Rahm Emanuel Gets the Obama Treatment from Arab-Americans

The appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s Chief of Staff has raised concern among Arab-Americans. Emanuel is an Orthodox Jew, his father is Israeli, and he volunteered as a civilian on an IDF base during Gulf War I. Rumors have been circulating about him being a secret Israeli citizen, and his father’s recent remarks about Arabs only exacerbated the situation.

James Zogby wrote an article for the Arab American Institute cautioning his fellow Arab-Americans from reverting to paranoia and anti-Semitism. While the two sets of rumors do not parallel each other perfectly, this is a rebuke to those who dumbed down the anti-Obama efforts by rumors about him being a closet Muslim with an anti-Israel agenda. 

On November 5th, my office sent an email to tens of thousands of our members and contacts congratulating President-elect Barack Obama. In our message, we noted the historic transformation his victory represented and commended the thousands of Arab Americans who participated in this winning campaign.

The initial and near universal response was heartwarming, with many sharing moving anecdotes of their campaign experiences, their reactions to the victory, and their hopes for change.

One day and one announcement later, the tide turned.

With the naming of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, the euphoria of some, not all, turned to despair. The emails and calls to my office were both troubled and troubling because much of the reaction was based on misinformation and because of what the entire episode revealed about the larger political dynamics involved.

First, the facts.

Rahm Emanuel is a brilliant strategist and a practitioner of hard-ball politics who in campaigns, his time in the Clinton White House, and more recently in Congress has demonstrated that he knows how to get a job done. Because there will be critical legislation the President-elect will need to move through Congress, from an economic recovery package and health care reform to a comprehensive approach to alternative energy, Obama has tapped Emanuel for his proven political skills. It is that simple.

This, of course, was neither the content nor the concerns raised by the emails I received. Some charged that Emanuel was an Israeli citizen or a dual U.S.-Israeli national (he is neither, he was born in Chicago in 1959); or, they alleged that he served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and lost his finger confronting a Syrian tank during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon (he did not serve in the IDF, and lost his finger in a freak accident while working as a teenager in an Arby’s restaurant). A few accused Emanuel of skipping U.S. military service to join the IDF in 1991 (also not true – in the midst of the 1991 Gulf War, while U.S. forces were manning Patriot missile batteries in Israel and the Arab Gulf, Emanuel volunteered for a few weeks, as a civilian, doing maintenance on Israeli vehicles). The most recent story alleges that Rahm Emanuel was fired from the White House in 1998 after being implicated by the FBI, together with Monica Lewinsky, in a Mossad plot to spy on then-President Clinton (a total fabrication, compliments of a shady character who claims to have been a U.S. intelligence official and is a purveyor of many bizarre tales).

That stories such as these have been circulating, and have taken hold, is as reprehensible as the “Barack Obama is a secret Muslim/Manchurian candidate” tale, or the anti-Arab anti-Muslim canards to which I and many of my colleagues have been subjected over the years.

Putting aside the fiction or, more accurately, the slanderous myths, the truth is that Emanuel is an effective leader in Congress. He is a strong supporter of Israel. But then, how many members of Congress are not?

Emanuel is Jewish and his father is an Israeli. Arab Americans should be especially sensitive to attacks on anyone based on religion or ethnicity. He has worked closely with and is liked by the Arab American Members of Congress from both parties, and he was the architect of the 1993 White House lawn signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords that brought Arab Americans and American Jews together. When, in 1994, Rahm accepted my invitation to a luncheon with Arab American community leaders, those who met him were impressed by his openness and honesty.

Beyond these facts, however, there are two concerns that must be addressed.

It is deeply troubling how quickly, for some, the excitement of Barack Obama’s victory was eclipsed by cynicism and suspicion, and how receptive some were to wild tales. This could only occur, on one level, because the victory itself was not understood. If it had been, the excitement would have been tempered by an appreciation of political realities.

Obama’s victory, no doubt, demonstrated that change is possible – but incremental change. Pressures remain, from the right and the left as well as the interest groups of all sorts that continue to have influence, limiting political options. The economy is in free-fall and, after eight years of Bush neglect and recklessness, dangers abound in the world. An Obama victory doesn’t alter those realities. And so our excitement was justified, but our euphoria should never have taken us so high as to lose our grounding and understanding of the limits of what is possible.

My concern is that, for some, the need for change became so great as to make them susceptible to wild swings – from unrealistic expectations to unwarranted despair and, therefore, to become prone to believe the worst.

But the fault here should be shared. I am concerned by the slowness of the Obama camp to respond more quickly or effectively to address the situation. Modern political operations have learned the need to confront false stories, to manage perception, and to anticipate problems-and, here, the Obama team had been especially masterful.

During the campaign, for example, they repeatedly demonstrated how tuned-in they were to public perception – and in particular to matters that might have created discomfort in the Jewish community. They knew that these stories needed to be shot down quickly. (American Muslims understood much of this, despite feeling slighted, at times.) But in this most recent instance, the Obama camp displayed both inattentiveness and tone-deafness to Arab misperceptions about who Rahm Emanuel is, and what role he will play. (Aside from the flap over the comments made by Rahm’s father, for which Rahm, himself, has now profoundly apologized.) As a result, the situation festered.

The campaign is now over, and the President-elect is playing on a world stage with more than one audience at stake. And in the Middle East, especially, sensitivities are as great and (perceived) sleights are felt as acutely as they are among any people in the world. With feelings having been rubbed raw by decades of U.S. policy miscues, with U.S. favorability ratings at all-time lows, and with extremists preying off resentment and fear – perceptions matter.

If we are to succeed in making changes in U.S.-Arab relations – and I believe that an Obama Administration can – greater attentiveness and sensitivity is in order.

Bottom line – there are lessons to learn and work to be done. Arabs and Arab Americans need to ground their expectations in political realities and be wary of slanderous attacks smacking of anti-Semitism, and U.S. political leadership must learn to be as attentive to Arab sensitivities as they are to the concerns of others.

   

30 Responses to Rahm Emanuel Gets the Obama Treatment from Arab-Americans

  1. Fat Man says:

    We shall see what we shall see. I am still skeptical. There are also rumors about that President Hussein will shove the Saudi “peace plan” down the Israelis throats. We will find out what will happen when it happens. Events are in the saddle and they ride men.

  2. oao says:

    There is an article by Martin Kramer at his site that there is much danger from an arab generation that does no longer recall the traumas of 1948 and 1968, but only the 2006 2nd Lebanon war and Hamas salvos on Israel without much rebuttal. They envision the audacity of victory.

    Something similar is happening in the rest of the world and reinforced by the collapse of education: a generation that has no clue about the history and nature of the conflict, islam, the folly of the left, nazism, anti-semitism, etc.

    When ignorance is bliss, beware.

  3. Michelle Schatzman says:

    I like Zogby’s article, because he is moderate and tries to debunk heaps of lies, I dislike Fat Man’s comment, because he still lives inside the heap of lies. I am just a spectator, since I am french and live in France. However, I am pretty sure that fewer lies and woo are the condition for better politics in the Middle East and elsewhere – and this is basically why I like Augean Stables.

    Of course, only free and open debate between opposite points of view can lead to debunking heaps of lies. Therefore, Mr Fat Man can freely believe that President Elect Obama will decide on the basis of his middle name, his moslem heredity and his partly indonesian education, while I believe that the same Obama will probably decide based on opportunism (aka political sense), ideology (his seems quite complicated and movable) and the hope for a second mandate.

    In any case, we shall see…

  4. oao says:

    while I believe that the same Obama will probably decide based on opportunism (aka political sense), ideology (his seems quite complicated and movable) and the hope for a second mandate.

    with emphasis on opportunism and 2nd mandate.

    there is absolutely nothing that he has not been inconsistent on when it suited the audience. he is likely to be manipulated readily by demopaths and idologues masquerading as realists. this is quite clear from his choice of advisers.

  5. E.G. says:

    Rahm Emanuel worries me too.
    Hardly because he’s Orthodox or Conservative.

    I’ve been told an old fable narrating the story of forest trees frightened by the axe – because the blade’s efficiency is due to its wooden handle.

  6. Cynic says:

    However, I am pretty sure that fewer lies and woo are the condition for better politics in the Middle East ..

    What in a culture the doctrine of which dictates Taquiya?

    As for the Fat Man living in a heap of lies. No I don’t think so. His referral to “President Hussein” does not necessarily imply that only a Muslim will do what past administrations have done before (Brzezinski, Baker, Allbright, Ross, Rice and Foggy Bottom) and that is, trying to emasculate the Israelis by forcing them to give up territory for pipe dreams.
    One Just had to witness the total idiocy of Rice’s actions with regard to security in the Filidelfi corridor.

    As for a heap of lies here’s a big pile of moronic lies from Thomas Friedman
    Time for Radical Pragmatism

    … and the logic would be this: If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not get control over at least part of the West Bank soon,
    They had control over most of the West Bank before Arafat started his murderous terrorist war.

    See even Thomas lies about the context.

  7. oao says:

    i’ve been predicting for years that what happened over and over in history will also happen in america: when reality gets tough — usually due to arrogant/ignorant policies — a scapegoat will be found. Guess who?

    It is much easier to sell out israel (over which you have lots of control) then to take on a real enemy. hence the emerging absurdity of pressuring israel to give up its nukes instead of doing it to iran. it’s called cowardice.

    aad this time around history repeats itself in one other aspects: the assimilated american jews are fooling themselves that assimilation will save them and they don’t need to worry about israel. hence their vote for obama.

    those who continue to fail to learn from the past will not have a future.

  8. Michelle Schatzman says:

    So, maybe Mr Fat Man does not live inside a heap of lies. You may be right on this, Mr Cynic. Taqya is a (very) disturbing fact of moslem culture, I agree.

    Methinks taqya is probably one of the reasons for low social progress in moslem nations. Better to have straightforward disputes in words than to kill one another after pretending to agree.

    We do not have power on other people, but we have power on ourselves. The jews do not practice taqya, but they/we can be pretty bad at pushing our points forward. Seems that lots of progress has to be made in this direction.

    Last point : one of the modern fallacies is tying judaism and the future of the Jews to purely cultural and historical facts and memories. I keep in my heart a special dislike for what I call “cemetery judaism”: to link oneself to the jewish people only through commemoration of the nazis’ crimes (yemach shemam). I root for “judaism of the future”, the kind that is transmitted to next generations through rituals, study and thought. Not that memory should be lost. It is insufficient. Cemetery judaism is bad advertisement for what judaism is about.

  9. Fat Man says:

    I say that we shall see what we shall see, and I am accused of lying. I thought that no more truthful statement could be made. As for Hussein, I have no idea what he is going to do, but then again, neither does anybody else. I just use his middle name because it smokes out the ideological headcases like Ms. Schatzman.

  10. E.G. says:

    Michelle Schatzman-

    The jews do not practice taqya, but they/we can be pretty bad at pushing our points forward.

    Sure. That’s why Rahmbo got this nickname. (I guess that chief Schnorrer is too politically incorrect)

    Cemetery judaism is bad advertisement for what judaism is about.

    To the best of my knowledge, Judaism is not exactly concerned about advertising itself. This is more a Catholic church specialty.
    Stating that Judaism goes further back and byond the Shoah sounds trivial – but much less so for some Jews I’ve met, who discovered their Jewishness on that occasion. I’m not sure they’d appreciate your terminology, graves being somewhat rare for their dear ones gone in smoke. Most of them have a solid sense of humour, though.

  11. oao says:

    but much less so for some Jews I’ve met, who discovered their Jewishness on that occasion.

    yep. and this is how it continues to be and will end up the same.

    check out this:

    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2008/11/022094.php

  12. Michelle Schatzman says:

    Dear Mr Fat Man, calling me “an ideological head case”! Even after I agreed that Mr Cynic, who defended you, might be right… would you say this to my face ?

    :-)

    When I was saying that “Mr Fat Man lives inside a heap of lies”, I should have argued more precisely.

    Living in France, and working as a professional mathematician in a university, I have a number of colleagues who are moslem, and I’ve had quite a few doctoral students who are moslem. From this sample, I can state that being moslem does not imply agreeing with Al Qaida, or the Jihadists, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or any extremist movement. Some of these moslems have sympathies for extremist movements, and they certainly perform taqya, but usually it is easy to guess where they lean.

    But a majority of my moslem colleagues are definitely opposed to extremist movements. A significant proportion among them fled Algeria, because they hated the kind of life they had there, and the domination of political islam. They also had concerns for their own life. Therefore, they do not want one more serving of what they had to swallow in their country of birth.

    I cannot say anything about the opinions of the general moslem population in France. I am not a sociologist, and I do not have hard data on this question.

    Now, if you believe that being named “Barack” (which translates to hebrew as “Baruch”) or Hussein leads to political conclusions, I think that you are wrong.

    If you want to believe this, I figure out that I am not going to convince you, but that’s life.

  13. E.G. says:

    Michelle Schatzman,

    Even if you did have the Baraka of being a sociologist working for the French secret service, I’m not sure you’d have any hard data on Moslem population’s general opinions. Why, even their proportion is, at least officially, unknown and Verboten to assess.

    I don’t understand why you use your experience with colleagues and students to make inferences about a political actor. With all due respect, their political choices concern themselves (professionally and personally) and their relatives only. None of them is (yet) in a position that will influence France, let alone the whole world.

    (But I’d be very interested to read your impressions regarding Moslems’ integration in a French University.)

    With all the constituencies he’s obliged to, and the need for approval of his policies (most if not all not being his own) etc., I believe that there are few chances for the Chosen One to tilt too heavily in a Moslem direction (if he’s inclined to).
    I just hope Rahmbo doesn’t get to play Queen Esther, which seems to be one of his favourite roles.

  14. Michelle Schatzman says:

    Integration of Moslems in a french University : seamless. The bright ones get promoted to high level positions and the dumb ones rot at the bottom of the system. The civic ones accept responsibilities, and the uncivic ones escape.

    The statistics in my department are 7.5% of faculty (i.e. 11 people) coming from Arab countries : Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Mauretania. One of them may be a christian. So, down to about 6.8% Moslems on a total of 143.

    Other countries of origin : Israel (2), Germany (5), Austria (1), Belgium (1), Italy (4), Turkey (1), Russia (4), Poland (1), China (3), Japan (1), Argentina (1), Romania (2).

    Everybody speaks french, with more or less accent. The Germans are kind enough not to speak german before the french majority. The Russians don’t mind speaking russian in public. The Turk looks very french.

    I’m sorry that we do not have any american or british. But other departments do.

    My inferences : being a mathematician, I like proofs and counter-examples. The statement “Moslem implies extremist” is not always true, since I got about 300 counter-examples. Hence, even if BHO were Moslem, this would not imply extremism. I did not mean to state more than this simple observation.

    I learnt a lot from the immigrants from Iran and Algeria. They hate the political regime in their country of birth, and they certainly do not want another serving of political islam.

    The number of Moslems in France. Officially verboten, on the basis of laws against discrimination. But the debate keeps smouldering. A swell-known demographer named Michèle Tribalat argued in a newspaper opinion column published today that, as long as it is forbidden to estimate the population of african-french, it will be very difficult to establish whether they are discriminated against.

    Good point.

    Rumors say 5 or 6 millions Moslems in France. Tribalat, who is a serious scientist, and definitely not a leftist, says 3.5 millions out of 60 millions inhabitants. She wrote a book on the subject ; it convinced me.

    The real problem is not the Moslem faculty in a university. The problem is that *descendants* of Moslem immigrants go to college, but the proportion of french-born Moslems in grad school is incredibly low. Much lower than their 5 or 6% of the population. More like 0.5%.

    Why? Rotten schools in areas with a high proportion of immigrants. Young people coming from these areas say that they have no hope. A significant proportion of them lives off illegal business in drugs or stolen goods. The Jihadis like engineering, math and science, but they fear philosophy and literature…

    Say, if Rahmbo played Esther hamalka, who would play Mordekhay and who Haman?

  15. Cynic says:

    one of the modern fallacies is tying judaism and the future of the Jews to purely cultural and historical facts and memories.

    It is no fallacy when one is faced by the attitude of non-Jews who force one to admit one’s reality or die denying it.
    From an early age I was made aware of what side of the bread the butter was on.

    to link oneself to the jewish people only through commemoration of the nazis’ crimes (yemach shemam)

    You are lucky if that is the only excuse for linking one’s self to one’s roots. Find yourself in another society, maybe just a few years from today for you, and you will find the choice made for you. Some of us were not so lucky.

    Believing Zogby because he appears so moderate when trying not to expose the Muslim hand does not mean that he is moderate when it comes to you.

  16. Cynic says:

    Maybe Rahm will be Haman and General Jim Jones Mordekhay!

  17. E.G. says:

    Casting is another Emanuel’s specialty, so we’ll soon (by Hanukka?) have the Purim Schpiel set. Will it follow the Racine script?

    re-inferences. I didn’t interpret the expression “Pres. Hussein” as “Moslem implies extremist”. Nor do I think (given the context) was it meant. The Elect One’s ties with some not very Israelo/Judeophile persons and organisations are not of the most reassuring kind, even if a lot of it is wind or rumour. But reading the 2nd half of this On Obama – what, me worry? gives some perspective.
    Still, I’m not sure that insights gained from immigrants’ or expat experiences in one country are relevant to a specific native, with some sort of minority status, of another. Would you find observations about, say, European Jewish immigrants in a US university relevant to DSK?

    I too read Tribalat’s Le Figaro paper. Obviously, representativeness cannot be accurately assessed without statistics. And rumour has it that, be it 3.5 or 10 million – the proportion of young Moslems (really young: under 20) within the general French population is about 30%.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experience regarding Moslem students. BTW, how do you know they’re Moslem?
    The civic ones accept responsibilities, and the uncivic ones escape.
    Sorry, I’m lost on this one. It’s totally O/T but I’d appreciate an explanation.

  18. E.G. says:

    Come on, Cynic-
    Rahmbo Haman?! Re-read the Megila or get the man’s CV.

  19. Michelle Schatzman says:

    E. G.,

    Civic/uncivic : the French university system requires that faculty perform quite a bit of administration, usually without the necessary secretarial help. Nice people take their part of the job. Not so nice people manage to escape.

    How do I know that a student or a colleague is Moslem :

    If their family name is arabic and their first name is moslem : Mohammed, Ali, Abdelkhaled and so on, they are Moslem. If their family name is arabic and their first name sounds french, they mostly come from north african jewish families, with the exception of Lebanese. A Lebanese with a French sounding first name is usually Christian.

    There are cases when I don’t know. Not all arabic first names are typically Moslem. Some can be worn by Christians and Jews, in particular in the older generations. Usually it does not matter, so I do not ask.

    I had had some rather bitter experiences with some of my Moslem grad students. In particular, one did not tolerate criticism. He would come to my office, show me very wrong proofs and start arguing when I pointed out his errors. I mean arguing beyond normal scientific discussion. Then, I would end the work session. So he went to my chairman and accused me of racism. The chairman was a good guy and a Moslem from Algeria. So he told the student : “Schatzman is racist? Ok, you see this bus stop. Just ride the bus and do not ever come back to me with this kind of talk”. And that was it.

    My last doctoral student completed his degree in Jul. 08. He is Moslem.

    When he wanted me to advise him, I just told him straightaway that I am a Jew, that my daughter is Israeli, and so on, and if this bothers him, I will not advise him.

    He told me he was not bothered.

    The student worked fine, and we had friendly relations.

    Better to say things clearly, I believe.

  20. E.G. says:

    Michelle Schatzman-

    So he went to my chairman and accused me of racism.
    Beyond Chutzpah is a euphemism. I’m familiar with a somewhat similar “beurette” (that’s female Arab in reverse French, meaning of North-African extraction) story.

