Interview with Barack Obama

In written exchange, the former president answered five of JI’s 13 questions

During his time in office, former President Barack Obama maintained something of a hot-and-cold relationship with Jewish leaders, particularly around his administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Obama first entered the national stage with longstanding ties to the Jewish community that predated his career in politics. Once in the White House, he frequently found himself at odds with communal leaders who took issue with, among other things, his administration’s support for the nuclear deal with Iran as well as the controversial decision to abstain from voting on a U.N. Security Council resolution castigating Israel.

Near the end of his recent memoir, A Promised Land, the former president conveys a sense of frustration with critics who, he suggests, doubted his commitment to the Jewish state based more on their gut feelings rather than assessing actual policy positions, including his administration’s effort to secure funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and signing a memorandum of understanding guaranteeing $38 billion in military assistance over 10 years. 

“On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote, but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties,” Obama writes, “someone whose support for Israel, as one of [senior advisor David Axelrod’s] friends colorfully put it, wasn’t ‘felt in his kishkes’ — ‘guts,’ in Yiddish.” 

However, in a recent interview with Jewish Insider — his first with a Jewish publication since leaving office in 2017 — Obama shied away from discussing that tension in more detail. The former president avoided every question touching on Israel and the Middle East that JI posed to him. 

Of the 13 questions JI sent to the former president, listed below in full, he provided answers to just five, focusing on the history of Black-Jewish relations, the Capitol siege, the state of American politics and the rise of antisemitism, among other topics. 

In the exchange, which was conducted via email, Obama sounded a characteristically hopeful note while acknowledging the deep divisions that have riven the American electorate in the years since he left office. “There’s no doubt that the country is deeply divided right now — more divided than when I first ran for president in 2008,” Obama told JI. “America has been fractured by a combination of political, cultural, ideological, and geographical divisions that seem to be growing deeper by the day.”

“Until we can agree on a common set of facts and distinguish between what’s true and what’s false, then the marketplace of ideas won’t work. Our democracy won’t work,” Obama said. “So, as citizens, we need to push our institutions to address these challenges. At the same time, we can’t just wait for someone else to solve the problem. We need to stay engaged, and ask what we can do — especially at the local level where arguments are often less heated and everyone who gets involved can make a bigger difference.”

In this handout photo provided by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Israeli citizen Pinhas Amar inspect the repairs being done to his home after it was hit by a Palestinian Qassam rocket in December 2007, as mayor Eli Moyal (L) and Defence Minister Ehud Barak (R) stand to the sides during Obama’s visit July 23, 2008 to the southern Israeli town of Sderot. (Credit: Ariel Hermoni/MOD via Getty Images)

Though such work “can be exhausting,” Obama admitted, “our system of government has been tested before, and every time people who believe in this country and our founding ideals have refused to let the American experiment fail. The same thing can happen this time if we put in the work.”

Amid a distrubing uptick in antisemitic attacks, the former president was equally level-headed, even as he recognized that “some of the negative and divisive trends that we’ve seen at home and around the world have contributed” to such hatred.

Obama cited a speech he gave at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., at the end of his presidency. “I said that the seeds that gave rise to the Holocaust have always been with us. They have found root across cultures, faiths, and generations. And they have reemerged again and again, especially in times of change and uncertainty,” Obama told JI. “When I gave that speech, it was clear that anti-Semitism was on the rise around the world. People’s anger over everything from immigration to inequality was boiling over — and many of them were looking for someone else to blame. And for four years, we had a President in the White House who fanned those flames.”

Still, Obama was optimistic about countering antisemitism and other forms of bigotry. 

“In many cases, I’ve been pleased to see these acts of hate countered by far larger expressions of solidarity,” he noted. “People are recognizing that we all have a responsibility to stand together against bigotry and violence, to not be silent but there will always be a need for vigilance against anti-Semitism. We’ll never be able to wipe out hatred from every single mind, but we must do everything we can to fight it. And more people are realizing that. That dynamic, more than anything, is what gives me hope.”

