[This article is Part 1 in a PJM debate]
This November, the overwhelming majority of American Jews will vote for Barack Obama. In the most recent poll of Jewish voters, Obama led John McCain by two-to-one. This makes perfect sense since the vast majority of American Jews are liberal Democrats who oppose the Iraq war, have become steadily more liberal and Democratic throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, and aren’t likely to have any major objection to a candidate like Obama whose position on Israeli security is slightly to the right of the current Israeli government.
That’s an odd set of background circumstances for the interminable chattering this campaign has produced about “Obama’s Jewish problem,” which seems to consist of the ordinary opposition of Republican Jews to any Democratic candidate, plus scurrilous rumor-mongering that begins and ends with Obama’s middle name. Granted, sociopaths like Apollo Braun make for good copy, but they don’t speak for all or even many Jews, and they shouldn’t get credit for doing so.
What journalists interested in telling the actual story of Obama’s Jewish support might notice — that is, by investigating the depth and content of Obama’s support among Jews rather than passing off sensational anecdotes and calling them a trend — is that Obama will not only win the Jewish vote by a huge margin, but also has a greater affinity with the culture and cultural history of American Jews than any previous major party candidate.
Partly that’s because of the details of his biography and the effect they had on shaping his life. “Stranger in a strange land” doesn’t begin to adequately capture the experience of a half-Luo Kenyan, half-undifferentiated white child growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia in the care of a mother and grandparents who were sorted, in virtue of America’s one drop rule, into a fundamentally different racial identity than his own. He was never quite black enough for some blacks to accept him as black, certainly not white enough to count as white. And as we’ve learned at wearying length, not Christian enough, no matter how effusive his professions of Christianity — not even after the emergence of his gruesome yet decidedly Christian preacher for a depressingly large number of Americans to get beyond his Muslim grandfather’s birthright encoded in a middle name he didn’t choose.
To belong to a society as an essential part without ever feeling or being accepted as a perfect fit within it, and to consequently experience history as a struggle between conflicting identities: That is the life-story of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, after haskalah. As Oona King, the black Jew from Sheffield who represented Bethnal Green and Bow in Parliament until the execrable George Galloway took her seat, put it in her review of Dreams From My Father, “Obama is constantly an outsider in search of real community” who “writes candidly about himself as well as about the race divisions that maim America” with “a heightened ability to understand antagonistic world views.” The themes of Dreams From My Father, in addition to being black and white and American themes, are Jewish themes par excellence.
Which is why the identification and captivation with Jewish and Zionist ideas that Obama expressed to Jeffrey Goldberg recently came so naturally to him. No self-aware person with Obama’s background could have failed to notice the harmony between his experience and the experiences of the Jews. But more importantly, he augmented that harmony by living a life deeply informed by Jewish influences and profoundly if not uniquely Jewish in the shape it took. Though not a Person of the Book, he is a person of books, of philosophy and literature, in a richer sense than any president (excepting Lincoln) since the early days of the American republic — with all the baggage as well as the benefits attendant upon a commitment to a life of self-reflection. The otherwise inexplicable angst, hesitation, and “on the other hand”-ism he frequently displays in answering what ought to be straightforward questions are a direct product of the time he spent in latter-day Talmud study in a particularly philosophically-inclined law faculty at Chicago.
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.