The Audacity of Hopelessness


The President-elect once bought a home whose deed prohibited its resale or rental to Jews. He had associations with a number of dubious characters, some of whom did not much care for Hebrews. In fact, he himself seems to have harbored some pretty anti-Jewish sentiment.

No, no, not Senator Obama. That was Richard Nixon, whose delivery of arms to the Jewish State during the Yom Kippur War helped prevent an Arab victory. And who, in the terminal crisis of his presidency, confided in two identifiable Jews – Henry Kissinger and Boruch Korff (known as “Nixon’s rabbi”).

Then there was President Harry Truman, who wrote that he found “the Jews… very selfish” and expressed anger at the fact that “a thousand Jews [had been brought] to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed.” The same Harry Truman who acted to help Jews in postwar Europe and supported Israel’s creation – against his own State Department.

Such examples point to a truth paid lip service but not always internalized: History is determined not by any sovereign’s personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign’s insuperable will. As King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 21:1) “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem.”

Which idea should inform all our political thoughts. What matters most is never a particular candidate but G-d’s plan – and our merits.

I don’t think I’m the only Jewish observer who found (and find) certain expressions of anti-Obama sentiment in parts of the Orthodox community less than reality-based. Many of us may have supported Senator McCain for a number of valid reasons – his experience, his willingness to reach across the partisan aisle, his maverick-ness, or simply because they disagreed with Senator Obama’s positions – but anyone who voted Republican because of the Democrat’s ostensible animus for Jews or Israel was not terribly different from commentators who portrayed Mr. Obama as a Zionist dupe. Osama bin Laden’s top deputy described the President-elect as a “house Negro” who has chosen to “pray the prayer of the Jews.”

Yes, Mr. Obama associated with a nutty, rabble-rousing pastor. But when the clergyman’s looniness was exposed, the Senator denounced both it and him, in no uncertain terms. Political expediency? Perhaps. But perhaps personal conviction. It is unbecoming and unwise to deny the President-elect the courtesy of taking him at his word.

That his path crossed with that of an aging 60s-era radical was unremarkable; seeing it as evidence of some secret anti-American conspiracy was scraping the bottom of an empty barrel. I would certainly never want to be judged by some people I’ve had occasional professional dealings with.

In four years, we will be able to look back and assess the Obama administration (or its first term) – and be either harsh or hailing. Now, though, none of us can claim prophecy. What we can know is that the next President of the United States is long on record as supportive of Israel, enjoyed broad Jewish support (and knows it) and has no record whatsoever of having expressed any ill will toward Jews. And that he is smart and savvy, and surrounds himself with similarly smart advisors (among them, as it happens, a number of Jewish ones).

There may be valid concerns about how the Obama presidency will turn out; I don’t mean to dismiss them. But the degree of fretting among some members of the tribe strikes me as unwarranted, even audacious.

I’m as paranoid as the next religious Jew. I don’t doubt for a moment that the wonderful haven that is the United States cannot be taken for granted. But neither do I doubt for a moment that it is a wonderful haven – and that no reasonable case can be made that President-elect Obama’s mantra of “change” includes any alteration of that happy historical reality.

Yes, efforts must be made with the exit of an Administration that many of us regard as singularly praiseworthy on many counts; and the arrival of new boys on the beltway whose wisdom and judgment have yet to be tested.

Political activism is certainly called for, and there was much discussion at Agudath Israel of America’s recent convention, as I am sure there was at the Orthodox Union’s, about strengthening existing ties with the President-elect and his Administration, and creating new ones. Both organizations’ full-time Washington offices are already in anticipatory high gear.

And above and beyond that, prayers are surely indicated – but with (excuse the word) hope and trust in G-d, not paranoia and fear.

And with awareness of the words of a recent Council of Torah Sages statement:

It is incumbent upon all Jews… to show President-elect Obama the proper dignity and honor due to the leader of our country…, with whom we look forward to a warm and productive relationship. May Hashem, in Whose hand the hearts of all earthly leaders reside, guide America’s new president to succeed in carrying out his awesome responsibilities in a manner that will bring great blessing to the Jewish people, to America, and to all of humankind.”

