Jerusalem syndrome

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 6-22-00

In these days of gotcha politics, it is not surprising that Barack Obama’s Texas two-step about a united Jerusalem became so controversial. Obama’s embrace of a “united Jerusalem” during his recent speech to AIPAC, and then his subsequent backpedaling, made for a good story – and fed into many people’s fears that his support for Israel is a posture not deeply rooted in principle.

In fairness, many American politicians have suffered from their own peculiar variation of Jerusalem Syndrome. How many times have presidents promised to move America’s embassy to Jerusalem – which, as of this writing, remains in Tel Aviv.

Candidates -and incumbents – will inevitably bob and weave when it comes to specific policies regarding Israel. The region is so volatile, the issues are so complex, the scenarios keep shifting. So while it was an amateurish mistake to oversell to AIPAC and come out too strong in favor of the current status quo in Jerusalem, Obama’s miscue probably reflected sloppy staff work more than malice or deceit. And amid the brouhaha, many have missed the most important part of Obama’s speech.

Early on in his address, Obama said: “I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11 years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.”

Obama explained that as a young man cut off from his roots, not knowing his father, this quest to return and this deep sense of rootedness, moved him. “So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity,” Obama proclaimed. “And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.”

Those kinds of sentiments do not get adjusted in a press release the next day. That kind of a statement suggests the kind of deep tie to Israel and understanding of Zionism not enough young American Jews have today.

Still, it remains for Obama to reconcile that sincere understanding of Zionism with his many anti-Zionist friends. This challenge parallels the larger task ahead for Obama in the wake of the hard-fought campaign against Hillary Clinton.

The vision Obama has articulated of a united America is as moving as his affirmation of Zionism. But many Americans’ faith in the sincerity of his vision weakened as we learned of his long friendship with the divisive African-American nationalist Jeremiah Wright, and as we occasionally glimpsed dimensions of a typically Ivy League mix of cynicism and elitism.

Clearly, Barack Obama has some explaining to do. Not about his Jerusalem rhetoric but about his own journey. There is a disconnect, a missing piece. The Obama enigma will continue to mystify until he explains how he experienced the superciliousness of so many classmates, the harsh anger of so many African-Americans including his preacher, but arrived at a different conclusion.

Many fears about Barack Obama will not be quieted until he reconciles his heartfelt and longstanding appreciation for Israel with his occasional tone-deafness on the issue when friends may be bashing it, or even his church is divesting from it.

We should judge Barack Obama on his thoughts and his deeds, not on his influences and his associates. But as a candidate, the burden of proof is on him. He needs to give the voters the tools, the roadmap, if you will, for understanding his journey. He should explain how he stopped at various negative places along the way, but ultimately ended up as an American patriot, an American nationalist, and in that same vein, a strong supporter of Israel and other embattled democracies.

All too often, Barack Obama as presidential candidate is a hologram, appearing different from various angles. He now has five months to appear more solid, more consistent, and more like the young Senate candidate who wowed Americans in 2004 and 2006, rather than the battle-scarred candidate of 2008 reeling from the Clinton assault.

If he can rekindle that magic, many will happily shout with him “Yes We Can” and help him on his historic journey.

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