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The American journey continues: Reflections on Obama

 
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Change was the mantra of this election and change is what is bringing Barack Obama to the White House. America’s capacity for change is different from the kind that exists in other countries, where change connotes a complete rupture from the past. Change in America is a continuing American revolution, rooted in the principles of the founders, a search for a more perfect union. Those two ideas — the need for change, but a search for something better rather than complete revolution — found expression in Obama’s elegant words on election night, in which he reminded us that the dream of the founders is very much alive in our time.

Sen. John McCain’s extremely gracious concession speech, reflecting his decency and patriotism, also represented change without rupture. Both candidates made it clear that it was a day of celebration, because on this day America redeemed itself from its tortured history of racism.

This election has special meaning for me, because my cousin, Julius Genachowski, is an old friend and long-time adviser of Obama and very active in the successful campaign. Julius and Obama attended Harvard Law School together in the early 1990s and both served on the Law Review. They attended each other’s weddings (with Obama participating in the Jewish dances at Julius’ wedding) and have remained close to this day. Julius went to yeshiva through high school and studied in yeshiva in Israel before going to Columbia and then Harvard, where he met Obama. Later, Julius clerked for Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Obama and Julius bonded, in part, because they were both outsiders — one a former yeshiva boy and son of immigrants, the other an African- American with international roots.

Julius tells me that Obama has always been able to relate to the Jewish experience because of his own background as well as the African-American experience of slavery and discrimination. Julius knows that part of Obama’s agenda is to heal the breach between Jews and blacks and to restore the close ties that existed during the civil rights movement.

Obama affirmed those ties at the AIPAC Policy Conference in June: “In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African-Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man — James Chaney — on behalf of freedom and equality. Their legacy is our inheritance.”

And Julius surely enjoyed these words: “I have been proud to be part of a strong, bipartisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats. That is a commitment that both John McCain and I share, because support for Israel in this country goes beyond party…. Those who threaten Israel threaten us…. And I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”

Over the last eight years the American brand has been eroded and its prestige in the world diminished as we have become a go-alone nation, now with an economy in crisis. If America is weakened, Israel is weakened. When people asked me whom to vote for, I would respond, “Vote for the person you think is best for America. He is the person who is best for Israel.”

What we need is a president who is more cerebral and less intuitive; who responds with his head and not his gut; who is more empirical and less ideological. Obama has demonstrated these qualities again and again.

To those who say — and did so vociferously during the campaign — that Obama is too young and inexperienced to accomplish these goals, that he makes great speeches, but that words are not enough, I would counter, don’t hold Obama’s age and oratory against him. There have been only four presidents elected in their 40s: Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and now Obama. But each brought intellect and vigor to the art of governance and went on to be extremely successful presidents.

Each was a gifted speaker as well. Abraham Lincoln proved that words can save a nation during wartime; FDR re-taught that lesson during a subsequent time of crisis. Don’t underestimate the power of words in the hands of a talented leader. Words can inspire, set forth a vision, and lead the nation to fulfill its potential.

Obama’s life story positions him perfectly to restore America’s place in the world and to reaffirm old alliances. The multiracial blood that courses in his veins; his experiences as the child of a single mother and as a child who saw his father just once in his life; his moving around the country and to Indonesia enable him relate to a world no longer dominated by Pax Americana and is certain to help him rebuild America’s standing in the community of nations — as noted, an important element in safeguarding Israel’s security and existence.

How Barack Obama manages change — in both domestic and foreign affairs — will be a major element of how well he succeeds as president. He is untested, for sure, and is young as presidents go, but Obama has the capacity to manage change in the interests of enhancing human freedom and opportunity; in restoring to America its genuine spirit; in making both the United States and Israel more secure in a dangerous world; and in rebuilding the ties that once joined Jews and African- Americans in the struggle against inequality.

