Obama: Good for the Jews?

[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.