Three mysteries underlie the current crisis between America and Israel. The first one is biographical: How can President Barack Obama call himself Israel’s friend, yet display such animus toward the Jewish state, exemplified most recently by refusing even to be photographed with Israel’s Prime Minister when hosting Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House?
The second is diplomatic: Why is Obama pursuing a policy that is so strategically shortsighted? His great accomplishment so far is raising Palestinian demands while strengthening the rejectionist front against Israel and a two-state solution.
And the third is political: How come Obama is not paying much of a price from the American Jewish community? The smart money, so far, is on most Jews still voting Democratic in 2010 and 2012.
To unravel these mysteries, and understand this politician who repeatedly used his biography in his political ascent, we should look more closely at Obama’s personal story. Americans have not paid sufficient attention to Obama’s years at Harvard Law School — partially because he ignores those years, even in his memoir. But while it is shrewd for an ambitious politician with populist pretensions to downplay his time at one of America’s most elite institutions, it is foolish for citizens to underestimate the impact those years had on his ideological development.
In a rare article exploring Obama’s Harvard years, The New York Times (Jan. 28, 2007) proclaimed that “In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice.” While describing the consensus-building skills that would win him the White House, the article also glimpsed at the atmosphere in the Law School in 1990 when Obama became the Harvard Law Review’s first African-American president. Harvard in those years was in the throes of “PC,” political correctness. The Times captures this by saying that “a mouse infestation at the review office provoked a long exchange about rodent rights” and that in “dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.”
These lines suggest that Obama conformed with the general atmosphere on campus, which was addicted to narratives of victimhood in the search for “diversity and economic justice.” The PC movement was rooted in the justifiable disgust with American racism, sexism and homophobia. Alas, like many counter-revolutions, it overreached, repudiating many Western values independent of those ills, celebrating whatever political groups succeeded in positioning themselves as underdogs afflicted by those ills, and frequently overlooking inconvenient facts that contradicted the larger plotline.
To be fair, Obama is too smart and subtle to be reduced to a PC poster child. Just as too many PC types caricatured complex situations around the world, it is unfair to caricature him. Still, it seems clear that the ethos of the time, which was overwhelming, monolithic, and quite unforgiving of any deviations, shaped Obama’s worldview.
Having lived through those years at Harvard, I salute Obama for emerging from that caldron of political correctness with as much range and nuance as he has. Still, when I see his edge on the Israel issue, when I see how quick he is to bash Israeli housing starts and how slow he is to criticize Palestinian incitement and violence, I recognize the signs of the distortions imposed by the PC-prism.
By 1990, Israel was no longer politically correct and the Palestinians were considered the African-Americans of the Middle East, insulated from criticism by virtue of their victimhood. Obama’s refusal to recognize the now-established historical pattern, whereby Palestinians increase their demands and intensify the violence when they feel supported by the West, is reminiscent of many other Ivy League New Leftists who saw the world as they wished to see it, not as it was — and is.
The Shin Bet documented 125 terror attacks or attempts this March, 27 of them in Jerusalem, in contrast to 53 in February with only three in Jerusalem. The Obama administration has consistently pressured Israel more than the Palestinians — even though this strategy undermines the push for peace. Yasir Arafat only negotiated when desperate, not when confident. Clearly, our first PC president’s worldview distorts his view of world events. And as for American Jewry, let’s face it, most of our community was — and is — PC too.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” His latest book “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” was recently published by Oxford University Press.
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