I didn't quite realize it until I received a bunch of e-mails from Jewish Obama partisans, but last night's debate was, in fact, the kishke debate. All of my correspondents made triumphant mention, in one form or another, of the "kishke question," the issue of whether, in his gut, President Obama actually cares about Israel and would spend significant political, and even military, capital, to defend it. One prominent Obama supporter wrote me to say simply this: "Yad Vashem! Sderot!" These two places, both mentioned by Obama, are, of course, touchstones for Jews: The first, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, represents the continued will of the Jewish people to remember the 33 percent of world Jewry that was murdered in the Holocaust, and also represents the determination of the Jewish people to take charge of their own safety and security, through the vehicle of an independent, well-armed, state. The second is the Israeli town bordering Gaza that has suffered from a semi-constant barrage of rockets fired by Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other groups, and that represents Israel's continued vulnerability to terrorism.
In last night's debate, Obama not only mentioned these two places, he delivered set pieces (set pieces we've heard before, to be sure) on Yad Vashem and Sderot, and on their meaning. If you're in the Obama camp, the explanation for these detours is easy: the President has Israel's best interests at heart, and his opposition to the Iranian nuclear program is motivated in large part by a desire to defend Israel from an existential threat. If you're in the Romney camp, your explanation is also easy: Obama's strategists realized they had to go on the offensive to cover-up the fact that Obama hasn't visited Israel once as President, and that he has a tense and unpleasant relationship with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
I think both of these lines of thought have elements of truth in them, and I would also say that Romney either felt no need to express understanding for Israel's dilemma, or wasn't prepared to express understanding for Israel's dilemma. This is not to say that Romney doesn't have warm feelings for Israel -- quite the opposite -- it is simply to note that Obama out-foxed him on the "I've got Israel's back" question, which is precisely what he had to do to quiet what for him is a distracting and potentially harmful sub-theme of this campaign.
And speaking of the kishke question, here is an excerpt of an interview I conducted more than four years ago with then-Senator Obama on the question of Israel's security:
JG: Go to the kishke question, the gut question: the idea that if Jews know that you love them, then you can say whatever you want about Israel, but if we don't know you -- Jim Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- then everything is suspect. There seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don't feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it.
BO: I find that really interesting. I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what's been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they're asking themselves moral questions.
Sometimes I'm attacked in the press for maybe being too deliberative. My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives. The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it's more than political expediency. When it comes to the gut issue, I have such ardent defenders among my Jewish friends in Chicago. I don't think people have noticed how fiercely they defend me, and how central they are to my success, because they've interacted with me long enough to know that I've got it in my gut. During the Wright episode, they didn't flinch for a minute, because they know me and trust me, and they've seen me operate in difficult political situations.
The other irony in this whole process is that in my early political life in Chicago, one of the raps against me in the black community is that I was too close to the Jews. When I ran against Bobby Rush [for Congress], the perception was that I was Hyde Park, I'm University of Chicago, I've got all these Jewish friends. When I started organizing, the two fellow organizers in Chicago were Jews, and I was attacked for associating with them. So I've been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends, so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it's curious.