Events transpired to transform a potentially awkward speech by Barack Obama to the AIPAC national policy conference into a candidate coming-out party, as he won the Democratic nomination the day before. AIPAC’s leadership had been so concerned they sent out a blanket e mail to members reminding them that they shouldn’t give a raspberry to any of the Democratic candidates as happened to Nancy Pelosi last year.
Obama needn’t have been concerned as his victory sobered up the audience, forcing them to contemplate the uncomfortable prospect that by November he might be President-elect Obama. He was received warmly, though nowhere near as riotously enthusiastically as McCain the day before. He did a delicate dance in this speech. He was appealing to a constituency he knew he needed to win in November. So he had to make nice to the audience and appeal to their interests and even prejudices. He knew too, many in the audience would be predisposed against him. So he tried to make light of the rampant Obamaphobia among many of his listeners. But he also wanted to send a message to them that he would not be the rubber stamp that the current president has been for Israel. He wanted them to know that he had spine and principles, from which they might infer that he and they would differ from time to time on what is best for Israel.
Now, as to Obama’s speech–it was a mixed bag. It was very much what I call a template speech that features stock positions known to be popular among the target audience. In that sense, it was a disappointment. In some senses, the speech went beyond where it needed to go in pandering to its audience’s prejudices. But, as in everything Obama does, even when he’s being conventional he surprises and challenges.
What most encouraged me was Obama gave as good as he got on Iran. He sounded muscular and assertive in taking it to McCain on the question of whether pursuit of diplomacy in resolving the Iranian conflict represents weakness. In this, he reminded me of those wonderful Tom Petty lyrics: “I won’t back down.”
Obama advocated a two-state solution and even called for a “contiguous, cohesive” Palestinian state, which are code words critical of Israel’s policy of turning the West Bank into isolated Bantustans through the use of settlements, apartheid roads and the Separation Wall. The nominee also spoke against the building of new settlements, something neither new nor surprising. But if he becomes candidate and puts muscle into the statement, it will mean something.
The most disappointing statement was this throwaway line:
Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.
It’s standard operating rhetoric out of presidential campaigns. But what disappointed me was that he needn’t have mentioned the second half of the statement at all. Saying Jerusalem must remain undivided was throwing red meat to the pro-Israel crowd. Everyone knows that ultimately Israel will be shared by two peoples. The city will certainly become Israel’s capital as it will become Palestine’s. The neighborhoods will be divided reflecting their ethnicity. Obama’s unequivocal endorsement of a far-right Israeli position only paints him into a corner should he win the presidency and actually have to preside over the “division” of Jerusalem.
Then Obama made a few mistakes that are uncharacteristic of his otherwise stellar presentations. At one point, he called the Green Line the “blue line:”
I spoke to Israeli troops who faced daily threats as they maintained security near the blue line.
At another point, he confused divestment with boycott. This, of course, is a confusion deliberately encouraged by groups like AIPAC which seek to paint the divestment movement as virtually the same as the boycott movement:
I was interested to see Senator McCain propose divestment as a source of leverage, not the bigoted divestment that has sought to punish Israeli scientists and academics, but divestment targeted at the Iranian regime.
Apparently, Dan Shapiro and the rest of Obama’s Jewish advisors don’t understand that the academic BOYCOTT would punish Israel’s scientists and academics. The Methodist divestment campaign would do no such thing. Instead, it would punish American companies like Caterpillar and Motorola, whose products are used to bolster the Israeli Occupation. Divestment and boycott are different things. Divestment, in my opinion, is a calibrated and cautious approach to the issue. Boycotts are sledgehammers in comparison. Obama should keep that in mind.
Finally, Obama did a deep disservice to himself by repeating McCain’s benighted reference to Meir Kahane’s slogan, Never Again! The racist rabbi must be smiling from the Beyond to know that his inflammatory rhetoric has captured the minds of both a Republican AND Democratic presidential candidate. The only thing to be said in Obama’s favor was that his use of the term was confined only to the Holocaust itself; while McCain wielded the slogan as a cudgel to promise Iran annihilation should it attempt genocide against Israel. I hope a presidential never again will exploit Kahane’s “Never Again!”
And I buried the lede: some people get religion. Well, Barack’s got “tikkun.” He’s discovered the power of tikun olam:
…There is a commitment embedded in the Jewish faith and tradition to freedom and fairness, to social justice and equal opportunity, to tikkun olam, the obligation to repair this world.
Hope it makes Michael Lerner proud. I know it made me proud.