“Some of My Best Friends are Antisemites”: Obama Nominates Hagel
by Edward Alexander
“Europe’s leaders—and all leaders—should strongly oppose antisemitism, which poisons public debates over the future of the Middle East.” -President George W. Bush, speaking at Whitehall Palace, London, on November 19, 2003.
The most inane (and therefore most frequent) journalistic explanation of Obama’s nomination of “Chuck” Hagel for Secretary of Defense is that (Wall Street Journal version) “the president wants a Republican in his cabinet” to demonstrate his ability to “reach across the aisle.” It is inane for three reasons: 1. virtually nobody in the Republican Party, outside of the fever swamps inhabited by Pat Buchanan and his friends, wants Hagel in any responsible position; 2. no president in modern times has been less interested in amicable bi-partisanship than Obama; 3. “reaching across the aisle” is the fatuous slogan that helped sink the last two Republican candidates for president—and nobody knows that better than Obama.
No, the primary reason he has nominated Hagel is also the most obvious one: he shares Hagel’s world view (retreat, retrenchment, appeasement). The secondary reason, usually ignored but perhaps more ominous, is that Obama is entirely unperturbed by Hagel’s darkest bigotries, particularly the Nebraska ex-senator’s intense dislike of Israel and distinct lack of charity in the Jewish direction. Nor is Hagel’s antisemitism merely social; it is the antisemitism of panic—”the Jews, the Jews.”
A history lesson is in order. Barack Obama first came to national prominence in July 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He had been an Illinois state senator since 1997 and was now a candidate for the United States Senate. He delivered, very skillfully, a well-written speech in which his personal history played a role as important as what he said about policy matters and the two wonderful nominees: John Kerry (currently proposed for Secretary of State) for president and John Edwards—yes, John Edwards–for vice-president. Obama presented his own unusual story, as the offspring of a marriage between a black African (who had given him what he called the “African name” Barack) of humble social position and a white woman from Kansas, as a tale possible only in America: “in no other country on earth is my story even possible.” In those days he expressed no qualms and indulged in no sarcasm about American “exceptionalism.” He laid stress upon the peculiarly American “belief that we are all connected as one people.”
Nevertheless, he went out of his way to pay tribute to several subdivisions that inform the slogan “e pluribus unum.” He did not mention any religious group -neither Muslim nor Christian nor Jew–except perhaps by implication when he said that “John Kerry…will never…use faith as a wedge to divide us.” But he did allude respectfully to Latino, Black, Asian, and gay Americans. He did not mention Jews at all–unless we count his inclusion, among the serious problems still besetting this unique and wonderful country, the following: “If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.” How many Jews felt a twinge of uneasiness at that reference to families “being rounded up”? If one “Googles” the phrase, one quickly comes up with allusions to the classic instance of it in modern memory: the “rounding up of Jewish families in Nazi Germany.” Were Arab-American families, in the summer of 2004, really being “rounded up” en masse in government-ordered ethnic cleansing? How many Jews among Obama’s multitudinous listeners heard in this little verbal sleight of hand by Obama, this artful theft of the Jews’ sad history, this single instance in his entire speech of the flagrant anti-American exaggerativeness of his leftist friends in Chicago, an alarm bell?
One of those friends and mentors, let us recall, was his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah (“God damn America”) Wright, whose obscene attacks on Jews and Israel Obama contentedly listened to, on a weekly basis, for twenty years. When asked in 2008 about his reaction to Wright’s fire and vitriol, he could only say that Wright was “like an old uncle, who says things I don’t always agree with.” He did not say whether Wright’s Jew-hatred fell into the disagreeable category.
Europhilia vs. American Exceptionalism
After he himself received the Democratic nomination for the presidency four years later, Barack Obama became the first American president who campaigned for office in Europe as well as the United States, as if his popularity there would redound to his credit here. In July of 2008, before a huge Berlin crowd of 200,000 people, he called himself “a citizen of the world” (though, he prudentially added, also “a proud citizen of the United States”) and an ardent advocate of “global citizenship.” He even told the Germans that his Kenyan father had been inspired by the “dream” of freedom and opportunity in “the West” (almost as if Barack Hussein Obama Sr. had aspired to Germany rather than America).
