Dealing with Four More Years
President Obama’s second term victory has been a major blow to many in the Orthodox Jewish establishment. To them, President Obama seems to have foreign, even hostile, stances on many of the issues that they have deemed important. And while I myself did not vote for Obama, I believe there is an argument to be made against some of the sensationalist reactions to his re-election that have been so prevalent in our community. The world has not come to an end.
The first of the three major categories I will address is domestic social policy. Many Orthodox Jews continued to vote Democratic long into the aftermath of the Roe Vs. Wade decision, and so I find it hard to believe that the legality of early stage abortions is such a thorny issue to the majority of the Orthodox community. Gay marriage, on the other hand, appears to be different. While most Orthodox Jews were presumably supporters of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, many have been reluctant to view same-sex marriage as the newest incarnation of that same struggle. Despite the well-articulated arguments of some members of the Orthodox community, who say that marriage should not be a political issue and that the government has no right getting involved in people’s personal lives, many Orthodox Jews justifiably feel uncomfortable supporting a lifestyle that includes actions portrayed so negatively in the Torah.
But there is one important point to note about marriage laws. Practically speaking, the re-election of President Obama will not significantly change things in this area, at least as far as Orthodox Jews are concerned. The legality of same-sex marriage remains a state-level decision, and it is already legal in a number of states. As such, regardless of who won the election, the current trend suggests that gay marriage will soon be, or already is, legal in the areas where the largest numbers of Orthodox Jews live. Unless you are an Orthodox Jew concerned with the marriage laws of Alabama, I can comfortably predict that changes in federal marriage laws—or lack thereof—under Barack Obama, will not profoundly affect your life or the local society in which you live.
What will profoundly affect all of our lives is the economy, which has clearly lost some of its former vitality. Let me start by acknowledging the inherent unpredictable nature of the social sciences. Economics, as a study, is certainly valid. That being said, no panaceas exist for solving the economic crisis. There are respectable economists on both sides of the aisle who say that their party’s economic models will better serve the economy and the job market as a whole. Thus, the inherent opaqueness makes it unclear whether President Obama or Mitt Romney has the better economic approach. And with such uncertainty as a reality, it would seem unwise for anyone without expertise in economics to be too confident in their criticism.
Undoubtedly, the most poignant issue to many is the perceived mistreatment of Israel by President Obama, who has frequently been labeled an “Anti-Israel” president. In defense of this stance, there is no denying that Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu has soured in the last few years. The president was caught badmouthing Netanyahu with the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the general tone of their relationship suggests that mutual respect is lacking. To many, Obama’s mistreatment of Netanyahu is equated—or attributed—to an “anti-Israel” bias. For example, one approach is that Obama’s mistreatment of Netanyahu is based on an inherently “anti-Israel” position, and it is only veiled under the guise of personal disagreement. To me, it seems that President Obama’s broken relationship with Bibi is, in reality, based on strong personal disagreements. I do not believe it should be equated, or attributed, to an inherently “anti-Israel” bias, mainly, because I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence to arrive at the conclusion that such a bias exists.[i]
I’ll begin by elaborating on why I don’t believe that Obama is “anti-Israel.” Firstly, it is not “anti-Israel” to disagree with the settlement movement. Plenty of people who support, cherish, and live in the State of Israel do not agree with it. Accordingly, it is difficult to prove that Obama’s “settlement-freeze,” or his “Cairo Speech,” or even his suggested “pre-1967 borders” resulted from distaste for all things Israel. A more reasonable approach would be that they resulted from an attempt to create an atmosphere more conducive to peace negotiations, which Obama, and many others, believe would benefit both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Perhaps Obama is naïve, and Netanyahu’s more skeptical approach would better serve Israel’s long-term security interests. However, it is worth noting that the perfect approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has eluded world leaders for 64 years. And, so, those who suggest that Obama is an “Israel hater” based on his attempt of a new approach to resolve an arguably unsustainable status quo, or based on some “hunch,” have failed to convince me.
One of the issues that do bother me, and many others, has been the way in which Obama seems to have forced some of his new approaches onto the government, and people, of Israel. I have no issue with someone who believes that Israeli settlement expansion is an obstacle to the implementation of a two-state solution. What I disagree with is the way in which Obama seemed to twist Netanyahu’s hands into legislating the ten-month-long settlement construction freeze, in a sense, undermining Israel’s sovereignty. Fortunately, for those who share my viewpoint, Obama himself would most likely agree with the numerous assessments labeling the freeze as a tactical error. He has yet to recommend another settlement freeze as a precondition to peace talks, in all likelihood, because he recognizes that it only made bilateral negotiations even more elusive. Similarly, after facing heavy backlash from both Republicans and Democrats, Obama has backed away from publicizing his beliefs that the future borders between Israel and a potential Palestinian State should be loosely based on the more leftist bargaining position (the 1949 armistice line).
No previous president has supported the Israeli settlement enterprise, yet they have all learned that it is safer to keep quiet about their disapproval of an allied nation’s policies. And it seems, according to my perceptions, that the last few years have taught Obama to be more like his predecessors (with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process), while backing away from his earlier, more personalized, approach. Obama’s second term, I predict, will be more characterized by the president avoiding a stalemated conflict than it will be by another round of arguments with Netanyahu. At least as long as Netanyahu retains his position come Israel’s January elections.[ii] Lastly, and far from a side point, there are many who fear Obama is ill-equipped to deal with the threat of Iran and its proxies. To quell these legitimate concerns, all I can say is that President Obama’s record, which is far more important than any of the prattling during election season, indicates that he is as committed to Israel’s security as any one of his exemplary predecessors.
As someone who considers himself an independent, my message is clear. Regardless of whether or not you agree with President Obama on every issue, there needs to be a level of respect in all criticism. Obama has legitimate reasons for doing what he does. He is not an evil socialist with an irrational hatred of Israel and hard-working people. He is simply a man who is trying, according to his ideals, to make the world a better place. If our community displays such blatant disrespect for the President’s beliefs, then how can we expect him to do anything but return the favor? To me, the risks of playing partisan politics severely outweigh any of the potential gains. Which is why I have a simple message to the more dramatic members of our community: tone it down a notch.
[i] An “anti-Israel Bias” should be qualified. I wouldn’t dare suggest that Israel holds the same place in Obama’s, or any past U.S. president’s, heart as it does in the hearts of the members of the YU community. That being said, I believe that President Obama has no inherent objections to a close, multifaceted relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
[ii] A left-leaning coalition controlling the Knesset would be more willing to make concessions in order to restart negotiations with Fatah (the current party controlling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank), regardless of who is in the Oval Office.