By David Page for Matzav.com
I first met Barack Hussein Obama almost twenty years ago. But in a very different context than most people know President Obama today. I was a student in his class, and he was an adjunct lecturer teaching a course filled with young future attorneys on the topic of “equal protection and equal rights under the U.S. Constitution.” He was only a state senator from Illinois then, but his star was beginning to rise, and his charisma was already obvious to us. Not that we would have predicted that he or anyone else would become president a decade later. What kind of an impression did he make then? He had good sense of humor, a serious almost fiery approach to the topic of the course, a topic which he clearly cared about on a personal level. He had adoring fans among the students in the class, who hung on his words and laughed at his jokes. He was young and passionate, he was eloquent. He was very much in the spirit of the neighborhood in which the University of Chicago Law School was located. That neighborhood was called Hyde Park-Kenwood, an integrated multi-ethnic Chicago neighborhood so filled with secular left-leaning Jews that, it was rumored, even the last Lubavitcher Rebbe R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson, during his lifetime had made a conscious decision not to send his emissaries into the neighborhood where Jews were so doctrinaire in their views. (That changed while I was in law school a couple of years after the Rebbe’s death, and now there is a Chabad house in the neighborhood.) This was a liberal stronghold, a neighborhood that had voted 96% for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and showed similarly overwhelming percentages in 2008 and 2012 for Barack Obama. Spending time with then State Senator Obama in a relatively small group at the University in that neighborhood several times a week, watching him respond to our questions and our comments, gave me a different perspective on the man who would only 11 years later become the 44th President of the United States.
Today is the first day of the post-Obama era, and history will eventually paint a clearer picture for all of us of the true meaning of this President and his legacy towards us as a people. Yet from the far shore of the now-past administration, It is perhaps worthwhile to take stock of President Obama’s relationship with Israel in particular and with the Jewish people in general. In doing so, I am not speaking for anyone but myself. Yet perhaps because I am one of the very few observant Torah-true Jews who knew him in a different, less formal and more relaxed context, my perspective may offer some insights different from those typically advanced in these pages.
To be clear from the outset, I am not in agreement with many of the President’s policies towards Israel or with many of his social policies in the US (not that disagreement ever disrupted his sleep patterns). This article is not intended to be an apologia or whitewashing of those policies. Rather, it is intended to explain some of the issues that may have seemed perplexing to the Jewish community during his presidency, and in particular puzzling or negative in the eyes of the Torah-true community.
I will say from the outset (so as not to lead on readers who harbor conspiracy theories) that on a personal level, I do not believe that President Obama is either anti-Semitic or a radical Islamic figure, and those who believe that he is either of those categories in my view are suffering from a misapprehension. That is because they misunderstand of who he really is and the ideological source of his policies. In fact, even more than that, I am certain that the President was deeply offended by those misapprehensions about his beliefs, because he indeed opposed the beliefs attributed to him in principle. Rather, his policies came from a deeply held conviction that it was possible to achieve a kind of liberal utopian vision of what the world could be like if we only attempted to make it so. President Obama’s views of the world in fact boil to four core principles of belief that have been a guide=star for him both before and during his presidency. Those four core principles are as follows:
- The main narrative of human societies everywhere in the world is one of “oppressor versus oppressed,” and the main goal of government and policy is to uproot that oppression and uplift the oppressed.
- It is possible to determine who is oppressed very simply: By looking at who holds economic and political power and social and economic advantage.
- Any society based on an ethnic definition of peoplehood is inherently discriminatory and racist, unless that society falls under the category of an “oppressed ethnicity” – a double standard for oppression (ok for victims to practice “reverse discrimination” but not ok for the oppressors .
- It is possible to reverse oppression and discrimination by pressing/forcing on the oppressor strong and forceful policies that further the rights of the oppressed against the oppressors and the victims of discrimination against those who discriminate.
And 5. When we do all of the above, war and hatred and violence will disappear automatically, and a utopia of peace and tolerance will be created – again automatically.
This is in fact a very clear and simple and powerful view of the world. Yet unfortunately, it does not correspond to reality. It is a world view that is not to be confused with anti-Semitism or radical Islam. Rather, it is the world view of many or even most of the residents of Hyde Park on the Chicago South Side, let us call it Hyde Park liberalism. Hyde Park liberalism may be unknown in New York or Israel or elsewhere, but it is well known by those who know Chicago’s South Side around the University of Chicago Law School. That Hyde Park liberal world view is the true context from which the President entered the White House intellectually, and that is what animates his policies. It is a liberalism that today finds echoes and sympathy on most university campuses as well and in the academic world.
