The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Last week I noted the president's nostalgia for the Israel of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and the kibbuztim, an Israel that Obama says inspired his admiration for the country. I pointed out that this means that Obama, ironically, prefers what I called "white" Israel, the Israel dominated by secular socialist Jews of European origin and ruled in seeming perpetuity by the Labor Party, over the more liberal Israel of today, what one of my Facebook friends calls a "messy, multiethnic, religiously diverse democracy." (For the best short analysis I've seen of the rise of Israel's "Mizrahi" (Jews of recent Middle Eastern origin) population, see this article by Matti Friedman.)
Meanwhile, I heard from quite a few Israelis who thought I missed a more significant aspect of Obama's nostalgia, which is that Meir and Dayan are widely seen in Israel as utter failures, to blame for Israel's greatest military disaster, the Yom Kippur War.
To give readers some idea of the impact of the the Yom Kippur War on Israel, consider my wife's family. Her father and seven uncles all served in the war. Of the eight men in the family, one was severely injured and eventually committed suicide; one suffered "shellshock" and never fully recovered; and one became convinced that Israel had no future, and packed up and moved his family to Toronto.
Meir was prime minister and Dayan was defense minister at the time, and they refused to launch a preemptive strike as Israel had in 1967, or even to fully mobilize the reserves despite signs of impending war. In part, this is attributed to overconfidence, but Meir's hesitation, in particular, is attributed in significant part to fear of a harsh American reaction if Israel engaged in any sort of preemptive action.
And there's the irony. If you are trying, as Obama is, to reassure people that America knows best, that Israel should take its cues from American diplomacy, that Israel should trust the U.S. and not act unilaterally, e.g., re Iran, then perhaps the worst possible example you can give of an Israeli leader you admire is Golda Meir.
Nor were the kibbutzim exactly a long-term success story, essentially folding up as socialist enterprises once state subsidies stop flowing their way.
So to Israeli ears, Obama's remarks signify that he admires some of Israel's most spectacular failures, and, worse yet, one failure in particular that happened because Israelis were too concerned about short-term American good will.
Of course, Obama's remarks were not primarily aimed at Israelis, but at American Jews, especially liberal American Jews, who do indeed have fond memories of Meir (who was raised in the U.S. and reminded everyone of his bubbe), Dayan (seen as the greatest Jewish military hero since the Maccabees), and kibbutzim.
But it strikes me as more important in the scheme of things that Obama convey that he understands modern Israel than that he appeal to the sentimentality of left-leaning American Jews. And it therefore leaves me with the question of whether Obama really has a cartoonish understanding of Israel, and it follows, as Shmuel Rosner suggests, that he's only a friend of the Israel of his imagination, or that the president was just engaging in cynical domestic politics.
UPDATE: I've heard from some informed readers who think that it's unfair to blame Meir for the losses of the Yom Kippur War. My point, however, is that the much of the Israeli public blames, and blamed, Meir, not to take sides on the historical issue. For example, if I said that "Jimmy Carter's presidency is widely perceived as a failure by Americans," arguing that Carter actually performed well under the circumstances doesn't contradict that statement.