I don’t pretend to expertise in diplomatic and nuclear negotiations . But I do know something about identity, particularly in the context of the American Jewish and Israeli communities. And I have to say, after reading the much talked about Ally by Michael Oren’s (which prompted me to re-read President Obama’s Dreams From My Father) I have reached one very important conclusion: In an effort to serve his policy arguments with the President, Oren over-stepped and articulated foolish, if not even bigoted sentiments toward Obama.
Ally has at its core the perfectly legitimate political and diplomatic goals of preventing the United States from making concessions to a nuclear Iran that Oren believes are an existential danger to Israel. But he undermines his credibility by rooting the argument in a deeply flawed characterological attack on the U.S. President’s identity--made all the more troubling because as an American Jew and Israeli, Oren ought to know about living in two different worlds.
Oren lays the foundation for what he describes as an Obama personality rooted in “sangfroid” and a “cold-blooded need for control.” His reading of Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father demonstrates from an accomplished historian at best a clumsy and cursory examination of a young man’s complex bildungsroman and, at worst, a rash, offensive and disingenuous attack on Obama’s character, focused on his broken home and his Black, “Muslim,” international otherness.
It’s a particularly hurtful and egregious attack coming from an American Jew, who, by his own admission, came of age in the 1960s, was reared with a deep and pained consciousness of the Holocaust, understood and celebrated the triumph of the creation of Israel, empathized with the black struggle for civil rights and protests against the war in Vietnam. He’s even married to a former Deadhead from San Francisco. He’s supposed to get that our identities are formed in the cauldron of our youth well on into adulthood. And that we many of us also make choices different from those choices made by those who raise us.
In fact, while describing in Ally a clarifying moment about his own character development and upbringing in New Jersey in the 1960s, Oren writes that Jewish nationalism became for him not merely a matter of survival for the Jewish people. “Zionism was not merely a reaction to discrimination,” he writes. “But an affirmation of what I felt from an early age to be my fundamental identity. For deep-rooted reasons, Zionism defined my being.” Heck, I related to that feeling too! One must note here, that Oren writes of himself that he didn’t go to Israel until he was 15, became a citizen at 24, and only recently gave up his American passport--in 2009.
But he doesn’t seem to apply that same tolerance for “finding oneself” to the President. In a section of the book entitled “Obama 101,” Oren takes aim at Obama not for being “anti-Israel.” (After all, he as well as anyone knows that the Obama Administration’s support for Israel--in Congress, in the Pentagon, at the U.N.--is equal to or greater than any other American administration. Those are facts.)
Rather, it’s character, a curious assertion, if not comical in its awkwardness.
Oren draws upon Dreams From My Father in order to contrast two young boys’ first experience of the hunt. For readers of Obama’s memoir, one may recount the mystery and exoticism as well as the reflections on self and otherness that Obama was cognizant of as a young boy being raised by his mother and grandparents first in Hawaii and then in Indonesia (before his return to Hawaii.) In Indonesia his time was complicated but formative, as one expects it to be. There’s the street life and extreme poverty mixed with a hybrid Islam and animist culture, all against the backdrop of his mother’s determination to raise him, educate him and advance her own career. Among the many issues he touched upon, Obama struggles mightily with his relationship to and understanding of his biological father, his step-father, and his own growth as a young man. As this last week showed in his demeanor and comportment on the historical stage from Washington to Charleston, Barack Obama is anything but cold. It seems to me he turned out alright and pretty well integrated, as the shrinks like to say. I fail to see how this is anything other than totally admirable.
“Most people form their identities in childhood, but Obama learned who he was and what he stood for relatively late, in his twenties. His early years were plagued by instability; he was raised by a twice-divorced mother and a grandmother Obama later described--dispassionately--as a ‘typical white person.’ That same sangfroid characterized a chilling chapter in the book in which the nine-year-old Obama sees his Indonesian stepfather decapitating a chicken.”
Oren then goes on to quote a passage from Dreams From My Father that, to my reading, was more attuned to Gabriel Garcia Marquez than the clumsy and inartful misappropriations that Oren seems to be hinting at with his allusion to cold-hearted decapitations. Obama’s grandmother was a “typical white person?” That sentiment is simply not found in the book.
Anyway, “decapitate,” is a loaded word these days, isn’t it? We Jews, you see, piously swing chickens over our own heads, absolving us of sin, before a shochet or ritual slaughterer “chops” their chicken heads off and donates the proceeds to charity. Am I over-reading?
Read for yourself.
“The fact that the young Obama was dazzled by this grisly sight revealed a remarkable degree of emotional detachment. At a similar age, I went fishing with my father and watched as he caught a carp and mangled it. But instead of being fascinated, the experience traumatized me. Years passed before I could even look at seafood.”
To be clear, carp is kosher. Seafood is not.
The cold and calculating nine year old Obama in the jungles of Indonesia, drawn in his detachment to the shedding of blood--perish the thought! But the schlemiel father of Oren, mangling fish and scarring a traumatized son from even looking at seafood (not to mention aquarium tanks in all those New Jersey trips to the dentist’s office.) The nerd as hero who overcomes his fears and joins an army, serving his nation; while the calculating internationalist unfeelingly decides our fate. I don’t buy it.
Speaking of wrapped fish, the carp bought by my father-in-law’s grandmother, in Depression era Williamsburg, symbolized, as it did for many of that generation, the romantic memory of his Bubbe clubbing and then gutting a carp each Friday morning to make gefilte fish. Eighty years later there is no better taste, he claims. Then again, my father-in-law was a Betar-nik from the tough streets of Brooklyn. In those days, different Williamsburg clubs mattered.
Besides his concern with Iran, Oren criticizes Obama’s affinity for an “idealized” Israel based on the very disagreements that stand at the core of Israeli society today, namely, whether or not the settlement project in Judea and Samaria undermine the long-term legitimacy of a Jewish and democratic Israel. Walking close to the line of some of the toxic discourse coming out of the Knesset today, Oren suggests that to criticize the settlement project in general, as he claims Obama is doing, is to do so out of his affinity for a post-colonial mindset and an affinity for Palestinians. “Repulsed by the colonialist legacy he encountered in Kenya, he may also have shared the sense of identification felt by some African-American--among them Condoleeza Rice--with the Palestinians.”
It’s a curious assertion Oren makes, especially in light of the President’s recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Obama asserted, “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind.”
What Obama says is indivisible Oren just goes ahead and divides? Why? How?
(Obama’s interviews with Goldberg, as an aside, are perhaps his most cogent and well-reasoned thoughts on Jews and Zionism. The admiration is deep and apparent. I’d recommend reading them.)
Sometimes it seems that our discourse about Israel is so debased, with the Right and Left spending far more time demonizing one another rather than rationally and yes, dispassionately, trying to find common language and common ground in order to safeguard and preserve the Jewish state we dreamed for and built.
In my own work in the Jewish community, I have seen over and over again from this President an admirable ability to laugh at himself--especially in the face of the some of the most vile and egregious racism that, painfully, is very much alive today. As a man and as President, Obama is hated more broadly and more viscerally precisely because of his black otherness. Oren the American Jew and Israeli knows otherness and vile hatred as well. This small but significant passage is embarrassing and detracts from his larger and more legitimate argument.
President Obama has increased military funding and cooperation with Israel even while disagreeing about settlements; he stands by Israel in the U.N. and on the world stage; he says that if he can’t get the deal with Iran (that he agreed Congress should review) he’ll walk away and reserve the right to use of force himself. Obama has made mistakes in his relationship with Israel (I wish he's gone to Jerusalem right after Cairo) just as Prime Minister Netanyahu has in his relationship with the United States. But the alliance is strong and unbreakable. It should be treated that way by its most prominent diplomats. So knock off the personal attacks. They don't even make sense.
One expects from an ally the qualities one seeks in a friend--loyalty, reasonableness, kindness in the face of conflict, and above all, humor. Hopefully we will see more of each from Oren in the days and weeks ahead.