Monday, April 7, 2008

My Jewish Political Skepticism: A long tradition continues

[This week's Haveil Havalim is up here; and I have an unexpected link from the Jewish Cooking Carnival to boot!]

Jews are heir to a long national history of political skepticism. Whether slaves in Egypt told by Moshe that God would take them out of bondage, or generations of Jews promised by prophets that if only they would follow the Torah they would be safe from their enemies, or European Jewish communities living under the government of innumerable His Royal Highnesses, the Jewish nation has always doubted those who promised anything at all. King David wrote in Tehillim, “Put not your trust in princes,” and our ancestors took that as less pragmatic warning and more sacrosanct commandment.

This trait (which I admit has frustated rabbinic leadership as long as there has been rabbinic leadership) has served our minority population well through centuries and millenia of wandering from land to land. Jewish communities have taken government promises with more than one grain of salt, have hedged bets in political battles, and have kept their bags perpetually packed, literally as well as figuratively, and have saved many lives in the process.

But the downside to this lack of trust is that when we find an ally, someone deserving of our support, we hold back for fear of choosing wrong.

As a result of this Prufrockian fear of misplacing trust, I have been unable to connect with any of this year’s panoply of candidates. Magnetic orators as well as straight-talking cowboys, experienced politicos and relative newcomers, all of them talk a good game to one extent or another, and all have high points and lows, and the bottom line remains this genetic mistrust.

Case in point: This past Monday evening I attended a program at local Muhlenberg College, with Congressman Steven Rothman (D-NJ). Congressman Rothman, sent by the Obama campaign, was to speak about Senator Barack Obama’s positions on Israel and the Middle East.

The congressman said everything I could have wanted to hear; on more than one occasion his words sounded like they had come out of my own pro-Israel pen. The congressman spoke of important America-Israel partnerships, the history of the America-Israel relationship, the need for considering compensation for Jewish refugees forced out of Arab lands, and the affirmation of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. The congressman educated the audience in the history of the British Mandate and the Balfour Declaration as well as the relatively recent vintage of Palestine. He expressed sympathy for Palestinian Arabs but demanded an end to violence, acceptance of the Jewish Israel and acceptance of previous peace agreements as a pre-requisite for dialogue with any Palestinian Arab leadership. In all of these areas, the congressman affirmed at the end that he spoke not only for himself, but also for Senator Obama.

Addressing the question I posted here last week, the congressman said that Senator Obama would not force Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, and would not dictate the terms of a peace agreement. (I’m not so sure that his comments on this point were coincidental; my post on the topic was read for quite some time by someone at, mere minutes after I put it on-line last week…)

[Update: At 9:54 AM today, the day after I posted this message, I had another visit from that same site, now for this article. Presumably to check the coverage. I trust you found my report on the event accurate?]

I should add that Eric Lynn, billed as Senator Obama's Middle East Policy Adviser, also spoke strongly in favor of support for Israel as a Jewish state, in a pre-program session.

Really, Senator Obama's views sounded just like mine. I couldn't have been happier. And yet, at the end, I remained unable to really trust - just like I can’t trust Senator Clinton when she says pretty much the same things. Ditto for Senator McCain.

Perhaps I would have been more comfortable if I had heard something with which I disagreed; hearing my own party line triggers my skepticism antennae like little else. I wonder what Senator Obama’s surrogates say when they address the Muslim community. (As soon as I arrived home I looked on-line for such an event, but have not been able to find one listed.)

Perhaps it's because I was hearing a surrogate, instead of the Senator himself. I've met President G. W. Bush, and I can tell you that regardless of all stances and snafus, he has real magnetism in person. Successful politicians just have it. Congressman Rothman probably has it when speaking for himself. But when speaking as a surrogate for someone else, well, it's just harder to have the same pull.

What does it all mean in the end, what's the bottom line? I’ll admit that I am less concerned than I was a few hours ago regarding Senator Obama’s leanings. But, ultimately, the search for an end to my skepticism continues…


  1. Ah, keep your skepticism. And keep an eye out for what they say to those who disagree. If I could, I'd go to an Obama rally in some very conservative or RWNJ Christian or Muslim locale, just to hear whether it's all pandering.

    I really get the sense from Obama that he doesn't weasel talk as much as the others. Maybe just because he hasn't been in politics as long. ;)

  2. He does seem more genuine. But I'm very easy to fool.