The Problem with “Jewish” Presidents

January 20, 2017 | Yossi Klein Halevi
About the author: Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is author of the New York Times bestseller Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, and Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, which tells the story of his involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement.

A prominent Jewish journalist once referred to Barack Obama as “the first Jewish president,” a comment Obama mentioned as having “flattered” him in a memorable speech he gave at a Washington, DC synagogue. More recently, a column at a conservative website made a similar claim about Donald Trump. Yossi Klein Halevi points to the dangers of this sort of thinking, from either side of the political aisle:

[H]ere is the catch in this crowning American Jewish moment: both Obama and Trump deeply identify with only one part of the Jewish community. And it is precisely that profound identification with “his” Jews that leads each man to resent those Jews in the opposing camp for betraying authentic Jewish values and interests. . . . In his speech at [the synagogue], Obama defined social justice as the core value of Judaism. Even more than laying claim to a shared set of values with Jewish liberals, Obama was in effect claiming the right to define Jewish values. Being pro-Palestinian, along with being pro-Israel, he insisted, was the most authentic expression of Judaism. For right-wing Jews, of course, other Jewish values—the historic Jewish claim to the land of Israel, the security needs of the Jewish state—supersede Palestinian claims. Taking Obama’s worldview to its inevitable conclusion, those Jews aren’t just wrong politically but “un-Jewish”—betrayers of Judaism.

My point here is not to determine whether right-wing or left-wing Jews more faithfully represent Jewish values, but to note that an American president saw fit to intervene in an internal Jewish argument and define “authentic” Jewishness. In the end, of course, neither Kerry nor Obama has a personal stake in the future of a Jewish and democratic Israel. Jews are permitted, perhaps obliged, to obsess about Israel’s soul. But when outsiders adopt that obsession the result can be deeply destructive. An “honorary member of the tribe” [as the president described himself], frustrated by the tribe’s failure to fulfill his highest expectations, may even, in a fit of pique, facilitate a UN resolution that transforms the Western Wall into occupied territory. . . .

American Jews need to resist the temptation of totally identifying their preferred president with Jewish interests and values. Revering any American president as an honorary member of the tribe risks debasing Jewish identity and communal discourse.

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