In the interview, Obama suggested that the historic bond between Black and Jewish Americans — one he also alludes to in his memoir — can serve as a guiding light for those seeking instruction from the past.

“Black and Jewish Americans understand the dark side of human nature better than just about anyone,” he said. “We’ve seen people at their worst. But we also know that progress is possible, and that ordinary people can make a difference — not just for those who look like them or worship the same God, but for everyone. That’s the legacy of Blacks and Jews coming together through the civil rights movement to insist upon equal rights — that understanding that injustice should spur people to action and to a sense of solidarity, and that collective activism can succeed in making change.”

“Right now, it’s easy to focus on what divides us, and there are plenty of people out there who benefit from driving us further apart. But our future depends on our ability to actively resist those forces; to look past our differences and understand that we want the same things for ourselves, our families, and our communities,” Obama told JI. “The new movements for justice in this country are informed by the Black and Jewish experience, as well as many other communities who have come together. The more we can focus on what we have in common — whether we’re Black, White, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or anything else — the better off we’ll be.”

US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former inmates and Holocaust survivors Bertrand Herz (L) and Nobel Peace prize laureate Elie Wiesel walk with white roses at the memorial of the former Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald on June 5, 2009 in Buchenwald near Weimar. (Credit: Jens-Ulrich Koch/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

But the question of Obama’s at-times strained relationship with Jewish leaders during his time as president went unaddressed. Though Obama appears to express frustration throughout A Promised Land that others too often cast aspersions on his motivations instead of assessing his policy positions, JI asked him to consider a question inverting that dynamic: How would he respond to those who opposed the Iran nuclear deal on policy grounds, for instance, but are characterized as having prioritized the interests of another country? Is there space for disagreement on an issue like the Iran nuclear deal — otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — without such accusations?

The former president did not address that question in the interview with JI. (The second volume of Obama’s book, yet to be released, is expected to include his perspective on the JCPOA.)

Our full exchange with the former president is included below, and the questions are listed in the order in which they were sent. 

Jewish Insider: In his commentary on the most recent Torah portion, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarks how “the United States is the only country today whose political discourse is framed by the idea of covenant,” and he cites your second inaugural address in 2013 as one of two textbook examples. “Obama five times begins paragraphs with a key phrase of covenant politics — words never used by British politicians — namely, ‘We the people.’” Rabbi Sacks continues, “That is the essence of covenant: we are all in this together. There is no division of the nation into rulers and ruled. We are conjointly responsible, under the sovereignty of God, for one another.”

Since that 2013 address, how do you assess the state of our country’s “covenant”? Is our political system and discourse set up in a way that incentivizes and rewards division (“us vs. them”) that makes “we the people” nearly impossible to achieve? Going forward, what can be done to better strengthen that “covenant”?

Barack Obama: There’s no doubt that the country is deeply divided right now — more divided than when I first ran for president in 2008. America has been fractured by a combination of political, cultural, ideological, and geographical divisions that seem to be growing deeper by the day. 

I think a lot of that has to do with changes in how people get information. I’ve spoken about this before, but if you watch Fox News, you’re presented with a different reality than if you read The New York Times. And everything is amplified by social media, which allows people to live in bubbles with other people who think like them.

Until we can agree on a common set of facts and distinguish between what’s true and what’s false, then the marketplace of ideas won’t work. Our democracy won’t work. So, as citizens, we need to push our institutions to address these challenges.

At the same time, we can’t just wait for someone else to solve the problem. We need to stay engaged, and ask what we can do — especially at the local level where arguments are often less heated and everyone who gets involved can make a bigger difference.

I know it can be exhausting. But our system of government has been tested before, and every time people who believe in this country and our founding ideals have refused to let the American experiment fail. The same thing can happen this time if we put in the work.