How does this form of utopian Hyde Park liberalism play out in terms of Obama Administration policy regarding Israel and the Jewish people? In the order set forth above, President Obama’s policies were enunciated as follows (I am paraphrasing now):
- Israeli Oppression and Arab Victimization. In President Obama’s view, the Arabs in the Land of Israel do not have their own state and have struggled passionately but unsuccessfully against the settlement of the Land of Israel by Jews in the past hundred years. As such, the Arabs in the region are by definition oppressed, even though they vastly outnumber Jews approximately 350 million to 6 million and have a territory vastly larger than that of the tiny State of Israel. It does not matter that the refugee problem was not caused by Israel, which integrates millions of Arabs as full citizens and confers on them the benefits of the Middle East’s only democracy and non-petroleum-based successful economy. Terrorism, according to this view? It is simply a function of what must be oppression. Thus, the task is to reverse “Israeli oppression.”
- The Jewish State as Racist Because Jewish. Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago is a highly ethnically integrated neighborhood. No would=be resident has to pass a “law of return” test of ethnicity to move to the neighborhood. It accepts everyone (albeit not economically, because rents and housing prices are prohibitively high). If Israel insists on its Jewishness, in this view, it must be racist and bigoted, because the Jews are in control and therefore must be oppressors. For that reason, by contrast, it is also far more acceptable that both Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank should create judenrviein areas where Jews enter at the peril of their lives; that is because the Arabs are an “oppressed ethnicity” that is entitled to create its own homogeneous Arab territory without being racist or discriminatory. So it is the task of government and policy to reverse Israeli “Jewish discrimination.”
- If Lifestyle Choices Are Regarded As “Deviant” by Society, That Must Be Oppression. The same ideology informs the attitude towards “alternative lifestyle choices” that the Torah labels as “abominations.” Because society rejected those lifestyles, those practicing those lifestyles necessarily must be oppressed. So it is the task of government and policy to reverse that oppression.
When all of this is accomplished, so the President’s and Secretary of State Kerry’s vision runs, then peace and security and coexistence will be achieved automatically – the Camp David utopia begun in Carter’s time and continuing through the Clinton and Obama Administrations. The Administration’s policies dovetailed with those of J Street and the Zionist Union in Israel because those movements are filled with Jews who share the liberal utopian vision and reject the vision of the Torah. Of course it also did not help that the President and others tended to label anyone who disagreed with their views as “obstacles to progress” or even primitive and unwise rather than trying to understand and learn from those opposing views. But one of the common features of Hyde Park liberal dogma is the tendency to dismiss those who disagree as thoughtless or even evil.
Now we turn to the Torah-Jewish view. The kind of liberal dogma described just now obviously differs substantially from the Torah Jew’s understanding of the presence of Jews in the Land of Israel. As Torah Jews, there are certain principles that are clear. Most importantly, we understand our return to Israel as the fulfillment of an age-old yearning for building a Jewish life in the place in the world where G-d’s presence can be felt most intensely. Less important but also significantly, we understand Arab terrorism as a rejection of all claims we have to the land of our ancestral heritage, G-d given according to the Torah, and also as a shocking expression of brutality and bloodthirstiness that has strong cultural elements in the Islamic world and is not somehow an expression of frustration or oppression of an “oppressed people.” In the area of social issues, we understand traditional marriage between a man and a woman as G-d’s commandment for maintaining proper social relations and family life and also sustaining the relationship between people and G-d Himself. In short, this is not a matter of President Obama as a representative of Islam or anti-Semitism. Instead, this is conflict whose source can be found in the ideology of utopian liberalism versus Torah values.
That does not mean we are doomed to engage in acrimonious conflict. In understanding the source of the differences and policy debates, it is possible to more thoughtfully and constructively engage in those debates. While it is too late to do so towards the Obama Administration, it will be useful to cultivate a more nuanced understanding for future liberal administrations. By contrast, hurling insulting epithets at any US Administration is not a useful exercise and tends to harm us. Instead, as R’ Avi Shafran of Agudas Yisrael in the US has pointed out, our Sages counsel a much more diplomatic and polite approach to the rulers of countries hosting the Jewish people in its long Exile. We forget at our own peril the injunction of the Sages about the respect to be shown to a ruler, whether we disagree with that ruler or not.
Of course, despite all that has been written in this article, there is a more important factor at work. We tend to forget that the really decisive factor in whether or not any given nation will be favorably disposed to us is not the ruler but ourselves: Whether we as individuals and as a people in a deep, internal way are acting properly as Jews. If we make an effort to do so, the results will be more effective than any efforts at hasbara, according to large portions of Sefer Devarim. Then G-d Himself will cause us to find favor in the hearts of those who rule over us. And that point, at least, is a reason to focus far less on President Obama or any other President of the United States and more on improving our own actions and interactions in accordance with the Torah itself.
David Page is an American and Israeli partner with the law firm Woolfson Weinstein & Co. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children and is the author of Rav Gustman: The Youngest Dayan of Vilna and the Illustrious Rosh Yeshiva in New York and Jerusalem (Artscroll 5777/2017).