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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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‘Live long and prosper’

The death of Leonard Nimoy on Friday, February 27, at 83, marked the passing of an American icon — indeed, a star of global renown, and a Jewish hero as well.

Nimoy’s accomplishments were many. He was an author, poet, musician, photographer, philanthropist, educator, and director, and of course an actor who played many roles on stage and screen. But he is best known for his role as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, the television series that first aired in 1966. It is a role he reprised in the various sequels, spinoffs, and remakes that appeared after the original series went off the air in 1969.

Nimoy was a Boston native, fluent in Yiddish, whose parents were Orthodox Jews who escaped from the Soviet Union. As he related in various interviews, his background informed his portrayal of the sole alien being on the Starship Enterprise. Spock hailed from the planet Vulcan but was also half-human, making him an alien on Vulcan as well. His status reflects that of immigrants and their children, first-generation Americans who, like Nimoy, grow up in a household, community, and culture that still has one foot in the old world.

 

 

Je suis Charlie?

It says much about the age that we live in that so many of us first learned of the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7th through Twitter, and that the slogan that came to represent much of the international response to the massacre originated as an image tweeted by French artist and music journalist Joachim Roncin, and soon morphed into a hashtag that rose to the top of the day’s trending topics, and has become one of the most popular hashtags in the history of that social network.

I am referring, of course, to Je suis Charlie, or in hashtag form, #jesuischarlie, and its English version, #iamcharlie.

Some followed up on this formula with the variations Je suis Ahmed or Je suis Ahmed Rabet, to acknowledge the Muslim police officer who was so brutally murdered in the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and as a subtle reminder that the terrorists are not representative of Muslims in general. Others added Je suis Juif, meaning I am Jewish, to recall the fact that four hostages were murdered in a kosher supermarket, in addition to the 12 killed at the offices of the Parisian periodical. (Several of them also were Jewish.) Members of the Jewish community in France and abroad were encouraged by the appearance of Je suis Juif signs and hashtags, especially as the slogan was displayed by some French Muslims, although there has also been some criticism that it was not shared widely enough.

 

 

To end terrorism, start with moral clarity

The most often asked question I hear today is “How do we stop radical Islamic terrorism?”

Of course there are no quick, easy solutions but any attempt must start with an absolute commitment to speaking and acting with moral clarity.

How can it be that there are leaders today, including the president of the United States, who simply refuse to use the words “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic jihad”? I am not an expert on Islam, and I have no true sense whether Islam is or is not a religion of peace.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Israel, not Netanyahu, is the ultimate target

There is no world leader more hated by well-meaning liberals in America and Europe than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Whereas once the bile was directed at former U.S. president George W. Bush — for invading Iraq and Afghanistan, for identifying radical Islam in both its Shiite and Sunni variations as an existential threat, and for backing Israel — it’s now largely focused on Netanyahu, an alleged “racist” and “war criminal” who just happens to have won a resounding vote of confidence from the Israeli electorate on March 17.

Two New York Times editorials speak to my point rather elegantly. The first, published on March 13, asked whether Turkey could still be considered a reliable NATO ally — concluding, based on the Ankara government’s stance toward international crises from the Islamic State insurgency to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that it can’t. But while the substance of the editorial was basically correct, the lack of any ad hominem attack on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was notable. “Increasingly authoritarian” was the best the New York Times could manage when it came to describing this boorish thug, who rejoices in conspiracy theories, baits his country’s declining Jewish population even as he assures them that they are safe, and imprisons journalists with the devil-may-care attitude only a dictator can enjoy.

 

 

Dirty dancing

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, please come to your senses

Benjamin Netanyahu is the winner of the most recent election in Israel.

The odds are that he will be asked to build a coalition and continue his premiership. I wish him well. But many are still gargling to get the yucky taste out of their mouth.

Every match-up will have a winner and a loser, whether pitcher versus batter or presidential hopefuls. But if a win is achieved through sneaky tactics or cheap moves, it salts the wound of the loser and mitigates the validity of the winner. That is what happened when the incumbent prime minister made some political statements on the eve of last week’s election.

 

 

Universities punish bigotry — but not anti-Jewish bigotry

A few weeks ago, the University of Oklahoma appropriately responded swiftly and strongly when members of a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, sang anti-black chants that included the “n” word and references to lynching.

The university expelled two students and shut down the entire fraternity chapter, even though not all its members were involved in the incident. Similarly, colleges and universities are cracking down on hostile actions against women. For example, after members of Delta Kappa Epsilon chanted “No means yes” on campus, Yale University banned the fraternity for five years.

Yes, these responses were tough, but they sent an important message not only to the wrongdoers and the university community, but also to society at large: that bigotry against African-Americans and women is repugnant and intolerable, and there will be harsh consequences for those who engage in it.

 

 
 
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