Some will find the question whether Barack Obama is “good for the Jews” puzzling. But for a number of people, particularly American Jews born before the Second World War, the answer will influence how they vote in the remaining primaries. And getting the answer right depends on getting the facts straight.
Those of us who have lived in Israel understand instinctively why part of the question turns on a candidate’s position on the Middle East. Will the next President support Israel’s right to defend itself? Will the next Administration continue to consider the Jewish state one of America’s staunchest allies? Will it bring momentum to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a balanced way that brings together key players without demanding more of Israel than others?
Barack Obama has been a stalwart supporter of Israel, as he made clear in the MSNBC debate this week. He believes the path to peace starts with a firm commitment to the security of Israel as America’s most dependable ally in the Middle East. He therefore sees a close U.S.-Israeli partnership as fundamental to American interests. He stands ready to help Israel’s leaders achieve peace in cooperation with moderate Palestinian voices, while remaining vigilant against any party trying to derail progress. He co-sponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which bans assistance to any entity controlled by Hamas. He urged the European Union to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist groups. He views anti-Semitism as a form of racism, and has denounced as reprehensible those who question Israel’s existence or engage in anti-Semitism.
Obama is concerned about bias in the U.N. Security Council towards Israel. Last month, he pressed U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to take a stronger stand against Hamas actions that threaten Israel’s security. Obama termed it unacceptable that “Gaza is governed by Hamas, which is a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, and Israeli civilians are being bombarded by rockets on an almost daily basis.” He proposed that any Security Council resolution pass only if it unequivocally condemned the attacks against Israel and supported Israel’s right to defend itself. As Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent for the Israel newspaper Ha’aretz has said of Obama, “he is pro-Israel. Period.”
Obama has been tough on Iran, as he should be. He introduced legislation to increase divestment, particularly by U.S. pension funds that invest in companies supporting the Iranian oil and gas industry. He has been outspoken about the dangers inherent in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. He declared “make no mistake – if the Iranians and Syrians think they can use Iraq as another Afghanistan or a staging area from which to attack Israel or other countries, they are badly mistaken.” He understands that keeping U.S. forces tied down in Iraq for years to come will only strengthen, rather than weaken, Iran.
People should not confuse a willingness to talk to a dangerous state like Iran with a willingness to negotiate away American principles. It is easy to speak only to friends, but it takes vision and courage to engage with enemies. But that is how to tell them, bluntly and directly, what America stands for. Israeli prime ministers like Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin understood this paradigm and boldly reached out to their foes in the search for peace. The next American President should tell Iran it has a choice: relinquish nuclear weapons and support for terrorism in order to join the international community, or face harsher sanctions and further isolation. Obama was right on Iraq in 2002, and he is right on Iran now.
Someone asking the question whether Obama is “good for the Jews” is likely to weigh also his commitment to important social issues. As President, will Obama fight for justice, civil rights and economic opportunity for all Americans? The answer is emphatically yes. He is ready to lead an Administration that helps struggling homeowners, working families desperate to make ends meet and seniors simply trying to live with dignity. He is committed to repairing our educational system so American graduates can compete effectively against their peers abroad. And he is determined to make health care affordable and available for every single American.
Beyond Israel and domestic issues, people must consider also what happens come November. Polls released by the Cook Political Report, Washington Post/ABC and others predict that only Obama can beat Senator John McCain. In addition, a Pew Research Center poll concluded that Obama has the highest approval rating of any major candidate among independent voters. No doubt all of these reasons influenced a majority of Jewish voters to choose Obama in the primaries earlier this month in California, Massachusetts and elsewhere.
Barack means “lightning” in Hebrew. Like lightning, Obama has captured the imagination of millions of Americans who are thirsty for new leadership and a brighter future. He was not a household name before he announced his bid for the presidency last year. But he has been working in the trenches for more than 20 years, building communities, defending civil rights and fighting for those the system left behind. His years of experience have demonstrated that he has the character, leadership and judgment we badly need in our next President. A vote for Barack Obama will be good for Israel, good for Jews and – importantly – good for America.
February 29th, 2008
Miriam Sapiro was Special Assistant to the President at the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration. She is supporting Senator Obama and providing foreign policy advice to his campaign.