Barack Obama leaves a rich Jewish legacy behind
Several hundred distinguished guests gathered in the foyer to witness the menorah lighting. This menorah was deliberately selected for its significance, crafted by children in Yemin Orde. As President Obama explained, Yemin Orde was “a village in Israel founded in 1953 to provide a safe haven to orphans and young immigrants after the Holocaust. More than 60 years later, Yemin Orde still gives children in Israel a shot at a brighter future.”
President Obama has enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Jewish American community – securing 78 per cent of their vote in 2008 – and he has similarly supported them throughout his tenure as president.
“Me standing here before you, all of you in this incredible congregation is a testament to the power of hope. It’s a rebuke to cynicism. It’s a rebuke to nihilism. And it inspires us to have faith that our future, like our past, will be shaped by the values that we share,” said Obama in May 2015 when he visited the Addas Israel Congregation in Washington,DC. It is those shared values that he sees linking him to the Jewish people, and that has guided him through the years in his defence of Israel.
Ambassador Michael Oren recounted in his book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, how President Obama readily offered Israel help as soon as he was asked during the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fires.
The Memorandum of Understanding that Obama finalised in September 2015 guarantees the largest amount of aid ever given to Israel. Additionally, he’s advocated for increased funding to the Iron Dome defence system, ensuring that more Israeli cities could be protected. Few can question the actionable commitments that the President has made to Israel’s security, and to the security of Jews nationwide.
However, President Obama’s commitment to Israel throughout his eight years has been plagued by external doubts. The criticisms have been loudest with regard to the historic agreement reached with Iran and the recent United Nations Resolution 2334.
With both, the Obama administration conducted outreach to the Jewish community but still questions are likely to persist. Yet, more than a year later, the Iranian Nuclear Deal is working. Established to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, it has thus far accomplished its goal. Moreover, there is now 24/7 monitoring of Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain.
“The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period,” said President Ronald Reagan in 1982. It has long been a bipartisan position of the United States government that settlements are not conducive to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This has been an important point for the entirety of the Obama administration, and a cause of much acrimony for those opposed to the President’s Middle East vision.
Prior to the UN Resolution 2334 passing, President Obama was the only president since 1967 to not have had at least one Israeli-Palestinian resolution pass. This one, however, reflected the beliefs and perspectives laid out by the Obama administration over the past eight years.
- “Shalom Mr Presidents,” was a greeting I thought as we scrambled to put the finishing touches on Shimon Peres’ final official visit as Israel’s president. President Obama and Peres were to meet with several leaders of the Jewish community at the height of tensions between Israel and Hamas, during the kidnapping of three yeshiva boys.
Perhaps most poignantly were President Obama’s words of solace, relating to the deep sadness that Israel and the global Jewish nation felt. He spoke to our pain as a father himself, again, a moment of shared values, a connection deeper than just words.
When Peres passed away in September, Obama ordered US flags to be flown at half mast, an honour bestowed on only seven other foreign dignitaries in American history.
Today (January 20) when President Obama vacates the White House, American Jewry will say goodbye to someone who truly shared our values and cared for our concerns.
- Jerusalem-born Gidon Feen, who has lived in Johannesburg and is based in Washington, is a former White House intern in the Office of Public Engagement. He is the grandson of the late Dr Irving Lissoos, formerly of Johannesburg.