Speaking to an audience of 7,000 at AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that’s known as the most powerful lobbying organization in the US and has over the past 20 years been largely captured by the Likud/Neo-con alliance, Barack Obama just used the words “tikkun olam” and drew what sounded like a standing ovation. “Tikkun olam” is Hebrew for “the repair of the world”, and it draws on an idea that I believe traces back to the Kabbalah that in the creation of the world, some of the vessels were broken, releasing sparks of divinity into chaos and messiness; and that the work of wise men is to gather up those sparks and try to repair the broken world. Obama used the word in hailing what he called a tradition of valuing social justice that runs deep in Jewish culture, and he then linked that to the alliance of Jews and blacks during the Civil Rights struggle, which he said was a bond that must be strengthened. And he then related this back to the need for a defense of Israel as a part of that same struggle for social justice in the world.
Just set aside for a moment whatever skepticism you may have about Israel’s right to claim itself as an icon of social justice today: this was, as usual, the perfect note for Obama to strike at AIPAC. It does two things. First, it assures the kinds of American Jews who belong to AIPAC that rather than viewing Jews as political enemies or rivals of blacks, Obama sees them the way they want to be seen — as people who were on the right side of the Civil Rights struggle. For anyone who sees a black man in a dark suit and thinks “Farrakhan”, that should go a long way towards tamping down negative associations. Second, it places a defense of Israel in the context of a worldwide struggle for social justice. This shifts the ground. The right-wing defense of Israel in the US sees it as a bastion of Judeo-Christian Europe against the dark advancing Islamic hordes. Obama is saying, yeah, we defend Israel — as a great nation founded on a vision of social justice and redemption for a suffering people, a nation that’s not perfect but that strives to make itself more perfect, a nation engaged in “tikkun olam”.
What stuns me is that he seems to be able to go out and do this, day after day after day, striking these perfect notes for difficult audience after difficult audience. I think he won a lot of votes today at AIPAC. More importantly, I can’t imagine any Hebrew phrase coming out of John McCain’s mouth without sounding ridiculous. Barack Obama seems to have been hanging out with the Michael Lerner and Avodah crowd enough over the years that he says “tikkun olam” and clearly knows what he’s talking about.
Update: I missed the beginning of the speech and didn’t know he’d said Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel, prompting Andrea Mitchell to categorize the speech as “Obama’s hard line on Israel”. That doesn’t necessarily seem so great. Meanwhile McMegan has a very odd reaction to this which nonetheless prompts me to consider the extent to which the “tikkun olam” thing may actually be a dog-whistle to the J Street left-wing Jewish peacenik crowd — “I’m with you guys, but I have to calm down the Likudniks first.” Sure would be nice for us yids to be dog-whistled to for a change!
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