If elected, Obama will be the first president to demonstrate so many symptoms of what Joyce called the agenbite of inwit (from ME, meaning “remorse of conscience”), a soul-sickness carrying the potential both to debilitate and to creatively free the introspective man or woman. For Joyce, the concept of the agenbite is expansive enough to cover nearly all those in the modern age grasping for and unable to find concrete, stable concepts of identity and historical progression by which to gain a foothold on their world—- a universal concept.
But at the same time, it is no accident that the paradigm case of the agenbite, Joyce’s autobiographical projection Stephen Dedalus, is called a “jesting jew jesuit.” The condition is both a blessing and a curse the Jewish people have bequeathed onto the societies in which they have dwelt in their nomadic wanderings, and a bridge that links any “stranger in a strange land” to each other and to Jewish history.
Small wonder that Joyce bound together the lands of Israel and Ireland in the “Cyclops” sequence in Ulysses, that the greatest song ever written about the suffering and dispossession of southerners in the American Civil War was composed by a half-Jew half-Mohawk from rural Ontario, or that (as once and future Obama adviser Samantha Power documented in her wonderful book A Problem From Hell) Henry Morgenthau, a German-Jewish emigrant to America, was the first man to sound the alarms about the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, which in turn inspired the Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin to dedicate his life to defining and banning the crime of genocide years before the crime was itself perpetrated on the Jews.
Unconsciously through his biography, consciously through the choices that shaped his life, Obama has tied himself inextricably to that heritage of dispossession, disaster, and hope of restoration, and it underpins both the promise and the risks of elevating him to the presidency.
As for no other major party candidate in our nation’s history, Jews are Obama’s natural constituency.
[Part 2 in the debate over Obama and the Jews appears here]
Daniel Koffler graduated from Yale in 2006 with a BA in philosophy. He has written for Reason, Dissent, Jewcy, and the Guardian’s “Comment is Free,” among other outlets.