Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 21, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
It is quite amazing that this Shabbat of the Inauguration of a new President coincides with the opening of the book of Exodus. For as we know Exodus opens with the ominous line: VaYakom Melekh hadash al Mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef : “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph”. Let’s hope the subsequent history of the new President turns out better than that of the new King.
But if the new King knew not Joseph, that is, a new Egyptian King who did not recognize the positive attributes and contributions of Joseph and the Jewish people, well, there must have been an old King who did know and recognize the contributions of the Israelite immigrants to Egypt. And for the last eight years we in the United States, and especially the Jewish community, have been blessed to have had a President who did know the Jewish community. Obama considered Jews among his mentors and closest friends and advisors; the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg referred to him as the first Jewish President. Whether or not it makes sense to claim him as the first Jewish President, I suggest that he is probably the first President to be a true Zionist.
This is a very important claim because of the many atrocious attacks thrown at this President, the most malignant canard was that President Obama was an enemy of the Jewish people and hated Israel. It seems that this canard pained him very much. Not only because it was not true – all Presidents weather harsh attacks on their character and personalities – but because more than any previous President his support for Israel stemmed from his deep belief in the power and meaning of Zionism.
Every president of the United States has supported Israel. Some like Bill Clinton had a deep affinity for Jews. But for most, the support for Israel was strategic - serving American interests in the Middle East. Even known anti-Semites like Richard Nixon saved Israel when Israel was in danger of losing the Yom Kippur War. President Obama’s administration was no different in this regard. Before President Obama left office he agreed to a $38 billion military aid package over the next 10 years, making it the largest bilateral military aid package ever, which includes $5 billion for missile defense, additional F-35 joint strike fighters and increased mobility for its ground forces. President Obama, unlike President Bush, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the development and production of the Iron Dome project, so crucial to Israel’s defense.
But that is what all Presidents do even if they don’t get along with their Israeli counterparts. Obama is different because Obama is a Zionist.
Before I make my case, it is important to define our terms.
What is Zionism? Unfortunately most people assume that Zionism is what the government of Benjamin Netanyahu says is right for Israel. But considering that the current Israeli government is not allowing Conservative Jewish converts from South America or Africa to enter the country – that is, not allowing them to enter the country, not questioning their right to make aliyah, just not allowing them to receive visas to enter– it is hard to argue that this current government embodies the highest values of Zionism. (*note – this sermon was written before the Israeli government under internal and world pressure allowed these converts to enter Israel, thank God)
Zionism has many schools of thought. Developing from our age old Jewish dream of returning to the Land of Israel, modern Zionism grew out of nationalist and neo-messianic movements in the mid-19th century. Look, Zionism is a Jewish ideology, so, of course, there are multiple opinions. But at its core Zionism was a movement that insisted the Jewish people had a right to self-determination and sovereignty in its ancient homeland. The ideals of justice and morality were seen as essential to many Zionist thinkers. According to the picture drawn by Zionists such as the historian Ben Zion Dinur, it was Messianism, a secular Messianism, that was the primary element of modern Zionism. The movement evoked the dream of an end of days, a release from Exile, and the consummation of Jewish history. (Hertzberg, “Introduction”, The Zionist Idea, p. 18) The creation of Israel was a modern Hanukah story with Zionists playing the role of the Maccabees.
Cultural Zionists such as Ahad HaAm saw in Zionism a path to the transformation of Judaism. “Of all the great aims to which Zionism aspires for the time being, it is within our powers to draw near…to only one…the moral aim. We must liberate ourselves from inner slavery, from the degradation of the spirit caused by assimilation, and we must strengthen our national unity until we become capable and worthy of a future life of honor and freedom. (from “The First Zionist Congress”, in The Jew in the Modern World) Ahad HaAm’s Judaism was a vision of the prophetic ideal updated for modern consciousness.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, saw the growing Zionist movement, led by secularists as a sign of the advent of traditional Mashiachtzeit: “All the civilizations of the world will be renewed by the renaissance of our spirit… The active power of Abraham's blessing to all the peoples of the world will become manifest, and it will serve as the basis of our renewed creativity and Eretz Israel.( from Abraham Isaac Kook:”The War”, The Zionist Idea, p.22)
Louis Brandeis writing at about the same time in the United States, praised his coreligionists overcoming horrific hardships to rebuilding the Holy Land, comparing it to the creation of the United States, and referred to the Zionists as the “Jewish Pilgrim Fathers”.
