Three Ways President Obama Could Be a Better “Jew”

An open letter.

Dear President Obama,

Speaking on Wednesday at the Righteous Among the Nations award ceremony at the Israeli embassy in Washington, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, you said that (quoting World War II hero Roddie Edmonds) “We are all Jews.” It was a noble sentiment, meant to express human solidarity with “any Jew anywhere [who] is targeted just for being Jewish.”

That sentiment, I think, could reasonably be extended to include respecting attitudes and positions on major issues that are held by a large majority of Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora. In that regard, I believe, you and your administration not infrequently fall short. With a year still remaining for your tenure in office, below are three ways in which, I believe, your administration could still better reflect the “We are all Jews” notion in its policy and conduct.

1. Put an end to delegitimizing Jewish life in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. From the beginning, and for seven long years, your administration has relentlessly attacked all construction for Jews in the disputed territories, including the settlement blocs and even decades-old Jerusalem neighborhoods. For a while even “natural growth” was an issue, implying that Jews living in these places would commit a moral wrong by having children. Just last week State Department spokesman John Kirby reiterated: “Our long-standing position on settlements is clear. We view Israeli settlement activity as illegitimate….”

While there are, of course, a variety of views among Israeli and Diaspora Jews on settlement and the disputed territories, only a very small fringe of Israelis, and perhaps a slightly larger slice of Diaspora Jews, share your administration’s stance that these lands should be entirely off limits to Jews. The reasons are—or should be—obvious: they were won in a defensive war; they have great security and historical-religious significance for Israel and Jews; and the documents, most notably UN Resolution 242, that were meant to regulate Arab-Israeli peacemaking treat these lands as an issue for negotiations, not as belonging entirely to one side.

Being a “Jew” in the sense of sympathy and solidarity is not, then, consistent with constantly and shrilly proclaiming that Jews should not be in these places at all.

2. Treat the Jewish state as other democratic allies of America are treated instead of subjecting it to ceaseless public criticism. Unfortunately, when someone from your administration talks about the “unshakable bond” between American and Israel and the like, it’s usually a prelude to harsh criticisms of Israeli policy delivered in full public view. In 2014, for example, the State Department called Israeli actions “unacceptable” 87 times; only Syria, Iran, and North Korea tolled higher numbers, while Pakistan, Russia, Afghanistan, and Iraq got fewer “unacceptable” tags. It was late in 2014 that anonymous administration officials publicly called our prime minister a vulgar name and mocked him for alleged cowardice. Israel gets berated for, of course, settlement policy, for its ways of fighting terror, for not really “wanting peace,” and so on.

It goes without saying that the large majority of Jews do not think Israel should be subjected to a form of hectoring that is unique for U.S. democratic allies (and rare enough even for nondemocratic ones). That is especially the case when there is a worldwide effort by the BDS movement and others to demonize and, ultimately, dismantle the Jewish state. The sight of Israel’s U.S. ally obsessively castigating it is not exactly a discouragement and disincentive to that worldwide effort. The administration protests in its defense that there are often “quarrels within a family.” But smart families work out their quarrels behind closed doors and don’t keep making a spectacle of them.

Relating to the Jewish state with normal diplomatic respect would certainly be more “Jewish.”

3. Let Jonathan Pollard emigrate to Israel. Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who was tried and convicted of spying for Israel, was, of course, finally released from prison a bit more than two months ago. Overall, the Pollard affair has not been one of the noblest chapters in American history. That the former naval intelligence analyst broke the law, and had a prison sentence coming, is not disputed. But the length of his 45-year life sentence (with parole eligibility after 30 years) was unprecedented and unparalleled among those convicted of spying for U.S. allies. Neither appeals for clemency from the highest Israeli officials nor a growing chorus of protests at the injustice by prominent Jewish and non-Jewish Americans were of any help.

Now it turns out that the “freed” Jonathan Pollard is not so free and is being subjected to parole conditions of unusual harshness including restricted access to computers, a strict curfew, and the constant wearing of a GPS monitoring device. He cannot find work and is under constant threat of being rearrested and jailed for the remaining 15 years of the original sentence. The notion that, more than three decades after his spying activity, Jonathan Pollard still possesses information that could jeopardize U.S. security is, of course, ludicrous. Instead, what drives his continued persecution is apparently the same vindictive spirit.

The Jewish world in Israel and America backs Jonathan Pollard’s aspiration, after 30 years of imprisonment, to move to Israel and live out his days here in the Jewish state. Reportedly the power to allow him to do that, Mr. President, is in your hands. After a presidency notably characterized by high-profile frictions with the Jewish state, it would be the most “Jewish” gesture you could make.


An American-born Israeli Jew