Taking on the Jewish Anti-Obama 'Ingrates'

In a backlash to a backlash, the editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal goes after the president’s Jewish critics for never taking yes for an answer.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The other day, Rob Eshman, the editor in chief of the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, published an op-ed that I knew would cause his inbox to fill with hate mail. The piece is entitled, “A Jewish ‘Thank You’ to President Obama.” In it, Eshman calls the president’s Jewish critics “a bunch of ingrates.” He argues that Obama’s recent statements about Israel, Jews, and Zionism could have been interpreted with nuance and met with some measure of gratitude. The president, over the past couple of weeks, has made various philo-Semitic and pro-Israel statements, and these could have been publicly recognized even without eliding areas of substantive disagreement on Iran and other issues.

I think of Eshman’s piece as a backlash to the backlash. In part because I posted Yossi Kuperwasser’s thought-provoking critique of Obama’s approach to the Middle East earlier this week, I thought I would also post passages of Eshman’s rebuttal to the criticism.

I talked to Eshman on Wednesday, and we both share a view that Obama’s pro-Israel critics are, for whatever reason, unable to hear the president when he says anything in line with mainstream Jewish opinion. Referring to the coalition of groups that seek to boycott, isolate, and scapegoat Israel, Eshman said, “The entire BDS movement has been making the argument that Zionism is racism, and here’s the president of the United States—the first African American president of the United States—making the case in the most powerful way possible that Zionism is the moral equivalent of the American civil-rights movement. Why can’t his opponents at least appreciate and understand this?”

Eshman is referring to something Obama told me in an interview two weeks ago: “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law,” Obama said. “These things are indivisible in my mind.”

You would think that pro-Israel groups would turn this statement into full-page ads and billboards. But you would be wrong. This weekend, Sheldon Adelson, the Republican Jewish potentate, is gathering pro-Israel organizations and activists in Las Vegas to discuss ways to counter the BDS movement. It would be interesting to see if they come to the view that Obama is an ally in that particular struggle.

Eshman, in our conversation, went on to say, “You don’t have to agree with everything Obama’s done, but you can acknowledge the things he says that make sense and are good for Israel in the long run. To completely disparage what he’s done is so self-defeating.”

Was I correct in assuming that Eshman received hate mail in reaction to his piece? “Mr. Eshman, You are a disgrace not only to the traditional Jewish ethic [sic], but to mankind in general,” one letter read, causing Eshman to ask me, “Where does that leave Hitler?”

Here is a lot of what Eshman wrote earlier this week. It’s worth reading.

I’ve held off writing about President Barack Obama’s speech at Adas Israel Congregation late last month, but I’ve certainly read everything we Jews have written about it.

And here’s my conclusion: We can really be a bunch of ingrates.

To quickly recap: On May 21, The Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg published a long, searching interview with the president about his views on Israel, the Middle East and the Iran nuclear deal. President Obama followed that with a May 22 address to Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., and a long June 1 interview on Israel’s Channel 2 with Ilana Dayan.

The goal of this Jewish trifecta was to drum up Jewish support for a nuclear containment deal with Iran that would gradually ease the tough international sanctions Obama set in place against Iran in exchange for a significant, verifiable reduction in Iran’s nuclear program. Obama inherited from his Iraq-obsessed predecessor an Iran already well on its way toward getting the bomb. Short of military action—an option rejected by Israeli intelligence agencies, the Israel Defense Forces and the United States—this deal looks like the best of many bad options.

What astonished me in the coverage that followed Obama’s outreach was the instantaneous backlash. ...

You must know the old joke about the Jewish mother down at the beach who watches her child slip under the waves. She prays fervently to God for the boy to be saved, and her prayers are answered—he washes up on shore, perfectly healthy. At which point the mother looks up to the heavens and points out, “He had a hat.”

All this carping, criticism and correction is truly our “he had a hat” moment.

I’m not saying we should accept without comment what scraps our leaders toss us. This is a democracy, and we Jews have the right to press our interests. But this level of umbrage is insane. ...

The deep alliance with the U.S. enabled Israel to secure its defenses, absorb millions of immigrants, and make peace with Jordan and Egypt. It flourished as a result of bipartisan support, even under some presidents—both Republican and Democrat—who were far more antagonistic to Israel than this one. The last thing any of us should do is take for granted the words and actions of an American president reaching out to American Jewry.

And what about the now-indestructible trope that Obama just doesn’t understand Israel? (Which replaced 2008-10’s indestructible trope that Obama just doesn’t feel Israel).

First, he’s not stupid, and Israel isn’t some arcane mystery. In fact, it’s pretty simple. In June 1967, in a just war of defense, Israel captured territory where a lot of Palestinians live. At some point it will have to decide to either give the territory up, or grant the Palestinians who live there citizenship. Brain surgery, right? What Obama also understands is that in the last election three out of four Israeli voters voted against Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the entire right wing, don’t-give-an-inch-back bloc won only 44 seats—just a third of the Knesset.  

Obama also understands he has a damn near perfect record of standing up for Israel where it really counts: in the UN, in security and intelligence matters, during the Gaza war, in front of Arab audiences, during times of national tragedy and emergency. You know who said so? Netanyahu.  

So I’m going to say something radical, incendiary and, for so many Jews, absolutely stomach-turning, if not traitorous. Ready? Here goes:

Mr. President, thank you.

Thank you for saying clearly that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Period. Full stop.   

Thank you for using your power and political capital to find the best of many bad answers to the Iranian nuclear problem. Thank you for saying, “I’m interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon—every single path.”

And thank you for promoting your vision of a Jewish, democratic Israel living securely alongside the Palestinians.

I realize that my words will come across to some as sycophantic and to others as naïve. They are neither. I’ve never hesitated to point out where I think Obama has fallen short—his Hamlet-like approach to Syria comes to mind. And I’m not angling for more invitations to the White House Chanukah party, no matter how good the latkes—and they are delicious.

But, c’mon people. What happened in late May was a pretty good thing in the annals of our tragic history. So, can we all stop acting as if someone drowned?