A Few Thoughts About Obama’s Threat to Zionism

My dad’s real smart, even if he doesn’t agree with me on my Middle East politics, and a couple weeks ago he said something that stuck. He was saying that Jimmy Carter’s book is a sign of rising anti-Semitism (something I disagree with), a sign we’re entering a new phase for Jewish power in the U.S. That the result of Carter’s book and Walt-Mearsheimer and other developments that I cheer and my dad fears is that Jews will have less power. I said, “So are you talking about pogroms?” My father made a little face. He’s very poetical and ironical. “No. Without fireworks.”

Not to belabor the obvious, but my father was saying that these big sociological questions are going to be brokered and renegotiated beneath the surface, quietly, and Jews and gentiles will adjust to a new reality. Smart guy, my dad.

I bring all this up because I just watched Obama in Springfield. You can prepare all you want for a big moment, but then the moment happens, and we’re all changed. I’m excited. And I have to think one of the consequences of Obama’s globally democratic dream is that, without it being explicit, without his having a fight with big Jewish backers—without fireworks—U.S. policy in the Middle East is going to shift.

I’m an optimist. But I think what’s happening right now in the Jewish community is part of it. Jews are being forced to confront the contradictions in Zionism (as playwright David Zellnik says, describing his play, “Ariel Sharon Stands at the Temple Mount and Dreams of Theodor Herzl”). Despite the AJC’s best efforts, all Jews are Wrestling With Zion (to quote the title of Alisa Solomon and Tony Kushner’s great anthology on the subject that the AJC attacked). This is the water we’re all swimming in now, questions about Zionism; and I’m betting that without fireworks, the next generation of Jews is going to think differently about this, the ground is changing under them.

I’ll cite one little fact that I think makes my point. In a Zionist history I was reading the other day, I read that the purchases of land in Palestine by Jewish agencies in the early part of the last century had covenants on them. The covenants said, This land can only be sold to Jews. (When I remember the citation, I’ll stick it in.) Those covenants still exist, I’m sure. You can try and justify that type of discrimination in a million ways, but there it is. Real estate covenants barring sales to blacks and Jews are what my generation helped destroy in this country 30 years ago. Obama was borne up on that idealism, and his campaign is about bringing that idealism to America’s actions in the world. He’s half-everything, right? The ideology of Zionism is simply out of step with that spirit, and if Obama succeeds, Zionism will lose its hold on Jewish-American intellectual life. Without fireworks.