This column was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.
We are left with the disturbing likelihood that Obama’s education regarding Jewish theology, history and Zionism has come from three primary influences in his adult life: activist Rabbi Arnold Wolf, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and formerly Beirut-based PLO flak Dr. Rashid Khalidi.
The backlash didn’t take long.
Within hours of President Barack Obama declaring to a group of Conservative Jews that he “probably knows more about Judaism than any other president” – a result, he claimed, of reading and having lots of Jewish friends – the blogosphere was ablaze with pointed refutations.
Historians have noted, for example, that the early presidents especially were steeped in knowledge of the Jewish Bible, religious history and theology. Presidents John Adams and James Madison were both students of Hebrew (as well as Greek and Latin). Adams even translated books of the Old Testament from Hebrew to English.
Most US presidents, in fact, have known their Bibles cover to cover, including modern presidents Truman and – though painful to admit – Jimmy Carter.
Yet, although thorough dismemberment of his boast proceeds apace, it is worth asking where Obama gained his self-proclaimed expertise. Just what does Barack Obama “know” about Judaism; more importantly, from whom did he learn it?
Jewish knowledge did not come from Obama’s youth. Unlike every other American president, his religious education did not have lifelong roots in American Judeo-Christianity, and it shows: he simply doesn’t demonstrate the innate affinity for understanding Jews, Judaism and Zionism (or, for that matter, religious Christians) that has been so evident in other presidents, especially Truman, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush.
Neither of Obama’s two navel-gazing autobiographies mentions any Jewish education. Raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama has stated that his first exposure to Judaism and Zionism was as a sixth-grader, from a Jewish camp counselor.
His mentor through his high school years was “Uncle Frank,” communist agitator Frank Marshall Davis, hardly a scholar of Judaism.
Nor has Obama embarked on any known study of Judaism since arriving on the national stage. His very public reading list, heavy on fiction, contains no books about Judaism (interestingly, it does list David McCullough’s biography of judeophile John Adams.) The only books even close are by Israeli peace activist and writer David Grossman and by historical novelist Leon Uris.
Which of his longtime White House aides could have provided him with a serious Jewish education? David Axelrod? David Plouffe? Please.
We are left with the disturbing likelihood that Obama’s education regarding Jewish theology, history and Zionism has come from three primary influences in his adult life: activist Rabbi Arnold Wolf, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and formerly Beirut-based PLO flak Dr. Rashid Khalidi, currently the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.
Obama has expressed gratitude for the influence of Khalidi on his thinking. The Obamas and Khalidis were best friends during their time in Chicago. His many talks with the Khalidis, Obama said, had been “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases….It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation – a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,” but around “this entire world.” One can only guess which “biases” and “blind spots” the Khalidis, of all people, cleared up for Obama.
For all of Obama’s day-late, dollar-short efforts to distance himself from Reverend Wright, he cannot deny that for 20 years Wright mentored him in all matters, and credits Wright with shaping his worldview.
They had such a deep and close relationship that Wright considered himself Obama’s “second father.”
As for Obama’s sudden, public (and highly expedient) campaign-season repudiation of him, Reverend Wright put it in context: “Them Jews aren’t going to let him talk to me… he’ll talk to me in five years when he’s a lame duck, or in eight years when he’s out of office.”
Least known of Obama’s “rabbis” is the late Rabbi (Reform) Arnold Wolf, a left-wing activist, member of the Democratic Socialists of America, champion of the Chicago Seven and advocate of Israeli negotiations with the PLO at the height of its 1970s terrorism.
A relentless critic of Israel, Wolf founded “Breira,” an organization that demanded that Israel be less “arrogant” and “intransigent” (this during the administrations of the famously arrogant and intransigent Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin) and met with the PLO in November 1976 – just four months after Entebbe.
Wolf, rabbi at the synagogue across the street from the Obamas, preached a Judaism synonymous with leftist political activism.
Obama was a regular guest. One of Obama’s earliest political backers, Wolf insisted that he was influential in shaping Obama’s policies. In this congregation, Obama also met his crowd of famously left-wing Jewish Chicago friends, with J Street orientations similar to Rabbi Wolf’s.
In fact, there’s no tremendous difference between Wolf’s Israel policy and that of Khalidi or Wright.
Obama’s claim of Jewish expertise was perhaps just inept campaign puffery, along the lines of his other preposterous boast: “I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the State of Israel than any previous administration.”
Nevertheless, Obama’s belief in his own great Jewish knowledge comes from somewhere. A look at his “rabbis” – Wright, Khalidi and Wolf, the shapers of Obama’s religious outlook and Jewish/Zionist understanding – is revealing.
To mainstream Jews and Israel-supporters, that roster should also be worrying.