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.