It is clear that Barack Obama sees that affinity as well. In his comments at Adas Israel synagogue in 2015 he shared, “To a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world -- that idea was liberating.”
Ari Shavit, the Israeli journalist, noted that the greatest expositor of Liberal Zionist ideals in recent memory was Barack Obama.
In 2013 addressing an audience in Israel, Obama linked the achievements of modern Israel to its past. It was the history of Biblical slavery and wandering in the desert to ultimately being redeemed in the return to the land; in the common era it was years of oppression and wandering in Exile that led to the ultimate expression of redemption – the Creation of a State with its goal of making the desert bloom. He cautioned his audience that for the Zionist goal to sustain itself peace would be necessary because without peace Israel cannot endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state. And eventually that would require the creation of a Palestinian state not because the world deserves another Arab state but because justice requires that Palestinians also be allowed self determination. And he connected the Zionist project to tikun olam, the reparation of the world. Linking Jewish history to the Jewish present to the messianic future is in line with the best of Zionist thought.
At Shimon Peres’ funeral he reiterated that “[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.” And “Israel’s exceptionalism”, that is our status as the chosen people, is “rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision” of the Jewish faith. He also offered, “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” Now one may say that this is a naïve liberal view and hutzpadik for Obama, who is not Jewish, to suggest that. Except that he was quoting Shimon Peres, the last of the founding fathers of the Zionist state.
And to those who think that the recent abstention by the US of the United Nations resolution on settlements was proof of Obama’s hatred of Israel? Well, you must think that Ronald Reagan was a raving anti Semite. For Obama’s abstention was the only time the US abstained on a resolution critical of Israel in 8 years, in every other instance they voted against criticizing Israel. But Ronald Reagan’s government abstained or voted to censure Israel 21 times during his presidency (Lara Friedman, NY Times op-ed, April 10, 2016 research by Americans for Peace Now).
In one of his many interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg Obama expressed his concern, like many of us who are liberal Zionists, that Israel must act to maintain a majority Jewish democracy. Holding on to the West Bank risks that possibility – either Israel remains a true democracy in which case the growing number of Palestinians in Greater Israel will outnumber and outvote the Jewish state or more likely, Israel will be forced to rule over a majority population only a portion of which will be allowed to vote, destroying Israel as a democracy.
And if you think that concern is overblown, I would recommend to you the words of Zev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist movement to which Benjamin Netanyahu is heir: “The precondition for the attainment of these noble aims (the solution to the question of Jewish suffering and the creation of a new Jewish culture) is a country in which the Jews constitute a majority. It is only after this majority is attained that Palestine can undergo a normal political development on the basis of democratic, parliamentary principles without thereby endangering the Jewish national character of the country.” (“What Zionist Revisionists Want” in The Zionist Idea)
Jabotinsky understood as does Barack Obama that for Israel to succeed as a democratic Jewish state it must have a majority of Jews in it. And today, that is only possible if Palestinians are allowed sovereignty over themselves.
But even before he became President, Barack Obama had a deep understanding and appreciation for the true meaning of Zionism. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in 2008 he offered this explanation of his affinity to Zionism: “You know, when I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man -- as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, … he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. That was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted. That was part of my upbringing, to be traveling and always having a sense of values and culture but wanting a place. So that is my first memory of thinking about Israel.
And then that mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past.” (interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly May 12, 2008)
I think America is going to profoundly miss the sagacity and nobility of President Barack Hussein Obama. But we Jews will also miss a President whose affinity with our people runs so deep that he represents the best ideals of Zionism.