Friday, May 23, 2008

What’s in a Name?

It has been reported that Senator Obama is now putting a stronger emphasis on the Jewish vote, especially in Florida – a key state for the national election. It has also been reported that as part of this effort Senator Obama, in a recent appearance in a Florida synagogue, asked the audience not to judge him according to his skin color or his name, referring in part, I assume, to his Muslim middle name – Hussein.

I found this appeal offensive and worrisome. It should surprise no one that some American Jews have certain concerns with Senator Obama’s candidacy: his past statements about negotiations with Iran, his short public record on matters of foreign policy and Israel, his affiliation with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the general sense he gives of a naïve belief in the effectiveness of talks and negotiations and of an overly strong reluctance to use force when needed. For many American Jews (naturally not for all) these factors raise questions as to the decisions and sentiments Senator Obama will have as president, if elected; questions that do not arise in the case of Senators Mccain and Clinton.

These are perfectly legitimate concerns. To an extent I have them myself. It is certainly possible that these concerns are misguided or based on misconceptions, but they are definitely understandable and are by no means illegitimate or irrational. In addition, these concerns have absolutely nothing to do with Senator Obama’s name or skin color (which for me, if anything, make him more appealing rather than less for reasons of multiculturalism, diversity, variety and historic justice etc). While I have no doubt that some voters, including some Jewish voters, question and even oppose Senator Obama for illegitimate reasons, to attribute these tendencies to the “Jewish voters” by raising them in a synagogue during Senator Obama’s “Jewish campaign in Florida” is offensive an unfair. It almost rises to a covert accusation of racism and has the effect of delegitimizing and silencing legitimate concerns. In fact, this statement may make some people even uneasier with Senator Obama rather than help build trust. Also, Senator Obama’s continuous statements about his many Jewish friends do not help either.

Senator Obama needs to dispel these concerns by doing two things: (1) make clearer statements about his values and future policies and, (2) convince people that he in fact means what he says about where his loyalties lie and that he will have the resolve to do what he promises. Lately Senator Obama has made all the right statements, but some of his trust building tactics leave something to be desired.

To be clear, this is no more than a critical observation. I am neither mortally offended by Senator Obama nor do I think that he has committed an unforgivable sin. In fact, I may very well end up voting for him. However, as of now, while I would really like to be convinced, I am still on the fence.

Posted by Ori Herstein


Sobek said...

"...his Muslim middle name – Hussein."

It's more of an Arabic middle name than a Muslim one.

... his affiliation with Rev. Jeremiah Wright...

And, by extension, his affiliation with notorious anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan.

...convince people that he in fact means what he says about where his loyalties lie...

Well he finally started wearing an American flag lapel pin, so I guess that question is settled.

Eric Turkewitz said...

I found this appeal offensive and worrisome.

I found it honest. Sure some folks may disagree based on his politics, but only a fool would think that skin color and name play no role at all for many others.

So he tackled the issue head on instead of dancing around the subject.

Ori Herstein said...


Are you sure Hussein is more an Arab name than an Islamic name? Obama has African origins, not Arab ones. Another example of a person named Hussein who is not Arab is
zakir Hussein, the famed Indian tabla player. Are there Christian Arabs named Hussein?

Your comment indicates that you may think that I questioned Senator Obama’s loyalty to the United States, so just to clarify –I did not do any such thing.

Ori Herstein said...

Another reaction to Sobek,

Associations and affiliations are not transitive (at least not in a simple way) – if O is associated with W and W is associated with F, it does not follow that O and F are also associated.

Michael C. Dorf said...

A few reactions:

1) If THE ONLY THINGS that Sen. Obama had said to this audience were "don't judge me by my name" and "some of my best friends are Jewish," then I could see the argument that this is offensive. But as two points in a substantive speech, these can't have been an indication that he was dismissing substantive concerns that some Jewish voter might legitimately have about him.

2) On the merits, I find the foreign policy concerns misguided. Obama's critics have repeatedly characterized his willingness to meet with leaders of hostile regimes as naive, but in fact he never said he would meet with such leaders without any prior low-level diplomatic discussions. In fact he said the opposite. If this is naive, then every American administration is naive---including the current Bush Administration, which, after years of bluster, decided to try diplomacy with North Korea. I also don't understand what reluctance to use force you are talking about, Ori. Obama thought and thinks the use of force was justified against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan but not against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Are there other examples of his reluctance to use force? If not, this sounds like an argument for the clear-headedness of his foreign policy judgment, not against it.

