“What if” scenarios are the guilty pleasures of certain kinds of historian and science-fiction fans. But even if you think pondering such a question is generally a waste of time, it’s hard to resist the one about the photo that has just emerged, in which then Sen. Barack Obama is smiling broadly next to Louis Farrakhan. Would the publication of the picture taken at a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2005 have derailed his presidential plans?
We’ll never know. The CBC asked the freelance photographer who took it to bury it, and he complied. It’s only now come to light after it can no longer do any damage to the career of the man who was then a rising star in the Democratic Party. But it’s a dead certainty that if it had been published at some point during the 2008 campaign, it would have either helped Hillary Clinton fend off Obama’s challenge for the Democratic nomination or given a boost to Republican Sen. John McCain in the general election.
But, like so much about politics, what you think about this question depends on your political affiliation and how you already feel about the 44th president. To liberals who fell in love with the man with the “too-cool-for-school” temperament, as well as with the idea of electing our first African-American president, it is—like Obama’s membership for 20 years in a church that was led by a radical minister with a record of hate speech and antipathy to Israel—an embarrassing sidebar, though not disqualifying. To conservatives, it served to confirm what they already felt was the falsity of Obama’s pose as a man of good will.
For what’s it worth, I don’t think the photo would have made a difference. We’ve already seen enough of the former president’s formidable ability to use jujitsu tactics to turn his liabilities into strengths to know that he could have managed this crisis as easily as he did those about his connections to Rev. Jeremiah Wright and other radicals.
The photo came out days after former President Obama was quoted as saying that he and his staff used to joke about him being “basically a liberal Jew.” The remark, which came during an appearance at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, was in the context of Obama’s defense of his attitude towards Israel.
With the exception of a Jewish charm offensive that coincided with his re-election efforts, Obama sparred incessantly with Israel’s government during his eight years in office, criticizing its policies on security and settlements and, in particular, broke new ground in treating Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem built since 1967 as no different from West Bank settlements. He also broke with the pro-Israel community by seeking a rapprochement with Iran. He broke his 2012 promise to eliminate Iran’s program and agreed to a deal that not only enriched and empowered Tehran, but ensured that within a decade it would be able to get a weapon with legal impunity.
But it’s likely that the majority of American Jews who are liberal are still happy to count Obama as one of their tribe. They share his belief that being willing to criticize its government when it does something that offends their sensibilities is the sign of a true friend of Israel. Obama’s belief that more “daylight” between the United States and Israel would lead to peace with the Palestinians was discredited by continued Palestinian intransigence and violence, and contradicted by a broad consensus of Israeli society. Yet none of this ever shook the affection with which actual liberal Jews viewed him.
The reason is obvious: partisanship. In our bifurcated nation, suspicion of political opponents now runs so deep that we are unable to listen to their arguments or even think honestly about those on our side of the great political divide, something illustrated anew by the debate about the Russia investigation.
Liberal Jews made allowances for Obama that they would never have given a conservative. And they continued making those allowances throughout his presidency because the war on Republicans was more important than anything else. The same goes for conservatives who make allowances for President Trump’s shortcomings because of their view of the Democrats.
That’s why the discussion about the meaning of the Obama/Farrakhan photograph (which, predictably, has been largely ignored by the same mainstream media that acted as Obama’s willing “echo chamber” on the Iran debate, the IRS scandal and many other issues) is still worth thinking about even if it no longer can impact history.
Though the photo would have been damaging, no picture was going to disenthrall Jews who were already besotted with Obama. No matter what Obama did on Israel or Iran, there was never a chance his fellow Democrats—Jewish or non-Jewish—were ever going to turn on him. That’s due in part to his impressive powers of persuasion, but primarily because the pull of political tribes appears to be greater than that of any other loyalty in our hyper-partisan age.
This is a cautionary tale for Jewish Republicans who may currently be under the very different spell of Donald Trump, whether because they like his unorthodox approach to politics or because they view him as an honorary conservative Jew because of his stand on Jerusalem.
Still, it ought to remind Jewish Democrats as they reflexively oppose anything Trump does, including stands on Israel they would have cheered had they been carried out by Obama or any other member of their party, that there ought to be some limits on partisanship.
Frankly, I don’t care whether, as the Anti-Defamation League is now demanding, Obama renews his condemnation of Farrakhan because of the photo. The ship sailed on the debate over Obama’s fitness for office a long time ago, and no one really cares about ritualized statements about extremists. What matters is whether American Jews have the wisdom and guts to rise above party labels to defend their community’s interests when necessary.
Based on the evidence, I don’t think there’s much reason for optimism on that score.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.