This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
What’s a Jew of Conscience to do, especially when Obama’s (Jewish) politics leaves us out in the cold?
Being off the political radar screen is definitional. It depends on whose radar screen we acknowledge, who owns the radar and whose setting the field of vision. Historically speaking, those who set the parameters of political action one day may be sitting on the sidelines the next.
Everyone’s political shelf life is up for grabs. That’s why President Obama is already thinking about his legacy.
Message to Obama: If you don’t establish a legacy soon, in four years you might be wandering around the beaches of Cape Canaveral, albeit with your Secret Service protection in tow.
Think of Mitt Romney’s political future. In his victory speech, the reelected President suggested that he and Mitt should meet together as a show of bipartisanship. A meeting would help establish a fraternal tone for the difficult ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations ahead.
Message to Obama: You’re on your own. Romney has already fallen off the political cliff. No one in the Republican Party wants to be seen with him. His political reach is less than a freshman Congressman that was elected a few days ago.
Could Israel fall off the American political cliff? Through hard political work or some miracle, could Palestinians rise from the barren valley of American politics so they would even have a remote chance of one day being pushed off the cliff? You see, you can only fall if you’re somewhere on the political radar.
It’s a political hazard to ascend the American political enterprise. The risk is summary execution. Yet it’s worse to be in the political valley on a permanent basis. Tasting the fruits of upper mobility is intoxicating. Everyone should have a taste, even if it eventually turns bitter.
The attitude necessary for upward mobility is extreme. To begin with, you have to adopt the pretense that the services you are provided are debts others owe you. If you’re successful over the long haul, you come to believe your preeminence is an entitlement.
Enjoy, you’re entitled! More or less, that what we Jews believe today. On the economic front, on the cultural front, on the Holocaust memorial front, on the Israel front – we’re entitled. This sense encourages a politics of entitlement. Yet like political figures, entitlement politics has a shelf-life. Each year a community tastes the fruits of entitlement, the community draws nearer the cliff.
Entitled communities are already close to the cliff. They have to be since they’re busy pushing others off the cliff to maintain their place in the entitlement pecking order. This gives added meaning to the aphorism – ‘In politics proximity is everything.’
Does the ultimate bitter fruit of upper mobility teach lessons for a future politics of justice and compassion? As Jews we haven’t faced this question in the longest of times. Until we come face to face with our entitlements, arrogance is our default option. When we’re dangling off the cliff perhaps our attitude will change. By then, it will be too late.
Can President Obama help Jews face our arrogance of power? If only he admonish us, that like every community, the arrogance of power has limits.
It’s hard for the President to provide this caution when he governs a nation that doesn’t learn the lesson we Jews need to learn. Any sign of Obama backing down on American ascendancy will encourage another round of the first term ‘apology tour’ hecklers.
In politics, the notion of a ‘moral’ cliff doesn’t exist. Only a fiscal or military cliff will do. In the President’s campaign speeches – indeed in the entire election season – we heard over and over again how America’s military and economic power in the world is only preface to America’s real power. That power lay in America’s ideals, goodness and compassion.
Obviously, these are rhetorical flourishes. President Obama communicates well the possibility of combining the two. Realistically speaking, however, no individual, community or nation can exist on ideals, goodness and compassion. Nor should anyone have to rely on others for the actualization of these same values. Every person, community and nation needs a modicum of power to protect and project itself.
As human beings and societies, we’re already too close to the political, economic and environmental cliffs of life. We need each other to survive and flourish.
President Obama’s background is a great teacher for himself and others. Our Jewish background is a great teacher for ourselves and others. Then why, when we finally have power, do we neglect the lessons that might provide an interdependent empowerment with others? Perhaps Obama can call us back to the lessons our history teaches before it is too late.
Such a call presupposes that President Obama himself is a learner and enactor of the lessons his background teaches him. The bind he’s in as a moral cliff teacher is being caught within a system – a system he leads – that systematically denies all of us of living that example.
Now that the election is over, Jews of Conscience support President Obama’s when he presses Netanyahu and Israel. But just as reelection support for Obama was predicated on dropping the Israel/Palestine issue, do Jews of Conscience have to drop – at least for this moment – the wider critique of American foreign and domestic policy?
In short, you can’t demand that Obama fight the fight of fights against the Jewish establishment – where, again, there isn’t any politically viable constituency to support him – and be nipping at his heels on other issues or on the limitations of his Israel confrontation.
In the political world, you can try to have your political cake and eat it, too, but it usually doesn’t work that well. If Jews of Conscience keep their full critique of American power and its Israel policy against such political head winds, advocacy for justice in Israel/Palestine will remain on the sidelines of politically viability – as political viability is defined now.
In the end that’s the Israel/Palestine issue dilemma in its American nutshell: Can political viability be redefined? If this isn’t difficult enough, add the time factor. How much time is left?
In Gaza, Noam Chomsky was right – only a two-state solution is possible. Noam Chomsky’s critics were also right – the two state solution is foreclosed.
In Washington, the closest to Chomsky is the administration but they’re so far away it’s like they exist in alternative universes. Despite all of the administration’s possible blustering, President Obama would settle for respectful talks between Israelis and Palestinians as ‘confidence building measures.’
You know where that leads.
Israel should sign on to this – for the next two years. Realistically speaking, that’s all the time Obama has anyway.
Meaning – freeze things where they are, more or less. Or better, expand Israeli power within the ‘freeze.’
Politics is the bridge between gaps.
Could the gap be wider?