3) There is, I think, one core issue here, and that's the complicated historical relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities. (Paul Berman's excellent 1995 anthology, Blacks and Jews, provides a good overview.) Obama comes out of the mainstream leadership of the civil rights movement, which continues to work closely with liberal Jews. However, what we might call "rank and file" Blacks and Jews have always been more wary of one another than the communities' respective respectable leaders. Just about any black leader, to have credibility with the mass of black voters, will have connections to people who are more directly in touch with the community's views, which is to say, people who harbor vaguely or even not-so-vaguely anti-Semitic feelings. Whatever else the Reverand Wright controversy signals to non-Jewish white voters, for some substantial proportion of Jewish voters, it raises the question of how much influence the Third-Worldist/anti-Israel wing of African-American leadership will have in an Obama Administration. That, I agree, is a legitimate question, although I also think that anyone who actually gets to know Obama should be satisfied by the answer.

Ori Herstein said...

The thing that bothered me was that when I learned that O was about to address the concerns of many Jewish voters I was glad – I thought that here is a chance to hear clearer statements about issues that matter to me. Issues that the other candidates have a clearer and longer record on and have made clearer statements on. I was particularly interested in hearing O on these issues because I have always voted democrat and would very much like to continue doing so. I just have a few concerns I, and I think many other voters, would like dispelled.

And then, in an address clearly directed at the Jewish vote as a group, O identifies these two sinister stereotypical racist motivations that he seems to think are contributing to generating the concerns the particular group he is addressing has in relation to his candidacy. It offended me and I am sure many others – in a sense I “came” to hear him, wanting to be convinced and this is what he is attributed to me? In addition, it also made me wonder about what sort of misconceptions O, his speechwriters and his campaign strategists have of me and of people like me. In principle I am on O’s team, and suddenly I find that he, to an extent, views me and people with similar concerns to mine as sitting on the bench of a team I do not want and should not be associated with. To a degree it made the rest of the speech seem more like pandering – of course he would say that he is committed to Israel’s security, Israel is great, American Jews are great, that the Hamas and Iran are bad, that many Jewish were on the right side during the 60s and that he was personally inspired by some Jews etc. This is a given in such a speech, “we” have heard it all before. It is the intangibles that mattered more, and it is there where I think O partially dropped the ball – he ended the Q &A with a kind of Q.E.D., essentially saying that “now that you know my views I know you will not not vote for me because of who I am” (as if that was ever the case).

Perhaps I take more offense at these statements and do not view them as mere brave honesty, as Erik does, because of the point Mike makes about the relationship between American Jews and the African American community. But I do not think that my reactions are utterly out of left field, in the sense of being irrational or highly over sensitive. Although, again, I am not mortally injured by this and do not wish to blow the matter out of proportion.

As for the point about the reluctance to use force – this is nothing more that a gut feeling I think many people share. Nevertheless, voter gut feelings are something that candidates should pay attention to, even if they are not based on hard facts. O has not had much of a chance to appear tough on foreign policy matters (mainly because he has not been around very long) and he does not often “talk tough” on foreign policy matters (certainly less so than the other two candidates) so there is a worry that perhaps he simply will not be tough, when needed, on foreign policy. This is not an argument; it is more an observation as to what I think many people feel, perhaps not rationally.

The North Korean example is interesting. It is not yet clear to me whether it was successful or not. In any case, I do not think that Iran and North Korea are analogous in this context.

Anonymous said...
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Jamison Colburn said...

Tom Friedman's column in the Times last week was most revealing on Obama's candidacy and its turbulence with many American jews (even though I pretty much detest Friedman and have since 2003). There isn't an inch of space between Obama and the other two on the most fundamental issues (two states, the West Bank, etc.). They're all agreed on almost all of it (and, as was already said, Obama's position on diplomacy with Iran, Syria, etc., is simply the better way to go given recent history). Somehow, though, only Obama is having to field a steady stream of questions about his intentions toward Israel and Arab/Israeli conflict. Why is that? Finally, as far as his electioneering with this particular slice of the electorate, it seems more likely than ever that Obama will decide there's only so much of it he could even possibly win in November--and leave enough said as enough.

Anonymous said...

The primary season has been long and tedious and Obama has constantly been on the mainstream news cycle. Yet, a March 27th Pew Poll found that "...a majority — 53% — identify Obama as a Christian, 16% of conservative Republicans, 16% of white evangelical Protestants and 19% of rural Americans believe the Illinois senator is Muslim. About a third of Americans said they don't know what Obama's religious beliefs are, and 9% of that group said it's because they've heard different information about his faith."

The notion that Obama might be Muslim certainly hurts his chances of being elected (it really shouldn't). Obama's statement has a lot more to do with conforming to a style that is conductive in mainstream media---the soundbite. At this point, I believe a lot of the uncertainty about Obama's policy among the average voter--not a law professor like you--stems from the belief that he may be Muslim or that he sympathizes with Muslims and is against the Zionist movement. I certainly don't like the dumbed-down "I'm not a Muslim" talk, but it is definitely neccesary if he hopes to win the presidency (and it certainly is not pandering).

With all that said, I'm still waiting for a substantive speech by Obama his approach to policy in the Middle East and specifically Israel.

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