So the right-wing is steaming mad because President Obama – allegedly – once pondered aloud how it could be that he’s viewed as anything less than Zionist when he’s practically a member of the tribe. “You know, I think I am the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat in this office,” the Commander in Chief quipped, according to his former senior advisor David Axelrod. “For people to say that I am anti-Israel, or, even worse, anti-Semitic, it hurts.”
“What nerve!” a chorus of conservatives is wailing in unison. “After two administrations of slighting, demeaning, and endangering Israel? How dare Barack Hussein Obama even begin to imagine that he’s a friend of the Jewish state, let alone a Jew!?” (It’s not clear, however, at what point in his presidency Obama engaged in his existential, quasi-theological reflection. But that, of course, has not prevented detractors from continually referencing the snubbing of Netanyahu and the pending nuclear arms deal as if both occurred on November 4, 2008.)
Frankly, conservatives, by slinging arrows at Obama in this instance, are really only exposing how little they themselves understand American Jewry. Indeed, guess who isn’t kvetching like an alter cocker after being jumped in the deli line? American Jewry, the overwhelming majority of which happens to be markedly liberal. Hmm, so what does that spell?
To be sure, the story here isn’t Obama’s remarks, but rather the right’s vociferous reaction to the remarks. In my opinion, what’s more offensive than Obama’s quip is the audacity of many conservatives to both reduce Jewishness to barely anything beyond support for Israel and to refuse to accept American Jewry’s political proclivities as they exist in reality.
Yes, I’m going to endorse the position diametrically opposed to the one being propagated by seemingly all right-leaning pundits, analysts, and strategists by posing this rhetorical question, “How is Obama not a Jew?”
If the average American Jew is, well, reasonably representative of what it means to a Jew in America today, then the president is pretty darn Jewish. Hear me out. Obama is secular, affluent, and highly-educated. As an ethnic minority, Jews are disproportionately secular, affluent, and highly-educated. Obama is progressive on nearly every policy issue. Most American Jews are also progressive on nearly every policy issue.
Let’s further assume for a moment that Obama is in fact a fan of Israel, yet he just doesn’t deem it a matter of utmost precedence. Well, that stance too is illustrative of the one held by most American Jews. The Public Religion Research Institute’s oft-cited 2012 Jewish Values survey revealed that Israel was the “most important” voting issue for a scant 4 percent of Jews. Likewise, a J Street poll conducted around the same time showed that only 10 percent of Jews considered Israel one of their top two voting issue priorities.
Additionally, both Obama and most American Jews are convinced that public, tax-funded institutions instead of private, voluntary associations ought to be the principal engine for curing society’s ills. According to the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 study, a whopping 72 percent of Jewish Democrats disclosed that they “prefer a bigger government that offers more services.” Similarly, the Public Religion Research Institute’s survey found that 37 percent of Jews “mostly” agreed that “government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor” while 27 percent “completely” agreed.
Adding to this comparative study, Judaism for Obama is far less a religion than a culture – a culture primarily guided by social justice. (He made this abundantly clear during his recent speech at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.) Lo and behold, Judaism for most American Jews as well is far less a religion than a culture – a culture primarily guided by social justice. (The bumper sticker concept plastered onto the conscience of American Jewry is tikkun olam, which translates to “repairing the world.”) In the Public Religion Research Institute’s survey, a paltry 17 percent of American Jews responded that “religious observance” was the “quality most important to Jewish identity” while 84 percent declared that pursuing justice is a somewhat or very important value that informs their politics and activities.