And let us all say, Amein.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
This essay was adapted from a longer one in Mishpacha magazine, and is offered here with its permission.]

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[…] a commenter reacted with both surprise and disdain to the hopeful messages here following the election of Barack Obama […]

6 years 9 months ago

Chaim Fisher,
How did the Agudah do their best to keep Obama from being elected? Please give a specific reference.

6 years 9 months ago

Larry and Ori… Larry does an excellent job of distorting the truth via adept presentation of a fact.

I did note that “Barack” is an Arabic word… in the context of a critical remark about the “Jewish Americans for Obama” page of his campaign website. It was that page which carefully pointed out that his “name comes from the same root as the Hebrew word Baruch, or ‘blessed’,” and with equal care failed to then tell us in which language Barack means blessed. I think the fact that his name is Arabic is at least as relevant as the fact that it means blessed (by which I mean that both aren’t at all relevant), but remain open to hearing explanations to the contrary.

Be that as it may, it was the Jews for Obama that attempted to use his first name to gain political capital. I simply pointed out that they did so by telling half the truth, which seems consistent with the statements of Jewish Democrats in the current conversation.

Jewish Democrats did not demonstrate themselves terribly willing or able to look past the campaign and work with facts on the ground after past elections that didn’t go their way. They were more likely to chant “hail to the thief” than work with President Bush as he assumed office. Regardless that it was the Democrats who pushed the election into the court system, they then called the courts ‘politicized’ when they determined the law, and refused to accept the results even months later, as newspapers showed that with one recount method after the next, Bush still won.

I’ve already said that Obama’s transition thus far has been both well-managed and surprisingly bipartisan. Should he keep traveling this road, his policies will almost assuredly be far better than those he appeared to espouse as a first-term liberal Senator. His attitudes towards Israel and the failed “Peace” Process remain a large question mark, and I admit to a greater level of trepidation than Rabbi Shafran seems to feel is warranted.

Larry, though, seems to criticize Jewish McCain supporters for their willingness to give the new President-elect a chance to prove himself, rather than to duplicate the fear-mongering and denial that followed the 2000 election. I’m not sure, though, why he thinks that would be productive.

One Christian's perspective
6 years 9 months ago

“History is determined not by any sovereign’s personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign’s insuperable will” Rabbi Shafran

That being the case, it is obvious that Sovereign desires that state of Israel go back to the 1949 armistice lines. – Comment by The Contarian —

Contrarian, Rabbi Shafran is correct in what you quoted. Sometimes, our problem is we try to look at history with too short/narrow a window and see justice and the Sovereign’s will as not agreeable to our ideas for justice, mercy and grace. Think back to ancient Egypt. How would you feel seeing these many plagues occur. You might not have anticipated the Passover, the parting of the Sea, Mirian’s song, and the Promised Land …..but…G-d never forgot Israel, His promise to Abraham nor His words given to the Prophets. The best is yet to come !

6 years 9 months ago

This week’s parsha spoke of Yaacov’s preparation for Eisav: tefilah, gifts and preparation for battle. I can only view this essay as included among “gifts” to an obvious foe. While the frum community obviously emphasizes the tefilah third of the equation, what scares me is that so few of the observant community ever even contemplate preparation for battle. It is NEVER discussed in shul or a shiur. We are martially illiterate and easier targets than we should be.

We praise this benevolent country yet fail to exercise our Second Amendment rights and opportunity to take rudimentary defense measures. Recall the photographer at Mumbai who said he wished he had a gun instead of a camera. All the evidence confirms that relaxed concealed carry laws REDUCE violent crime.

“If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.” When there are urban “uprisings” and the bad guys vastly outnumber the police, with what do we defend our homes and neighborhoods? If “A broken wall calls out to the thief [to come in],” can’t a disarmed neighborhood call an enraged mob to re-enact Kristallnacht? I recall the LA riots where Korean shop owners stood on the roofs of their shops with shotguns… and the mobs passed by to pillage undefended targets.

Only those who refuse to see the repeating patterns of history can say we didn’t see it coming.