What was one to make of candidate Obama’s tremendous popularity on a continent where, unless we made an exception for one undersecretary in France at the time (2008), not a single high government position was held by a black person? Was it that he kept offering “apologies” for many instances of American misbehavior? Or that he promised, for example at the G-20 summit (March 30, 2009), that he would be more respectful of Europe than George W. Bush, and that Americans would no longer be “dictating solutions” to other countries? (This is a favorite theme of the xenophilic Hagel too. He was the only senator –out of a hundred, let us recall– who in 1999 refused to sign a statement deploring Russian antisemitism.) Did Obama’s warm European reception have something to do with the fact that, unlike President Bush (speaking in London’s Whitehall Palace in November 2003), he did not express open and unmannerly disapproval of Europe’s resurgent antisemitism to European political leaders? Or was it that, in sharp contradiction to his own exceptional story, by now a thousand times magnified by his presidential nomination, he kept sneering at the notion of “American exceptionalism”?
And just what is this American exceptionalism about which so much ink has been spilled by Obama interpreters? The idea that American democracy made this country “the first new nation” goes back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s great book Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840. How much Obama really knows of the “exceptionalism” doctrine when he disparages it by saying it is merely the American version of parochial nationalism found all over the globe, it is difficult to say. On more than one occasion, he has displayed what William Hazlitt used to call “the ignorance of the learned.”
In the twentieth century, Tocqueville’s idea of American uniqueness was often used to argue that socialism had failed in America from cultural, “subjective” causes far more than objective economic and material ones. Werner Sombart asserted, in a famously pithy and vivid observation in his 1906 book Why is There No Socialism in the United States?, that America is “the promised land of capitalism,” where “on the reefs of roast beef and apple pie socialist Utopias…are sent to their doom.”
Although Sombart assigned Jews a large role in the development of capitalism, for most Jews American exceptionalism has primarily meant something else: refuge from Europe’s endemic and apparently incurable addiction to political antisemitism. As William Buckley once remarked, antisemitism exists in America as a social prejudice; but in England (and Europe generally) it is a way of life. Nazi antisemitism, promulgated in Germany, had conquered most of Europe, destroyed its Jewish civilization and, in a profound sense, its own. As Irving Howe observed in 1953: “If God didn’t choose us, went the Yiddish proverb, then the world chose us. How bitter was the irony of this remark no one could know until the world of the East European Jews came to its end in the ashes of Maidenek and Auschwitz—at the time and place, that is, when Western civilization collapsed.”
Late in 2009, by which time several critics of his administration had begun to affix to Obama the label (now virtually a Homerically fixed epithet) “the first anti-Israel president,” he appointed a grandly titled Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. At first this seemed to belie allegations that he did not take seriously this most influential ideology of the blood-soaked twentieth century. But, despite her impressive title, Hannah Rosenthal’s first public pronouncements on the subject prompted many to remark that hiring her to monitor antisemitism was like hiring a deaf person to tune your piano. Not only had she been a board member of the anti-Israel “J Street” organization (largely funded by George Soros), but she harshly criticized Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren for declining an invitation to address that unsavory group, from which “he could have learned a lot.” She was also making speeches (in Kazakhstan, for example!) equating antisemitism with that evanescent phenomenon called “Islamophobia.”