JI: In A Promised Land, you write about devouring “the works of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer” in high school, “moved by the stories of men trying to find their place in an America that didn’t welcome them.” Do you still return to these authors, and what lessons do you feel they can impart to new readers approaching their books for the first time? Moreover, are there any contemporary Jewish writers you’d like to mention whose works you admire?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: You’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with the Jewish community, one that predates your career in politics. The book describes your pre-political life and the decisions you made about pursuing community service and organizing instead of a big law career. What was your relationship with the Jewish community in Chicago then and how has it developed since?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: “I believed there was an essential bond between the Black and the Jewish experiences — a common story of exile and suffering that might ultimately be redeemed by a shared sense of community,” you write in the book. What’s your advice for building on that bond in the future?

Obama: Black and Jewish Americans understand the dark side of human nature better than just about anyone. We’ve seen people at their worst. But we also know that progress is possible, and that ordinary people can make a difference — not just for those who look like them or worship the same God, but for everyone. That’s the legacy of Blacks and Jews coming together through the civil rights movement to insist upon equal rights — that understanding that injustice should spur people to action and to a sense of solidarity, and that collective activism can succeed in making change. 

Right now, it’s easy to focus on what divides us, and there are plenty of people out there who benefit from driving us further apart. But our future depends on our ability to actively resist those forces; to look past our differences and understand that we want the same things for ourselves, our families, and our communities. The new movements for justice in this country are informed by the Black and Jewish experience, as well as many other communities who have come together. The more we can focus on what we have in common — whether we’re Black, White, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or anything else — the better off we’ll be.

JI: In Chapter 25 of A Promised Land, you write: “On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote, but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties: someone whose support for Israel, as one of Axe’s friends colorfully put it, wasn’t ‘felt in his kishkes’ — ‘guts,’ in Yiddish.” And earlier in that paragraph, you write, “they attributed these whisper campaigns not to any particular positions I’d taken (my backing of a two-state solution and opposition to Israeli settlements were identical to the positions of other candidates) but rather to my expressions of concern for ordinary Palestinians; my friendships with certain critics of Israeli policy, including an activist and Middle East scholar named Rashid Khalidi; and the fact that, as Ben bluntly put it, ‘You’re a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighborhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremiah Wright’s church.’”

Throughout the book, you appear to convey a sense of frustration with folks casting aspersions on your motivations and not assessing your actual policy positions. But to invert that dynamic for a moment, what do you say to folks on the other side who perhaps opposed the JCPOA on policy grounds yet are characterized as having prioritized the interests of another country? Is it possible for there to be disagreement on something like the JCPOA on the merits?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: In her book The Education of an Idealist, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power takes readers behind the scenes as your administration sought congressional approval for a military operation in Syria, writing that “an important factor in their thinking was Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vocal support for US military action, along with that of the influential lobbying group AIPAC.” AIPAC lobbied Congress in support of your plan. It’s clear there were times that you disagreed with AIPAC’s positions and other times where you sought to collaborate with the group (for instance, on nominations requiring Senate confirmation). You also addressed AIPAC’s annual policy conference more than any other president (your successor did not attend a single time while in office). In your view, what did the pro-Israel community in the U.S. get right and what did it get wrong during your time in office?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: During the Green Movement in Iran 12 years ago, you admit to feeling constrained in your desire to support Iranian protesters: “As the violence escalated, so did my condemnation. Still, such a passive approach didn’t sit well with me — and not just because I had to listen to Republicans howl that I was coddling a murderous regime. I was learning yet another difficult lesson about the presidency: that my heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis, my convictions subject to counterintuitive arguments; that in the most powerful office on earth, I had less freedom to say what I meant and act on what I felt as a senator — or as an ordinary citizen disgusted by the sight of a young woman gunned down by her own government.” Now that you are a citizen again — though perhaps not so ordinary — do you feel as if there is any hope for Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: On Middle East issues, did you feel less inhibited in your second term than in your first? If so, does that partially explain the U.S. decision, in 2016, to abstain on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlement construction?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: Over the past year, Arab countries including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have normalized ties with Israel. What factors would you attribute this development in the region to? Was it mutual opposition to Iran? A recognition from these countries of the closeness between the U.S. and Israel? Economic incentives? Or something else entirely?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: The second volume of your book is expected to include your perspective on the JCPOA. The parties are currently negotiating in Vienna. Does that impact your writing in any way? What should readers expect in your second book on this topic and how do you expect it to be received given the ongoing negotiations?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: In 2009, you visited the Buchenwald concentration camp with Angela Merkel and Elie Wiesel, an experience you recount in your memoir. Wiesel, you write, “beseeched us, beseeched me, to leave Buchenwald with resolve, to try to bring about peace, to use the memory of what happened on the ground where we stood to see past anger and divisions and find strength in solidarity.” Since that visit, Americans only seem to have become more divided as antisemitic conspiracy theories and attacks appear to be on the rise. A man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and QAnon has gained traction. Did you anticipate these developments when you left office in 2016? And do you believe the country can overcome such forms of hate?

