Many Republicans reflexively view Barack Obama as arrogant, out of touch, or socialistic, and are unimpressed with his rhetorical skills, coolness under pressure and essential civility. But a growing number of Jewish voters think he has been intellectually dishonest in applying American values toward Israel.
Last month, the president, appearing before the biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke about the biblical Joseph’s response to his father, Jacob. “Many scholars have focused on a single word, hineini, which translates to ‘Here I am,’ [and] sets in motion a story of enslavement and exodus that would come to inspire leaders like Martin Luther King as they sought freedom.”
In the Jews’ “often tragic history,” Obama said, “this place, America, stands out [applause], where their faith was protected and responsibility paid off, no matter who you were or where you came from.
“From the moment our country was founded, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect. Your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents remembered what it was like to be a stranger. They pursued tikkun olam, the hard work of repairing the world. [Applause.] Our country is a better place because they did.”
The president said “the special bonds” between America and Israel are “forged by common interests and shared values that transcend partisan politics — or at least they should.
We stand with Israel as a Jewish democratic state because we know that Israel is born of firmly
held values that we, as Americans, share: a culture committed to justice.”
In short, he said the right sounding things — except for one.
The only issue left unspoken — and likely purposefully unaddressed — was Jonathan J. Pollard, still in prison after 26 years for having passed classified information to Israel. In his otherwise eloquent speech to one of the largest gatherings of influential American Jews, the Democratic incumbent was like a stubborn donkey mindless of the white elephant in the room.
The Pollard case cannot be dismissed by ignoring it.
Obama knows full well that the prime minister of our closest Mideast ally has publicly and privately pled for Pollard’s clemency. But he has never responded to Binyamin Netanyahu — nor to the many notable Americans who have voiced similar sentiments, recognizing that no one but Pollard ever received a life sentence for an offense normally punished by a two- to four-year term, and who say enough is enough.
Where is the shared “culture committed to justice,” to fundamental notions of fairness, to the avoidance of partisan politics — not to mention common courtesy due heads of state? If the president honestly feels Pollard got what he deserved, he should have the decency to say so, and put the issue on the table during the coming campaign.
Otherwise he should do the honorable thing — for Pollard, for himself and for us all — by stepping up and uttering that one word: Hineini.
Kenneth Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore.