As I'm writing for an American website, I will start with a declaration of interest. Pecuniary interest, even. I will personally benefit if Barack Obama is the next President of the United States. I placed a bet—enough for a decent dinner for two, even in NYC—with the British bookmakers Ladbrokes last month and got good odds on him winning: 8-1. Post Iowa, that has now slipped to evens, while poor Hilary, once the favourite at 4-7, is now slacking at 11-4. As for betting on the New Hampshire primary, it's not even worth it—Obama is running at 1-16.
But there is more at stake here than my bank balance. More even than the future of the most powerful nation on the planet. For Barack Obama is good for the Jews. How so? Let us start, contrarily, Jewishly, by considering the case for the prosecution. His surname rhymes with the first name of America's enemy number one. His middle name matches that of Iraq's former dictator, who was extremely bad for the Jews, launching scud missiles at Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War and paying handsome bonuses to the families of deluded Palestinians who blew themselves up across Israel. His grandfather was a Muslim, which arguably means under Islamic law that his father was a Muslim, and, as there is no op-out clause under Islam, possibly that BO himself is technically also a Muslim. He spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.
And then let us demolish that same case. Let's consider his first name: Barack. Barack is Arabic for "Blessed". It is essentially the same word as the Hebrew "Baruch". The ‘ch' in Hebrew becomes a ‘k' or ‘ck' in Arabic, so that Shalom Aleichem = Salaam Aleykum. So he practically has not just a Jewish but a Hebrew name. And just as his name straddles the Muslim-Jewish divide, so can he. Although he is now a Christian, Obama does not deny his Muslim heritage. He celebrates it, as he should. His passion for social justice, his time as a community organizer in Chicago working with the marginalized and underprivileged, his work on easing immigration and providing universal health care—all these are classic areas of Jewish social concern.
Behind the scenes, Obama has for years worked with Jewish philanthropists, such as Robert Schrayer in Chicago and Alan Solomont in Boston, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter Ron Kampeas. He is also on good terms with two of the top Jewish lobbyists in Washington: Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement and Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union.
Obama told the JTA in 2004: "Some of my earliest and most ardent supporters came from the Jewish community in Chicago." Three years later he said: "My support within in the Jewish community has been much more significant than my support within the Muslim community. I welcome and seek the support of the Muslim and Arab communities."
And here is the crux of the matter: Obama's ties with the Jewish community and his Muslim heritage can be two pillars of a much needed bridge: between Jews and Muslims, not just in the United States, but globally. Imagine how an African-American president with a Muslim name would help demolish stereotypes across the Arab and Muslim world.
At the same time, Obama has made clear his commitment to Israel's security in speeches to both AIPAC and the National Jewish Democratic Council. But he has not shied away from spelling out some harsh truths—especially among those Jewish lobbyists who demand a blank check for Israel. Obama told AIPAC that Palestinian needs must be considered when a final peace deal is made. Israel cannot be asked to take risks with its security, he told the NJDC, but nor can the status quo of fear, terror and division continue. There have been blips as well. Obama said that "No-one has suffered more than the Palestinians", a surprising statement when one of his foreign policy advisers is Samantha Power, who has been vocal on the need for action on Darfur. But he clarified this by explaining that nobody had suffered more than the Palestinians had from the failure of their leadership.
An Obama presidency could also help recalibrate the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Most American Jews, like Jews everywhere, want to be proud of Israel. And there is much to be proud of: its lively democracy, vibrant civil society and the very fact that the Jewish state exists. But many of us are not so proud of the continuing land-grab on the West Bank, and the web of checkpoints and obstacles that further atomize what is left of Palestinian society and its economy. Just a few days after the charade at Annapolis, Israel announced the expansion of the Har Homa neighborhood in Jerusalem on appropriated (read: stolen) Palestinian land, paid for largely by US taxpayers. Hopefully, President Obama would show real commitment to a just, two-state solution—a policy that would be welcomed by a substantial number of Israelis. What's more, his Jewish campaign supporters even have cool Barack yarmulkes: "Obama ‘08." Let's hope so.