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Saturday, July 26, 2014

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Desultory U.S. election thoughts

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Seldom have we heard in the American Jewish discourse – and even among so many Jews in Canada – such strongly worded and emotionally charged opinions about the now-re-elected president of the United States, Barack Obama.

The criticisms of President Obama were vocal and frequent. At first they were based upon disappointment, but by his midterm in office two years ago, they had morphed from disappointment to distrust and then to suspicion and active hostility on the part of many Jews.

The reasons for this attitude were a set or a subset of the following:

• His speech in Cairo four years ago was a form of presidential pandering to the Islamic world.

• He paved the path for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to seize a pretext concerning Jewish settlements in the West Bank to scuttle all peace negotiations with Israel.

• He embarrassed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by keeping him waiting in an anteroom near the Oval Office while he dined with his family.

• His secretary of state also embarrassed Netanyahu by berating him over the phone and ensuring the scolding was leaked to the media.

• He is too indulgent of Iran and of its rush to acquire nuclear weapons.

• He does not understand the true nature of the threat posed by radical Islam.

• He mishandled the Arab Spring.

• He did not find the time to visit Israel during his first term of office.

• And more.

To be sure, these reasons – singly or collectively – do indeed justify wariness toward Obama’s Mideast policies. But a comprehensive, dispassionate examination of the wide range of disparate facets of Israel’s bilateral relations with the United States – military, scientific, cultural, commercial, academic, scholarly and more – suggests that the relationship between the two counties is on much more solid footing than the extreme disparagers of the president believe.

Moreover, it now appears that the disparagers are a minority in American Jewry.

According to JTA, nearly 70 per cent of the Jews who voted last week voted for Obama. This number was down from the 74 to 78 per cent (there is a difference of opinion regarding the true figure) of the Jewish vote he captured four years ago. Nevertheless, there is no denying his dominance among Jewish voters.

Who can say for sure, why?

What is clear, however, is that American Jewish voters cast their votes on the basis of a range of issues and not solely on the basis of the president’s actual or perceived policies on Israel.

Or, the results may demonstrate the loyalty of the majority of the American Jewish voters to Obama because of – not despite – his Mideast policies.

The results may also indicate – but we do not know, nor can we say – that Israel plays a much lesser role in the overall world outlook and sense of self-identity of a great many American Jews than we might think is the case. (If true, this is a subject of considerable importance.) 

Immediately after the election, Netanyahu conveyed his congratulations to Obama. He characterized Obama’s victory as “a vote of confidence [by the American people] in your leadership.” Obama returned the good deed by calling Netanyahu to personally thank him for his words of congratulations.

As the editor of the Times of Israel writes in the Perspectives essay in this edition, the nature of the personal relations between the two men will not be the determining factor in the nature of the bilateral relations between the two states.

And as a postscript, it is interesting to note that 32 Jews – 10 senators and 22 representatives – were elected last week to the 113th Congress of the United States. Thus, 10 senators out of 100 and 22 representatives out of 435 in the United States are Jewish. In Canada, by comparison, four senators out 105 and three members of Parliament out of 305 are Jews.

The comparison is only interesting, but not really instructive, since our electoral system is vastly different from that of our neighbours, and the Jewish community in the United States (5.5 million out of 315 million) is  – in relative and in absolute terms – larger than the community in Canada (375,000 out of 35 million). –MBD

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