Jewish Journal

Phil Weiss talks about Obama and Jewish power

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 10, 2008 | 8:36 pm

On Election Day, a newspaper in Greece ran this headline on its front-page: “The anticipated victory of Obama in the U.S. elections signals the end of Jewish domination. Everything changes in the USA and we hope that it will be more democratic and humane.”

Jewish groups, like the American Jewish Committee, were incensed. But I immediately thought of one America Jew who shared that hope: Philip Weiss.

A magazine writer who blogs at Mondoweiss much more obsessively than this guy, Weiss is an anti-Zionist—he prefers “post-Zionist”—who hopes to change the conversation about Jewish power in American politics. He’s tired of talk about Jewish influence being taboo, of Jews who criticize their own being termed self-loathing and of Israel getting what he sees as a free pass in international politics and in mistreatment of Palestinians.

Weiss represents a segment of American Jewry who are deeply assimilated, passionately progressive and apathetic about Israel at best, and I often link to Weiss, though I typically don’t share his perspective. A fan of “Israel Lobby” authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Weiss knows he is out on a limb and is the first to admit that he gets a lot more hat tips from neo-Nazis and anti-Semites than any journalist would be comfortable with.

For the past few months, Weiss was hopeful that Barack Obama would win the presidency without traditional Jewish support. After Obama won last week, receiving 78 percent of the Jewish vote, I e-mailed him the following questions, which are in bold. His responses follow:

Throughout the presidential campaign, you wrote a good many blog posts suggesting that Israel’s supporters had reason to fear Obama. Why?

I believe that Obama had friendships back in Hyde Park with sharp critics of Israel, including Rashid Khalidi, Bill Ayers and Rev.Wright. I think they convinced Obama of the unfairness of the treatment of Palestinians for the last 60 years, which it’s not hard to convince a reasonable person of. So I think he still believes that. His belief came out in that famous interchange in Iowa with an activist, when Obama said Palestinians suffer the most. He quickly stepped back from the statement. He’s a great politician, so he can’t do anything with these leanings without political pressure/support.

But you saw this as a good thing.

I see his pro-Palestinian feeling as a good thing because: Kosovo got a state last year despite a history of bloody war in Bosnia, and India and Pakistan both got states 60 years ago despite terrible ethnic cleansing. Yet Palestinians have again and again been disqualified from statehood because Israel says it has “no true partner,” even as it gobbles up Palestinian land. My country’s complicity in this unfairness has destroyed its reputation in the Arab world, and helped to bring down our buildings. As an American, I want my government to be fair.

The California director of the RJC is fond of saying that the Democratic Party of Joe Lieberman and Scoop Jackson is dead. Do you agree?

The California director of the RJC is scaremongering for partisan purposes. He is wrong. Mel Levine and Rahm Emanuel both supported the Iraq war and are big supporters of Israel. Scoop Jackson would get along fine with them.

What do you think of Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff?

I’m concerned because I think Rahm Emanuel would not treat Israel as just another country and because he urged on the Lebanon war of 2006 that was such a disaster for Lebanon and, in turn, for Israel. That said, I believe Obama might actually play Emanuel off against pro-Palestinian voices and in that way lead America forward. Emanuel and Obama both understand that Israel is teetering on the edge of becoming an apartheid state.

Conservative bloggers read in Dennis’ Ross interview with the JPost plenty of things to be afraid of. But you too, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, were bothered by his commitment, on behalf of Obama, to keep Jerusalem undivided?

Jerusalem is a home to three great religions. Leaving it in the hands of one religion is a recipe for unending violence that then embroils the west. My country should try to get the Old City made an international city and if there is going to be a two-state solution give the Palestinian state as much of East Jerusalem as we can. I think Dennis Ross is taking sides here because he’s a Zionist Jew. There have been too many Zionist Jews advocating for American policy in high places. And not enough Arabs, Arabists and non-Zionist Jews. And the cycle of violence has continued unabated, because the status quo is so unfair.

You hoped the controversy over the LA Times refusing to release a video of Obama at a 2003 farewell dinner for Rashid Khalidi would knock down Obama’s Jewish number. But 78 percent of Jews voted for Obama. What happened?

I hoped the Khalidi controversy would force Obama to own up to what I believe are his “evenhanded” views on Israel/Palestine and thereby allow All Americans to choose: Do you want evenhandedness or do you want a staunchly pro-Israel policy? This debate never happened, despite the RJC’s tactics aimed at flushing Obama’s true views. If the debate had happened, then the J Street Jews and Jews to the left of that would have stuck with Obama, and neocons and neolib hawks, some anyway, would have gone to McCain. It would have led to a necessary conversation within the Jewish community: Did ardent support for the Jewish state cause Jewish leaders to support the disastrous Iraq war? Did it lead the neocons to do so? Doesn’t Israel have severe shortcomings with democracy that are nullifying my country’s reputation in the Arab world, inasmuch as the U.S. seems to be joined at the hip to Israel? In short, I am for any process that causes American Jews to wake up and understand that they’re promoting apartheid in Palestine. This is an utter disaster for Jewishness.

I think the Jewish number was 78 percent because: Most Jews are liberals. Most Jews are Democrats. Those traditions are alive. As for the neocon/neolibs, they either got the promises they wanted—hey, look where Rahm Emanuel is today, and Larry Summers isn’t far behind—or they went with a winner, shrewdly.

Now that Obama has been elected, what do you anticipate the impact being on American Jews?

I think the main impact of Obama’s election on American Jews is that he will accelerate a melting pot culture. We will be pushed past identity politics by his election. His own story is so staggering; and Americans love it; and it is a story of mixed race and “fluid identity,” as he wrote in his first book. This will make America more worldly and make it harder for the Jewish day school movement to segregate young Jews. It may increase the intermarriage rate. Overall I think Obama will have a good effect, though, because Jews won’t be able to deny we’re privileged in America, and this self-awareness will lead to greater confidence, and maybe greater fairness—at last—toward Arabs in the Middle East.

I’ve been told that “politics sort of is the Jewish religion.” With 43 members in Congress this past session, Jews set a record that may have been broken Tuesday. Why do you think Jews are drawn to politics?

I think everyone’s drawn to politics in America. We’re good at it because we have money, the mother’s milk of politics, and we’re privileged in the media and so on. Maybe there’s a tradition of cultivating power because we were so vulnerable, the court Jews. Maybe it’s that we’re good at talking, as Russ Feingold explained our predominance on C-Span once. But mostly I think the numbers are a reflection of the fact that we’re members of the power structure.

Have you pretty much ruled out being invited to join the Elders of Zion?

I still hope to get invited to the Elders of Zion confab. I’d have a lot to say. And I hear they pour a good Sonoma County Zin.

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