The poet Archibald MacLeish observed, “The American journey has not ended. America is never accomplished. America is always still to build.” So we wake up to a new America, an America that “is always still to build.” Barack Obama has the capacity to build something very good. Let us wish him well and pray for his success.

Rabbi Menachem Genack
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Thank you, Jon Stewart

The most trusted man in America

The reality of Jon Stewart’s February 10 announcement that after 17 years he would be leaving as host of the “Daily Show” on the Comedy Central cable network did not quite hit home until the March 30 announcement that his successor would be South African comedian Trevor Noah.

Noah, who has some Jewish ancestry, in turn was quickly the subject of controversy surrounding some offensive tweets he made in the past, tweets that some consider anti-Semitic, not to mention misogynistic, and perhaps worst of all, simply not at all funny.

 

 

Letter from Israel: Chowing down on plants

I was a vegetarian wannabe for most of my life, and when we made aliyah in August 2007, I grabbed the opportunity to take the plunge. Introducing myself as a vegetarian from the get-go would ease the dietary transition, I reasoned.

And I was right. Our new friends didn’t bat an eye; a fair number of them also eschewed meat. Dining out was never a problem, thanks to bountiful kosher dairy and fish restaurants in Israel. My husband supported my decision with the caveat that we continue serving poultry at our Shabbat table for those like himself who prefer it. So far, so good.

A couple of years ago, after doing extensive reading and video viewing about the cruelty and environmental damage involved in the dairy, egg, and fish industries — not to mention mounting scientific evidence of the dubious nutritional value of animal foods as they are produced today — I began a gradual shift toward veganism.

 

 

‘Ah no, Jews cannot be judges’

In November, United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told a conference group that her Jewish identity was the one thing that didn’t come up during her confirmation process. At the same conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the most remarkable thing about the fact that there are three Jews among the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices was how unremarkable it is in America today.

Apparently, there’s a huge disconnect between what’s acceptable in the highest echelons of the federal justice system and what passes muster in student government on America’s college campuses.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Update on Nostra Aetate

After our story “Nostra Aetate 50 years later” was published in last week’s Jewish Standard, the Vatican issued two statements that we would have recognized there had they come out even days earlier.

The first was the church’s announcement that it is about to sign a treaty that will recognize the “state of Palestine.” Although the decision to recognize the state was not new, the move to do so officially was.

Our story focused on Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. Like much of the rest of the organized Jewish world, the AJC has responded to the church’s decision with sadness and dismay. Its formal response came from its executive director, David Harris.

 

 

Obtaining a get in New Jersey

There is possibly no news item that raises public ire more than perceived institutional injustice against innocent victims, especially when that institution is a religious one.

Few stories have riveted the tabloids more the past few months than the recently concluded trial of the rabbis accused of using illegal pressure tactics to force Jewish men into giving their wives a get (religious divorce) to permit the wife a religious remarriage. By the same token, the plight of the “agunah,” or chained woman, who is forever captive to a psychologically abusive and financially abandoning spouse, became a much discussed subject throughout the media. That even a beth din-issued shtar seruv — a contempt order — could not force a recalcitrant husband to abide by an order to grant the get became well known.

 

 

Standing together to fight BDS

This week, the holiday of Shavuot celebrates the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Sinai.

The entire Jewish nation, having left Egypt en masse weeks earlier, stands together to receive this simultaneous revelation, a remarkable moment of Jewish unity. The astounding response of the Jewish people, na’aseh v’nishma, begins with a call to action: Na’aseh. We will do.

This week marked the anniversary of another historic call to action that our people bravely answered — defending our reborn nation of Israel and reuniting our historic capital of Jerusalem. Seeing a re-creation of the famous 1967 photo of three young paratroopers at the Kotel, now with civilian clothes and gray hair, brought both smiles and tears. How miraculous that our 2000 year yearning has been fulfilled! And how tragic that there are still those who would divide our beloved city once again, negating the achievement for which so many risked, and lost, their lives.

 

 
 
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