By Natasha Mozgovaya
Quite a few of Barack Obama’s “friends from the past” have popped up recently. It’s doubtful whether he even knows their names, but in the Chicago Jewish community many people really are long-time friends of the president-elect. Some of the older people in the community say that they “raised him,” while others half-jokingly call Obama “the first Jewish president.”
They raised contributions for him, provided him with contacts, and also enjoyed hosting him and believed in his glorious future in politics. During most of the campaign, when rumors were spreading among American Jews that Obama was a closet Muslim who was more supportive of the Palestinians and was interested in granting the president of Iran legitimacy, his support among American Jews did not even come close to that enjoyed by Bill Clinton. But at the moment of truth, according to the exit polls, it turns out that 78 percent of Jews voted for Obama.
Members of the Chicago Jewish community are not surprised. They claim that the Jews simply discovered what they have known for years. Obama lives near the synagogue in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, an area with quite a large Jewish population. Some of area visitors may even mistake the heavy security presence on the street for the synagogue’s location – that is, until they hear about Obama.
Alan Solow, an attorney from Chicago, a leader of the Jewish community and a veteran Obama supporter, was one of the few who gained access to the president-elect after his speech in Chicago’s Grant Park last week. “After his speech on Tuesday night [election day] in front of hundreds of thousands people, he was the same Barack Obama I know. I think his life is going to change, but it won’t change the type of person he is. Presidents tend to become isolated, but I’m confident he’ll fight hard against it,” he says.
Solow used to live in Obama’s neighborhood, and says that Obama has always had “excellent relations with the Jewish community.”
“As a local senator, he was very effective and helpful in what we call ‘the Jewish agenda,’ the community issues, values. He has always had a deep understanding of Israel’s need for security. I went with him to Israel for a week in January 2006, and when he started the race for the presidency I had no doubt I’d support him. The first thing that impressed me about him was his intellect – he’s one of the smartest people I’ve met – but he’s also a warm and caring person who has a keen interest in issues that people of this country are worried about,” continues Solow.
“I said with a smile that he will be the first Jewish president. He also has a deep understanding of issues that confront Israel and the Jewish community. And I think his personal story reflects the story of Jewish immigration to the United States.
“He was raised in a family without any built-in advantages: His father was a stranger, but with the help of a close family and an emphasis on education and hard work, he succeeded. It’s the Jewish story in America. He understands it, and that’s why he’s so close to the Jewish community. His first autobiography is about seeking his roots and he understands Jewish people’s yearning for this – it fits into his world view and it’s one of the reasons for his support of Israel. When he says that Israel’s security is sacrosanct, I believe him. As I know him, he won’t say things he doesn’t really mean. And he has a lot of close Jewish friends who can confirm this.”
Solow is also very familiar with Obama’s first appointment – his designated White House chief of staff. “Rahm is an active member of Jewish community, his children go to the day schools and he was always recognized as Jewish when he was Clinton’s advisor. But I don’t believe that the fact that he’s a devoted Jew and supports Israel has anything to do with his appointment. He’s simply the best person for this job, because of his experience in Congress and in Clinton’s administration, and because of his intellect. But his support of Israel fits with the president-elect’s thinking.”
Michael Bauer, a political activist from the community who has known Obama for over a decade and supported his presidential campaign, says his first reaction to Obama’s victory was disbelief. “It seemed like a dream. After the election, I had a brief opportunity to congratulate him, to exchange a hug with Barack, a kiss with Michelle. We’re very proud of him and we’re sure he’ll successfully handle the big challenges facing the country and the new president,” he says.
“If we go back to his work as a State senator, his Senate district had a relatively high percentage of Jews, and more importantly, it was a Jewish population involved both politically and with charity organizations. When he was in the State Senate, the Democrats were a minority. When you’re a minority you don’t get too much accomplished. Neither Barack as a State Senator nor any of his colleagues were able to accomplish a great deal, because of Republican control of the State Senate. However, because of his district, it was always clear to me that many people supporting Barack are active in the Jewish community both locally and nationally. And they agreed about his sensitivity to a number of issues – the issue of the U.S-Israel relationship and domestically, issues that many of us are concerned about, be it the separation of Church and State, women’s right to choose, etc. It was always a natural fit between the Jewish community and Barack Obama. He understands those issues. Frankly, he’s so smart he understands them better than most of us,” says Bauer.
Identifying with Sderot
“As a U.S. senator he visited Israel twice, and especially the second time I think was highly significant,” Bauer continues. “I think it was important to him personally to go to Sderot and see the proximity involved when Israel is attacked on a daily basis from Gaza. I think it was also symbolic for the people of Israel and the worldwide community, as well as the Jewish community, to see Barack Obama going to Sderot and speaking about it, that as president it will be unacceptable to him and he recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself. This symbolism was important on so many different levels. I’ve known the president-elect for over 10 years, and his values and principles never change. If you ask me whether I have confidence that he’ll continue to be committed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state within secure borders – I have absolutely no doubt.”
“President Bush supported Israel as well, but after eight years of his support Israel faces a stronger Iran, Hezbollah at the northern border, Hamas at the southern border – and Hamas gained a sort of political legitimacy. I think George Bush was a disaster for the State of Israel. And I think Obama’s administration understands Israel’s needs for safety and security, the importance of Israel remaining a Jewish state, and will try to help to mediate a peace in the Middle East that accomplishes those goals. There are still people who don’t believe it, but the great thing in democracy is that everyone has an opinion and you don’t need 100 percent consensus. I think peace in the Middle East is one of his highest priorities – he’s not going to wait for seven years as a president to start working on it.”
Bauer was also heavily involved in Rahm Emanuel’s campaign for Congress. “Let me say something about Rahm. One of the things people don’t like about him is the fact he’s short with people, but it’s only because he’s such a smart person. He doesn’t need a 15-minute phone conversation, he gets to the issues in three minutes. And Israel – it’s in his blood. The fact that Joe Biden, with a long record of supporting Israel, is Obama’s vice president-elect and Rahm Emanuel is his chief of staff – I’m not sure what reassurance anyone needs that the president-elect when he is president will remain a close ally of the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”