As I write these words in July, The New Yorker’s “Obama Cover” is the hottest topic in the American news industry. The caricature of the Obamas decked out in “Islamic terrorist” garb has become nearly as notorious as those Danish cartoons of Muhammad with a bomb ticking away in his turban.
But by the time you read the published version of this column, that cover and the furor surrounding it will probably be ancient history. What’s likely to remain current until Election Day itself, however, is the e-mail campaign that The New Yorker cover clumsily satirized.
I first noticed it after Obama’s surprising victories in February. Suddenly my incoming mail was filled with “disclosures” in the name of anonymous “reliable sources” of the anti-Semitic legacy bequeathed to candidate Obama by his “Muslim education,” his “anti-Israel advisors,” his “Kenyan father,” and other shadowy suspects.
Then came the Rev. Jeremiah Wright “affair.” The fact that it revealed the Obamas as born-again members of an activist, African-American Christian sect didn’t squelch the “Muslim” angle at all. Okay, maybe he had given up Islam for Christianity. But what never changed, we were informed, is a fundamentalist belief system resting upon the bedrock of anti-Semitism of one hue or another.
To my knowledge, no particular group has ever taken responsibility for originating this Obama-phobic disinformation. But it doesn’t take a genius to know that this kind of “spam” is considered appropriate for the “kosher consumer!”
For my money, the eeriest thing about it is the way a racial theme is subtly woven into the larger anti-Obama message. The creators of these mailings believe that the American Jewish voter is too sophisticated to be “Willie Hortoned.” So overt racial arguments aren’t in the cards.
But the implication is that a vote for Obama is a vote for a man whose primary political debt is owed to an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel constituency composed largely of African Americans and other “traditional Israel-bashers.”
In other words, the Jewish vote is being curried not only as “Jewish,” but as “white.” At first glance, this seems odd. For most American Jews, “Jewishness” is unconnected to “whiteness” in any essential way. We are Jewish, most Jews will put it, but we happen to be white.
“White” is some American quirk that was never meant to include us. Were Jews “white” under the Nuremberg Laws? Come on!
But, getting a bit closer to home, things are more ambiguous.
Are some Jews “white,” for example, in Israel? With appropriate modifications, many Israelis have in fact mapped the American meanings of “black” and “white” onto the cultural conflicts dividing Ashkenazic and “Eastern” or “Sephardic” Israelis since at least 1948.
Finally, are Jews “white” here in America? Well, yes, of course. But does it really matter? Heck, visit any synagogue — even an Orthodox one! — and note the rainbow effect of converts with Asian-American and African-American backgrounds.
Some sociologists now consider the “whiteness” of American Jews as a transitional optical illusion shaped by the pressures of assimilation in the early 20th century. You can follow a version of this argument in Karen Brodkin’s flawed, but troubling, book, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America.
Okay, perhaps Jewish “whiteness” is a passing ethnographic oddity thanks to shrinking Jewish numbers and the influx of “converts of color” into the community. But if so, the anti-Obama spam-meisters are betting against it.
Because part of the campaign to paint Obama as a “Muslim” is to convince American Jews to find our seats in the “Whites Only” section of the American bus.
When I first encountered this stuff last winter, I wondered: “What? Obama is controlled by anti-Semitic Israelophobes? How did I miss that?”
So I Googled Obama’s recorded political history (as Hillary already pointed out, it really isn’t very long!). What I found startled me: Obama’s positions on Israel are utterly conventional for an American urban Democrat. Israel, he says, is an “indispensable” ally linked to the American people by its “democratic values.” In fact, he even out-hawked many in the Israeli left in his AIPAC profession that “Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel.”
From his mouth to God’s ears!
It remains to be seen, of course, how Obama will react to political pressures to modify his Israel-friendly campaign statements. He seems to have held up pretty well during his July trip to the Middle East. But you can be sure, if he sticks to those positions into October, he’ll need God’s help to retain constituencies far more crucial to his ambitions than the Jews.
African-Americans, as we know, tend to think of Jews as “white.” Why not? But this unsubtle racial template also shapes important segments of the black community’s perception of Middle Eastern political reality. Important African-American voices (Obama’s ex-”spiritual advisor,” for one!) depict the far left’s interpretation of Israel’s struggle with Palestinian nationalism in a starkly cartoonish racial caricature: Dominant Israeli-white-settlers dispossessing Palestinian-black-natives.
The upside is that a President Obama might help to weaken this cartoon’s power in American public discourse. But can Candidate Obama become President Obama if he loses too many African-American, Arab-American or Muslim-American voters who are dying to vote Democrat, if only to punish the GOP for the Bush era?
As I write this, Obama seems to be as good as it gets for traditional American Jewish political interests. By Election Day, who can guess? But of this I’m sure: If and when Obama flips on some “Jewish issue” where he has previously flopped — say, the status of Jerusalem — we can bet that our mailboxes will fill up with more dark reminders about the “real Obama.”
Well, I think we’ve seen the “real Obama,” for better or worse. We should vote for him or vote against him, based on his record and self-presentation. But let us resist the nameless spammers who pander to our darkest fears! Is “whiteness” so precious?