Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is proud to be a Jew.
While giving the address at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Keynote Event on Thursday, Dec. 8 to a packed room in the lavish Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor ballroom, Fleischer declared that he’s also proud to be an American.
He additionally takes great pride in having been the voice of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003 — an especially tumultuous time in the nation’s history.
This after having spent a year in Austin, Texas as spokesman for Bush’s initial presidential campaign and being asked by one local if his name is “R-period, E-period.” And the gentle ribbing by Bush, who Fleischer acknowledged “occasionally has some trouble with the English language,” (endearingly) dubbing his press secretary “Ari Bob.”
Fleischer illuminated what it was to be tied to his own heritage — as the son of a Hungarian immigrant mother who was one of the last Jews to escape Europe during the Holocaust — in Bush’s White House, which was largely “Evangelical Christian.”
The challenge was that it is essential for the press secretary to leave aside his or her own perspective when presenting daily briefings to the world press, Fleischer said. It is his or her job to speak on behalf of the president and express those views only with fervent, heartfelt pragmatism.
And yet, Fleischer is proudest still that a person with a Hebrew name — Jewish-American and child of an immigrant — spoke for the president in this way during the time he was at the White House, be it for the nation’s media or broadcast via outlets such as (he was sure to note) Al Jazeera.
Fleischer wears no rosy-colored glasses when it comes to the “rapidly deteriorating” state of the Middle East, as he put it, vying as he does for the protection the Jewish people in Israel.
“These are tough times in the Middle East,” Fleischer said. “When is it not?”
Fleischer was pessimistic about the notion for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which he referred to as “a quaint and nostalgic thing.”
He is disheartened by the prospect that whereas “every nation that ever sought to make peace with Israel found a willing, ready and able partner for peace” — citing the ilk of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein bin Talal — there is, in Fleischer’s opinion, currently an alarming lack of such a partner for Israel in a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians.
For context, Fleischer pointed out that there are roads, schools summer camps and other memorials in the Palestinian city of Ramallah — where there was joyous dancing on 9/11, he reminded the audience — named after the most destructive suicide bombers or “martyrs” that ever struck at Israel and the U.S.
It was a sobering, latter half of his speech in which Fleischer said, “There’s no higher call for the Jewish people than a call for peace … but Israel can’t negotiate with ‘no one’ … and so far, the Palestinians have been unable to deliver such a person.”
A reality, Fleischer fears, that was laid bare after Israel pulled out of Gaza. With full sovereignty over their land, one of the first acts by the Palestinians in that area was to destroy the area synagogues.
There is some flicker of light at the end of the dark tunnel for Fleischer, who revealed a “movement” happening “behind the scenes” in the Middle East, as various nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are beginning to focus their hostility less on Israel and more on Iran as the potential threat to regional solidarity.
Fleischer’s wish is that “President-elect Trump will recognize that we are on the verge of an unusual strategic realignment and that the United States should actively work for this realignment and support it.
“It’s in Israel’s interest, it’s in America’s interest and it’s in the interest of the Arab moderates for whom we have to place hope for the future in the Middle East.”
When asked by the JT about his thoughts on so-called “identity politics,” the notion that a person’s association with a larger group (race/religion/ gender/sexuality) profoundly informs his or her worldview, the high-profile policy wonk and media consultant was characteristically self-assured in responding.
“I’m tremendously proud of what this country has done in terms of its melting pot,” Fleischer said. “That we can love our heritage, be true to our heritage … I love that part of the United States. It’s who we are.”
Where Fleischer is concerned is when identity politics becomes more important than an individual’s connection to the nation in which she or he lives.
Fleischer envisions a stronger “national unity,” which he believes can lead to more national policies that might alleviate terra firma problems that affect us all, regardless of personal affiliation, such as “doing the most we can to lift people out of poverty, which is really what we need.”
The confusion many are experiencing in reconciling their individual, diverse heritage with that of a unified community is something Fleischer understands all too well.
“What I’ve learned through my government service, particularly at the White House, is how the fabric of the nation still so deeply connects all of us,” he said.
Fleischer recounted a harrowing story in which, three days after 9/11, he faced the decision of whether to go to work that day and speak to the nation for the president … or observe Rosh Hashanah.
After consulting with his staff and rabbi, he decided to attend services in the morning and work the rest of the day. But at a briefing with the press later that day, he was asked a question about a meeting in the oval office that had earlier taken place and was able to respond that he was unable to answer, as he was in synagogue that morning.
“It felt so good to say that on national television,” Fleischer beamed.