I helped organize an event to bring Dan Shapiro to Akron. Dan is a senior foreign policy advisor and National Jewish Outreach Coordinator for Sen. Obama. He came to Akron to speak about Obama’s positions on Israel and other issues of importance to the Jewish community.
Dan, an observant Jew, has an uncommon breadth of knowledge about Israel and the Middle East. He studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Harvard, and at one point considered becoming a historian. (We have that in common — except for the Harvard part.) He worked at the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration, has a seat on the Council of Foreign Relations, and was a staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, under Chairman Lee H. Hamilton.
He’s also a great guy. We used to be on the same JCC basketball team in DC. He’s got a decent jump shot, and can really clean up under the boards.
The event, sponsored by the Ohio Democratic Party, was, frankly successful beyond even my own high expectations. We had 60 people show up at the Shaw JCC, on a miserable, snowy, wind-swept night. (That’s a huge turnout in a community of only 3,000 Jews, this close to election day.)
Dan started around 8 p.m. and spoke for over an hour, without notes, about Obama’s staunch support for Israel, and his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security. He spoke about Obama’s record directly, without pandering. He answered every question we had for him — from questions about whether Obama would put pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians (answer: unequivocally no), to questions about Obama’s response to the Russian invasion of Georgia, to questions about his position on gay marriage. When Dan finished, he received an extended ovation, and then he stayed another half hour — until 10 p.m. – answering every question of every voter who approached him.
I know — because I invited them — that many in attendance where on the fence, or were McCain supporters. My sense is that Dan’s thoughtful, clear, and powerful presentation has at least a few folks reconsidering this morning.
(One previously undecided voter emailed me: “Im wearing my new Hebrew [Obama] pin!!!!!”)
I’ve written much on this blog about Obama’s strong support for Israel, his detailed plans for isolating Iran, and his emphasis on restoring America’s tattered reputation around the globe. See, for example: “Ross: ‘Obama Will Restore American Standing in the World,’” or “Obama: ‘Unshakable Commitment to the Security of Israel’.” It bears repeating, as Shapiro emphasized last night, that Obama wants to use the threat of serious, broad reaching sanctions against Iran, along with the enticement of carrots, like greater participation with the Western World, to get Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. He won’t take the military option off the table. But war would come with dire consequences for Israel — some 40,000 Hezbollah rockets are poised to rain down on the Jewish state from inside Lebanon — and so Obama would do everything in his power to get Iran to stop enriching uranium by other means, first.
(And note Thomas Friedman’s column in the Times this morning. With oil prices plummeting, Ahmadinejad is literally reported to be suffering from exhaustion, as Iran finds itself over-extended and suddenly without leverage. “If Obama does win the presidency,” Friedman writes, ”my gut tells me that he’s going to get a chance to negotiate with the Iranians — with a bat in his hand.”)
But, centrally, Dan Shapiro spoke to Obama’s deep emotional connection to Israel, a connection Dan saw first hand, accompanying Obama on his recent trip to Israel — a trip that included meetings with Olmert, Livni, Netanyahu, and Ehud Barack, as well as stops at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. Dan noted that nothing could be more compelling, on the question of Obama’s commitment to Israel, than Obama’s own words on the subject, as captured by Jeffery Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly article, “Obama on Zionism and Hamas.”
For people who still wonder if Obama gets it at the gut level, please read the article.
Here’s an excerpt:
Obama and I spoke over the weekend about Hamas, about Jimmy Carter, and about the future of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. He seemed eager to talk about his ties to the Jewish community, and about the influence Jews have had on his life. Among other things, he told me that he learned the art of moral anguish from Jews. We spoke as well about my Atlantic cover storyon Israel’s future. He mentioned his interest in the opinions of the writer David Grossman, who is featured in the article. “I remember reading The Yellow Windwhen it came out, and reading about Grossman now is powerful, painful stuff.” And, speaking in a kind of code Jews readily understand, Obama also made sure to mention that he was fond of the writer Leon Uris, the author of Exodus.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I’m curious to hear you talk about the Zionist idea. Do you believe that it has justice on its side?
BARACK OBAMA: You know, when I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man — as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, and during the course of this two-week camp he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. There was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted. That was part of my upbringing, to be traveling and always having a sense of values and culture but wanting a place. So that is my first memory of thinking about Israel.
And then that mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past. I found this very appealing.
JG: You’ve talked about the role of Jews in the development of your thinking
BO: I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris. So when I became more politically conscious, my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.
One of the things that is frustrating about the recent conversations on Israel is the loss of what I think is the natural affinity between the African-American community and the Jewish community, one that was deeply understood by Jewish and black leaders in the early civil-rights movement but has been estranged for a whole host of reasons that you and I don’t need to elaborate.
JG: Do you think that justice is still on Israel’s side?
BO: I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism, the potential vulnerability that the Jewish people could still experience. I know that that there are those who would argue that in some ways America has become a safe refuge for the Jewish people, but if you’ve gone through the Holocaust, then that does not offer the same sense of confidence and security as the idea that the Jewish people can take care of themselves no matter what happens. That makes it a fundamentally just idea.
That does not mean that I would agree with every action of the state of Israel, because it’s a government and it has politicians, and as a politician myself I am deeply mindful that we are imperfect creatures and don’t always act with justice uppermost on our minds. But the fundamental premise of Israel and the need to preserve a Jewish state that is secure is, I think, a just idea and one that should be supported here in the United States and around the world.
JG: Go to the kishke question, the gut question: the idea that if Jews know that you love them, then you can say whatever you want about Israel, but if we don’t know you –- Jim Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski –- then everything is suspect. There seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don’t feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it.
BO: I find that really interesting. I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what’s been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they’re asking themselves moral questions.
Sometimes I’m attacked in the press for maybe being too deliberative. My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives. The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it’s more than political expediency. When it comes to the gut issue, I have such ardent defenders among my Jewish friends in Chicago. I don’t think people have noticed how fiercely they defend me, and how central they are to my success, because they’ve interacted with me long enough to know that I’ve got it in my gut. During the Wright episode, they didn’t flinch for a minute, because they know me and trust me, and they’ve seen me operate in difficult political situations.
The other irony in this whole process is that in my early political life in Chicago, one of the raps against me in the black community is that I was too close to the Jews. When I ran against Bobby Rush [for Congress], the perception was that I was Hyde Park, I’m University of Chicago, I’ve got all these Jewish friends. When I started organizing, the two fellow organizers in Chicago were Jews, and I was attacked for associating with them. So I’ve been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends, so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it’s curious.