    Regarding identity clarification/assertion by name:
    The Obama effect and why François becomes Mohammed There’s a double process here: claim one’s rights as a French native citizen, and at the same time claiml one’s right to be a different kind of French, eventually deserving extra rights by virtue of minority status. Plus dividends due to previous discrimination, if not compensation due to colonialism.

  21. oao says:

    michelle,

    From this sample, I can state that being moslem does not imply agreeing with Al Qaida, or the Jihadists, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or any extremist movement.

    Not clear it is representative. Some of them are likely nominal moslems. But even if it were, no sensible, knowledgeable people would make such generalization. That is not the problem.

    Some of these moslems have sympathies for extremist movements, and they certainly perform taqya, but usually it is easy to guess where they lean.

    The problem is that they are susceptible to extremization in certain conditions and under the influence of others and it is impossible to tell when and how it’ll happen. That’s where all those “he was such a nice man, not religious, can’t believe he committed such atrocities” come from. Taqiya and the western tendency of PC and fearful denial makes it manyfold harder to figure those out.

  22. Fat Man says:

    Your honor, I rest my case.

  23. Michelle Schatzman says:

    Thank you, Mr Fat Man, this decision honors you.

  24. Cynic says:

    Rahmbo Haman?!

    He’s playing to the audience!!!

  25. Eliyahu says:

    I don’t think that BHO is really a Muslim despite the Muslim education that he had in Indonesia. Nor do I think that he’s a Christian, despite his 20 years of sitting in Rev Wright’s church and never-hearing-a-mean-word about anybody. He’s not really an American black. He did not grow up in the American black culture. I’m sure that I had much more American Black cultural influence on me as a kid than he did. But I do think that BHO worships two religions. He is both an opportunist and a moneytheist. No contradiction between those two cults, in any case. And he’s loyal to his bosses.

    Congressman Jerold Nadler said that BHO belonged to Rev Wright’s church for opportunistic reasons [when Nadler thought that he was off the record]. Nadler said: He looked for the biggest black church in Chicago and joined it in order to meet people [something like that]. This brings us to another problem. Why was Nadler supporting BHO thinking about him as he did?

    Now, it seems to me that BHO worships the same religion as Rahm Emanuel. Maybe Rahm [לשון שגי נהור] is a cross between Haman and Mordekay. Maybe his purposes and prejudices are Haman’s while his methods are Mordekhay’s. But I do NOT think that either of them should be given the benefit of the doubt or a period of grace. As far as foreign policy is concerned, BHO has been surrounded by bad guys for quite a while. Anyhow, I’m still wondering where all those activists were when Obama was talking about sending more troops to Afghanistan.

  26. E.G. says:

    Eliyahu and Cynic-

    My mental representation of Rahm Emanuel is based on a few articles. The character in my mind definitely worships the religion Eliyahu mentions above, plus a very strong desire to play a major role on the world’s stage.
    My Esther reference was meant to say that he might wish to do something good for Israel. Like save her from dangerous persons. It’s just that his ideas about what is good and bad, and specifically for Israel, and the means to achieve the desired result, are not necessarily mine. Or many Israelis’.
    Still, my impression is more intuitive than knowledge based.

  27. oao says:

    But I do think that BHO worships two religions. He is both an opportunist and a moneytheist. No contradiction between those two cults, in any case. And he’s loyal to his bosses.

    Most likely, but all politicians are (if we ignore the influence of his leftist mother on his childhood).

    But this is what makes him so dangerous: he is a vessel into which various people around him can pour anything and make him believe it’s an opportunity. This is what seems to happen on the subject of the ME.

    In the cuban missile crisis they tried to do this to kennedy but it appears that he was smart enough to not fall for it. does anybody with half a brain believe bho capable of same? Particularly with overbearing michelle in his ear?

  28. E.G. says:

    But of course!
    The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle.

  29. Cynic says:

    #3
    I like Zogby’s article, because he is moderate and tries to debunk heaps of lies,

    but his writing displays a certain bias:

    architect of the 1993 White House lawn signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords that brought Arab Americans and American Jews together.

    Arab Americans; American Jews! What does this mean?

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