One of Barack Obama’s very last actions before leaving office seemed, at the time, to be one his strangest: the appointment of his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
Rhodes has no connection to the Holocaust or to Jewish communal life. Although his mother is Jewish, his parents raised him Episcopalian. Yet suddenly he became part of the leadership of the agency that runs the largest and most famous Holocaust museum in the world.
The peculiar appointment of Rhodes to the Holocaust council was, I suppose, no more peculiar than his rise in the Obama administration. Rhodes had no experience in the realm of foreign policy when, at age 29, he met then-candidate Barack Obama in 2007. In fact, his college degree was in creative writing. But Rhodes and Obama became personal friends, and that was sufficient for Rhodes to zoom up the ladder from minor campaign speechwriter to deputy national security adviser and close confidant to the new president.
It’s always difficult for the public to figure out which of a president’s advisers has his ear on which policy. But Rhodes could not wait until Obama left office to start crowing about the role he had played in promoting the disastrous 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
In an infamous interview with The New York Times in May 2016, Rhodes boasted how he had manipulated public opinion by creating what he called an “echo chamber” of nongovernmental organizations, nuclear “experts” and sympathetic journalists. They waited anxiously by their phones for talking points from him on how to whitewash the Iranian regime and promote arguments in favor of the deal.
Now, thanks to Rhodes’s appetite for attention, we have important information, straight from the horse’s mouth, about what was going on behind the scenes in shaping Obama’s policies towards Israel.
Obama’s constant criticism of Israel and pressure for one-sided Israeli concessions are well-known. But according to Rhodes, senior officials of the Obama administration—apparently, including Rhodes himself—actually “wanted to adopt a more assertive policy toward Israel,” but “their hands were tied” by some Jewish donors to Obama.
“The Washington view of Israel-Palestine is still shaped by the donor class,” an obviously bitter Rhodes complained last week to The New York Times. “The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is.”
Rhodes was, of course, completely wrong in his assessment of “where the majority of the Jewish community is.” He seems to have conveniently forgotten the 2015 American Jewish Committee poll that found that 63 percent of American Jews were either “not so confident” or “not confident at all” that the Iran deal would actually eliminate Iran’s nukes or put an end to Iran’s threat to annihilate Israel.
But, leaving aside Rhodes’s misstatement about American Jewry, what should we make of his allegation that Jewish money distorts U.S. government policy? When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar said it, there was an uproar. I wonder why Ben Rhodes’s version of that slur seems to have escaped notice.
In the same Times article, a “former member of the Obama White House” (sounding an awful lot like Rhodes) revealed that the Obama administration played a central role in that U.N. Security Council vote against Israel in the autumn of 2016.
You remember that one. It was a run-of-the-mill U.N. resolution declaring that the Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem was “illegal.” The kind of resolution American presidents routinely vetoed many times in the past. But not President Obama. He had secretly decided to abstain, so that the resolution would pass.
The problem for Obama was the timing: The vote was scheduled to take place shortly before that year’s presidential election. So the Obama team manipulated the schedule. “There is a reason the U.N. vote did not come up before the election in November,” the anonymous “former official” told the Times. “It was because you were going to have skittish donors. That, and the fact that we didn’t want [Hillary] Clinton to face pressure to condemn the resolution or be damaged by having to defend it.”
At the time, of course, Team Obama loudly denied the Israeli government’s claim that the White House was secretly planning to let the U.N. resolution pass. Obama aides like Rhodes, on the record and off the record, vigorously attacked critics who raised such suspicions. But now we know that the suspicions were well-founded.
Why does any of this matter now, years after Obama left office?
First, it matters because Obama is still a major force in the Democratic Party. He will influence the outcome of the race for the Democratic nomination in 2020. His views on Israel will continue to shape the party’s position.
Second, it matters because it sheds some light on why Obama rushed to appoint Rhodes to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in the waning hours before he left office—and why Rhodes wanted the appointment. Rhodes has harsh opinions about Israel. He seems proud that he helped trick the public into accepting the Iran deal. And he’s proud of his role in Obama’s policies towards Israel—in fact, he regrets that they weren’t harsher. Clearly, Rhodes wants a platform that will help keep him and his opinions in the public spotlight.
Serving on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council gives Rhodes cover as he plans his next move. You can almost hear him warming up the argument: “You can’t accuse me of being anti-Israel—I’m part of the leadership of the Holocaust Museum!” Sadly, Israel and American Jewry have not heard the last of him.
Stephen M. Flatow, an attorney in New Jersey, is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. His book, “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror,” has just been published.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.