Is Barack Obama the First Jewish President?

If Bill Clinton was the first black president, as Toni Morrison famously observed, then could Barack Obama be the first Jewish president? That's the interesting case Jeffrey Goldberg makes at The Atlantic. Goldberg tells how he gave Obama a copy of a new Haggadah he contributed to:

When I handed him the Haggadah, President Obama, who famously stages his own seders at the White House, (which is a very nice philo-Semitic thing to do, IMHO) spent a moment leafing through it and making approving noises. Then he said (as I told the Times): "Does this mean we can't use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?"

George W. Bush was, in his own way, a philo-Semite, but he never would have made such an M.O.T. kind of joke (see the end of this post if you're not sure what M.O.T. means). Once again, Barack Obama was riffing off the cosmic joke that he is somehow anti-Semitic, when in fact, as many people understand, he is the most Jewish president we've ever had (except for Rutherford B. Hayes). No president, not even Bill Clinton, has traveled so widely in Jewish circles, been taught by so many Jewish law professors, and had so many Jewish mentors, colleagues, and friends, and advisers as Barack Obama (though it is true that every so often he appoints a gentile to serve as White House chief of staff). And so no President, I'm guessing, would know that the Maxwell House Haggadah -- the flimsy, wine-stained, rote, anti-intellectual Haggadah you get when you buy a can of coffee at Shoprite) -- is the target, alternatively, of great derision and veneration among American Jews (at least, I'm told there are people who venerate it).

Most conservatives wouldn't go as far as to accuse Obama of being an anti-Semite, but they certainly believe he's anti-Israel. Which is insane, of course, but what I've always found so striking about this question is how sidelined Jews themselves have become in today's discussions of Israel. That isn't to say there aren't particular Jews who are plenty involved, but the American Jewish community as it actually exists in America—mostly politically liberal, living its Judaism more as a culture than as a religion, troubled by the policies of the Israeli government in multiple areas—is increasingly estranged from the discussion, as more and more of that discussion is dominated by people like Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. It's the world of post-Jewish Zionism, where Israel's most vehement advocates are people who see it mostly as a tool to use in a holy war between Christianity and Islam. As someone who grew up in a household where liberal Zionism was the primary expression of Jewish identity, I can't begin to describe how alienating it is to watch people like Palin waving Israeli flags around. And I'm pretty sure there are lots of other Jews who feel the same way.

Politicians spend much of their time trying to convince voters that they share a cultural understanding and affinity with voters—that they're "one of us," or at least that they get us, whether "us" is people of a particular religion, a particular social class, or a particular region. Their less successful attempts, like Mitt Romney saying "y'all" and proclaiming his newfound affection for grits, are widely noted and mocked. George W. Bush tried with the Jews—as he said, in my favorite Bush quote of all time, "I couldn't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah." But here's a case where Obama really does have an ease with, and an understanding of, a particular group. Yet he doesn't get a lot of credit for it.

Or maybe he does. Polls of Jews don't happen that often, because there are so few of them and that makes getting a sample of reasonable size time-consuming and expensive. But in 2008, Obama won 77 percent of the Jewish vote according to exit polls, about what other Democrats have gotten in recent years. For all the bleating from the American Likudniks (and yeah, I'll keep calling them that as long as they keep pretending that the only way to "support Israel" is to support the vision of the right-wing faction in Israeli politics) that Obama is anti-Israel, I don't think most Jews are going to buy it. Between now and November, I'm sure we'll see more articles like this one ("Has Obama Lost the Jewish Vote?"), after which he'll get right around the same proportion of votes from Jews as he did four years ago.

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