Obama and intolerant Jews

I  now recall those despicable pre-election e-mails I received, along with many of you who are plugged into Jewish e-mail networks.

Steve Scheinberg

They warned that U.S. president-elect Barack Obama is a closet Muslim, that he once attended a madrassa in Indonesia, that his pastor is close to Rev. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, that Obama is anti-Israel, and he is a close friend of Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi. In other words, he was “the enemy” and Jewish self-interest demanded a vote for Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Of course, in the end, the American Jewish community, more than most Americans, commendably, gave an outpouring of support to Obama, as 78 per cent of U.S. Jews voted for him, a level of support higher than they gave to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and approaching the levels they gave to former president Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore in 2000. The support for Obama was commendable, because American Jews rejected a massive smear campaign, one generated in the main by Jewish Republicans, but one that was also put forward by supporters of the Israeli right. One finds it difficult to determine whether it was the latter’s devotion to a greater Israel or their Republican allegiance that came first.

I want to examine a few of those smears, because they tell us a great deal about their right-wing creators. First, Obama undoubtedly knew and respected Khalidi, a Palestinian academic who once taught at the University of Chicago and is now at Columbia. One should read Khalidi’s recent book, The Iron Cage, which is the work of a scholar, not a propagandist, and reveals him to be a moderate who shuns violence and supports a two-state solution. But the most startling feature of the book is that he grants his people “agency,” meaning that the Palestinians are, in part, authors of their own destiny, not just victims, and have made terrible mistakes.

Yes, Obama can learn from such a man, as he can as well from his countless Jewish friends, including Rahm Emanuel, a former volunteer in the Israel Defence Forces and son of an Irgun veteran, who has been named as the president-elect’s chief of staff.

The Muslim smear is the most serious. It’s not just that it lacked all veracity, but it’s a charge made by the worst kind of bigots – Jewish bigots. They’re the worst kind, because our own Jewish experience should have sensitized us all to racism and intolerance. Fortunately, although it stuck in some quarters, this smear backfired and helped earn Obama one of his most important endorsements, that of former secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell. Powell said he was pushed over the edge when he saw a picture in the New Yorker of a Muslim mother bent over the headstone of her 20-year-old son who had been killed in Iraq and awarded the bronze star and purple heart.

It pained Powell, the old soldier, to bear witness to a bigotry that kept Obama from campaigning in mosques as he did in churches and synagogues, out of fear that it would reinforce the smear. But to Powell, the answer was not just that Obama was a Christian, as he said when he endorsed the Illinois senator on NBC’s Meet the Press: “But the really right answer is, what if he is [a Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” It took this courageous soldier to stare down the outrageous anti-Muslim bigotry that had been a feature of the campaign and that some Jewish Republicans unfortunately took part in.

Yes, one day a real Muslim will run for president, but it will, unfortunately, not be Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, who died in an American uniform on the battlefield in Iraq fighting, he believed, Islamist extremism.

Of course, the bottom-line smear from the right was that Obama is anti-Israel. There was no evidence of that in his voting record, his close personal relations with and backing from leaders in the Chicago Jewish community, or in his speeches. Yet, something did worry America’s Jewish right, because they feared that unlike “their friend,” President George W. Bush, a President Obama might define friendship with Israel not in their terms, but as it was defined during the Clinton years – that is, with a determination to use American influence to push for peace and a two-state solution, with the necessary compromises that this would entail, including perhaps withdrawing from the Golan Heights and most of the territories captured in 1967.

Thus they resorted to smearing Obama by invoking the name of Khalidi, as well as one-time Weatherman Bill Ayers and the like, but despite these sordid efforts, most American Jews voted on Nov. 4 to rid their country of the Bush-Cheney, Abrams-Wolfowitz Libby (three of the leading Jewish neo-cons) definition of friendship with Israel in favour of an America that, when it comes to peace in the Middle East, will also say, “Yes we can.”

Stephen Scheinberg is a professor emeritus of history at Concordia University, where he taught American history for 41 years. He currently serves as co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now.