding out of a place of genuine love. Despite the difference between the two communities, a strong bond unites them. At the heart of this bond is the Jewish notion of “Kol Israel Arevim Ze La Ze” – all Jews are responsible for one another.

The forthcoming J Street conference, scheduled for October in Washington DC, should be an opportune time for the new generation of American Jews to articulate their vision vis-à-vis Israel. One hopes for a vision that is mature, independent, compassionate and morally courageous.

A final point, while their sentiments regarding Obama are surely at odds. We should not get too stuck with this. It is important to note that a majority of both communities want to see a secure and prosperous Israel living side-by-side in peace with a Palestinian state.

In a telling poll released this month by the War and Peace index, over 72 per cent of Israelis said that it is urgent to reach an accord with the Palestinians. It is this message – more than the rhetoric of racism or ignorance – that people should listen to.

The words “tough love” have been bandied around a lot when describing Obama’s policy regarding Israel. Unfortunately, when Israelis perceive Obama they tend to focus on the “tough” part of the equation. Perhaps with American Jews, Israelis can begin to feel the love as well.

Roi Ben-Yehuda is an Israeli writer based in the US. He is a regular contributor to Haaretz and France 24. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. His blog can be read here.

Source: Al Jazeera

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