At least as crucial for understanding Obama’s icy indifference to Jewish fears has been what he has not said, starting with his first presidential grand tour of Europe, the continent that in his mind represents the high moral standards that America must strive to satisfy. His visit began in early spring 2009. shortly after the Religion of Perpetual Outrage had been expressing its outrage over Israeli actions in Gaza by staging virulent, often violent pro-Hamas demonstrations throughout the old (and increasingly post-Christian) continent. Muslim Brotherhood members and their sympathizers took to the streets of European cities screaming, “Death to Israel! Death to the Jews!” In several cities they were joined by members of parliament. And shortly after Muslim mobs had intimidated policemen in London and Malmo, smashed up the Place de l’Opera in Paris, burned Israeli and American flags while chanting Allahu Akbar, Obama was busily apologizing to Europe in general for “our past arrogance.” All this happened while Europe was once again in full retreat (as the French-American writer Nidra Poller, reporting the latest conflagration from Paris, observed) from “enraged [Muslim] mobs bearing down on helpless victims.” Was Obama restrained from venturing a single unkind word about this effort to make Europe (once again) Judenrein by his solemn oath of office? “I consider it…my duty as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
Nowhere in Europe was this renewed assault on Jewish life more blatant than in Turkey, chosen by Obama for the culmination of his European Grand Tour. In the three months prior to Obama’s speeches there in early April (6-7) of 2009, Turkey had been the scene of the fiercest anti-Israel and antisemitic agitation in all of Europe, extending from the streets to schools, newspapers, TV stations — for the very good reason that it was encouraged by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, who declared that “Israelis know very well how to kill” and that “Jews control the [Turkish] media.” But nary a word about this little unpleasantness crept into Obama’s speeches to Turkish parliamentarians and students. Rather, they were full of his usual calls (similar to those of England’s George Galloway) for “respect” plus assurances that America is not and “never will be” at war with Islam. He also said, cryptically, that Islam had made great contributions to America’s development — by which he did not mean the impetus that Muslim piracy had given to the founding of the U.S. Navy two centuries earlier. He did indicate, in one of his Turkish addresses, that the Muslim world was perhaps overly inclined to blame all its problems on Israel, but “balanced” this by saying that “some of my Jewish friends” (he did not name names) do the same in reverse. Listening to him, a new arrival from Mars might well have gotten the impression that it is Muslims and not Jews who are now the constant target of physical and verbal aggression throughout Europe.
Since then the bellicose Turkish PM has become Obama’s favorite foreign politician, the recipient of special privileges to disregard America’s sanctions against Iran (by trading Turkish gold for Iranian gas), and reliably reported to be on the phone with Obama more frequently than any head of state. (Mohammed Morsi, whose publicly stated views of Jews and Israel are similar to Erdogan’s, would also, after he replaced Mubarak, develop a “warm, personal relationship” with Obama, who selected him to “broker” the Gaza cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in 2012. This relationship soured—but only slightly—when Morsi, a stalwart of the Islamic Brotherhood, made himself into a Pharaonic dictator.)
Obama resumed the oratorical thrust of his inaugural year program of “outreach” to and “engagement” with Islam with an ambitious address to “the Muslim world” called “A New Beginning.” It was given on June 4, 2009 under the joint auspices of Al-Azhar and Cairo Universities. It was one of the rare occasions on which Obama (if only by implication) mentioned antisemitism. He alluded to the Holocaust; but he did so in the most disingenuous way possible, lest he call into question the well-known prejudices of his audience about how and why the state of Israel came into existence. Obama knows that a very large majority of Muslims believe that Jews have no rights in the land which they inhabited for 3300 years and ruled for 900. They harbor the delusion that the State of Israel was foisted upon the Arabs in the UN General Assembly partition vote of 1947 by Western nations afflicted with guilty conscience over the Holocaust, a crime for which the Arabs themselves bear (or so they believe) no responsibility whatever. But nothing could be farther from the truth than the popular cliché that the Holocaust, which destroyed the most Zionistically inclined segment of the Jewish world, “created” the state of Israel. Obama not only embraced it; he licentiously implied equivalence between the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and the “more than sixty years” of Palestinian suffering “in pursuit of a homeland.” He failed to note that the Zionist movement had devoted its energies for decades before the UN vote of 1947 to building up its own society rather than destroying that of its neighbor.
Having, once again, carried the Jewish vote by a huge margin in the election of 2012, Obama is justified in feeling only contempt for opposition from that quarter to his appointment of Hagel. (Anyone who expects serious resistance from Jewish “leaders” or politicians might be interested in some choice real estate I’ve heard about in downtown Aleppo.) James Baker once dismissed “Jewish” complaints about his hostility to Israel by remarking: ” F**k the Jews; they don’t vote for us anyway.” Obama is now saying (to himself and his cronies) “F**k the Jews; they always vote for us anyway.” But antisemitism is not just a Jewish issue; non-Jews who value democracy should recognize that they too are at risk when it is tolerated, especially when it is tolerated in the Oval Office. Ruth Wisse has put the matter succinctly: “Jews in democratic societies are not merely the proverbial canaries sent into the mine shaft to test the quality of the air: they function rather as the kindling used to set the system aflame. Why stop at the Jews?”