A longstanding Muslim friend is distressed at President-Elect Barack Obama’s decision to make U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel his chief-of-staff. He wants to know when I will "deplore and condemn" this decision. In this public response, I will explain why I must disappoint him.
Although, I have never met Emanuel, he first came to my attention in 1980 when he arrived in Springfield, IL, to raise money for my Democratic opponent, State Rep. David Robinson. I was seeking my eleventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Emanuel’s fundraising companion was David Wilhelm, later a chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Early in the campaign, someone inserted advertisements in Jewish periodicals nationally that falsely labeled me an anti-Semite, a tactic that was saddening but, for Robinson, financially productive. I won on election day, but Emanuel’s skill in assembling funds was apparent when Robinson’s financial reports disclosed contributions from every state in the Union. Aggregate spending in the contest topped $2 million, making it the most expensive congressional race in Illinois history.
Years later, while attending a ceremony on the south lawn of the White House, I applauded Emanuel, then serving as staff chief for President Bill Clinton, because he planned the president’s successful stage maneuver that caused a reluctant Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands publicly with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. A photograph of the handshake symbolized hopes for Middle East peace at the time.
Elected to Congress, Emanuel quickly moved up the Democratic ladder, most recently holding the position of chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where he used his fundraising skills to increase Democratic seats in the House of Representatives and enhance his own leadership prospects. If he’d stayed in the House, his energy and hardball tactics might have landed him in the speaker’s chair.
He has top credentials with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC], Israel’s principal U.S. lobby, which claimed credit for my defeat in 1982 and which Obama praised to the skies during his presidential campaign. But I doubt Emanuel’s Israeli connections were the principal reason Obama selected him as staff leader. The president-elect needs a strong loyalist who can be counted on to get things done. Even presidents have trouble getting the federal bureaucracy to a carry out orders. During the last days of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, I was present when Vice-President Richard Nixon told freshman Republican House members; "The president often had trouble getting his orders carried out. For example, he would send an order to the state department and nothing would happen." After watching Emanuel perform in the House of Representatives, Obama has reason to believe he will get things done as chief-of-staff, even when dealing with cabinet-level prima donnas.
But will Rahm Emanuel also be a roadblock to Middle East justice, the goal of my endeavors for nearly 40 years? Only if Obama wills it. I don’t believe his new chief-of-staff will ever push his boss around. The president-elect strikes me as the strongest, most disciplined and most committed politician ever. In supporting him for the presidency, I admit I had no reason to believe that he will give top billing to justice for Palestinians. I supported him for other reasons.
To open the door to statesmanship, Obama first had to be nominated and then elected. He had to clear high hurdles beyond the color of his skin.
First, there is the lobby for Israel, which has a powerful influence throughout America. It effectively shields the public from awareness of the Jewish state’s brutal treatment of Arabs and the U.S. complicity in these misdeeds. It is a major source of funding for the Democratic National Committee, the institution that handles presidential campaigns.
To clear this hurdle, Obama bowed low to Israel’s lobby. He visited synagogues, but not mosques. Because prominent pro-Israel zealots hate former President Jimmy Carter’s recent truth-telling book about the "other Israel," Obama shunned the architect of Israel’s groundbreaking treaty with Egypt in a spectacular way: he broke precedent by denying Carter a speaking role at the Democratic nominating convention.
The second hurdle is the prevalence of false stereotypes of Islam. Nearly half of the American people have an unwarranted fear of Muslims. They are uninformed about Islam and unaware of its close kinship with Christianity and Judaism. A recent university survey showed that 44 percent of those interviewed favor curbing the civil liberties of all U.S. Muslims. Given that enormous bias, any candidate with a Muslim-sounding middle name — Obama’s is Hussein — would face a daunting task trying to win votes among the suspicious 44 percent if he catered in any way to Muslims.
Accordingly, although most of America’s four million eligible Muslim voters supported Obama on election day, his campaign operatives kept Muslims at arm’s length, even rudely escorting ladies wearing head-scarves out of close camera range in Obama’s public appearances.
Were these inglorious tactics necessary? When the Denver convention occurred in August, polls showed Obama and McCain in a dead heat. Factors that ultimately helped yield Obama’s victory — the market meltdown, Sarah Palin’s shortcomings, and McCain’s angry nit-picking — were still in the future. Obama decided to keep the harsh tactics in place, a decision that calls to mind the ugly compromise in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, when delegates accepted an amendment extending the slave trade for 20 years as a necessary step to gain approval of the constitution by some slave-state delegates.
Unsettling tactics tend to fade in the glow of historic victory. But, as president-elect Obama, already justifiably heralded as an historic figure, studies the world scene it is important that he come to realize that bringing justice to the mostly-Muslim Palestinians is an essential key to progress on almost every U.S. foreign policy challenge. Moreover, he must recognize that Israelis will never attain true security until Palestinians enjoy the same in an independent, viable state of their own. Indeed, demographic trends suggest that Israel may cease to be a Jewish state in a few years unless it withdraws from the Arab territories it seized in June, 1967.
Peace in the Middle East is unlikely within the next eight years unless Obama himself leads the way. Just a few months ago, Obama’s rhetorical magic brought a hundred thousand Germans together in Berlin; on November 4, a quarter of a million Americans applauded his victory speech in Chicago; and in between, scores of massive U.S. crowds awaited his words in cities across the country. One day, maybe — just maybe — this same magic will inspire a great gathering of Israelis to save themselves from endless anxiety by cooperating with Arabs in a just and lasting peace. If Obama chooses this path, one can only hope that Rahm Emanuel would turn out to be a big help.
* First published by the Canadian Islamic Congress