In an early election-season speech, in a campaign that finds the presidential incumbent often under attack as – at best – lukewarm to the interests of Israel, Vice President Biden delivered what he considered a knockout punch last week.
President Obama, Biden declared during a speech at New York University marking Israel’s 64th anniversary, is second only to the commander-in-chief widely considered the Jewish State’s best friend ever in the White House.
“No president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama,” the vice president said.
Truman’s affection for Israel has become an article of faith in the Jewish community. Truman, after all, immediately recognized Israel as a nation, against the wishes of the State Department and many of his advisors. A peace institute at Hebrew University bears his name. Who can forget the photograph of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, presenting Truman a Torah scroll at the White House?
While the current president’s pro-Israel bona fides are subject to debate, Truman’s are not so clear cut. His sympathy for the Jewish cause, particularly after the horrors of the Holocaust became public knowledge, but – according to various historians, including the late Abba Eban – Truman, a product of his pre-PC times, shared unflattering views about Jews (They “have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement (sic) on world affairs,” he wrote in his diary in 1947, while still Vice President), reluctantly agreed to meet with Weizmann, and made his historic decision to recognize Israel for a combination of personal, and political, realpolitik reasons.
Which does not diminish Truman’s act, the only criterion by which his record can be evaluated. We learned from Richard Nixon, a mean-spirited anti-Semite in private but a devoted supporter of Israel when it counted, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, that a leader’s public behavior can trump his private beliefs.
We don’t know what Obama, in his heart, feels about Israel. We can only hope that his public acts follow Truman’s example.