Obama: In my last year as President, I gave a speech at the Embassy of Israel where I said that the seeds that gave rise to the Holocaust have always been with us. They have found root across cultures, faiths, and generations. And they have reemerged again and again, especially in times of change and uncertainty.

When I gave that speech, it was clear that anti-Semitism was on the rise around the world. People’s anger over everything from immigration to inequality was boiling over — and many of them were looking for someone else to blame. And for four years, we had a President in the White House who fanned those flames.

So while I never anticipated what happened at the Capitol on January 6th, some of the negative and divisive trends that we’ve seen at home and around the world have contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. In many cases, I’ve been pleased to see these acts of hate countered by far larger expressions of solidarity. People are recognizing that we all have a responsibility to stand together against bigotry and violence, to not be silent but there will always be a need for vigilance against anti-Semitism. 

We’ll never be able to wipe out hatred from every single mind, but we must do everything we can to fight it. And more people are realizing that. That dynamic, more than anything, is what gives me hope.

JI: Both Democrats and Republicans seem to take inconsistent stands on free speech issues. The right, for its part, supports bakers who refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples, but draws the line at boycotts of Israel; the left sees things the other way around. Where do you land on this dynamic? What role, if any, should the state play in keeping the marketplace free of bigotry, and how can it do so while safeguarding First Amendment rights?

Obama: I can’t claim to be perfectly consistent, but as a former constitutional law professor, I am pretty firm about the merits of free speech.

Now, that’s not a terribly controversial statement. Most people believe in free speech on principle, especially when the views being expressed are ones they agree with. But the real test comes when someone says something you disagree with, and you have to decide whether to support their right to free speech as well.

There are obviously limits to free speech, including when it directly threatens someone else. And I think the state has a role to play in keeping people safe. But beyond that, I believe the purpose of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. 

You don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.

JI: What should readers of Jewish Insider be most looking forward to about visiting the planned Barack Obama Presidential Center?

Obama: Our hope is that the Center will have something for everyone. Like other presidential museums, there will be exhibits telling stories about my time in the White House. But there will also be a branch of the Chicago Public Library, an auditorium, a sledding hill for kids, walking and biking trails, a public plaza for community gatherings and performances, and a program, activity, and athletic center.

But what I’m looking forward to the most is the role the Center will play in bringing people to the South Side of Chicago, and the work it will do to help young people discover the change they want to make in the world. 

In that way, the Center won’t just be a place to learn about my story. It will be a place where people everywhere can get inspired to write their own.

Join with a free membership to continue reading

Jewish Insider covers U.S. politics, philanthropy and business news with a Jewish angle.

What We’re About: We are here to bring you new ideas and information. We’re not advocacy news. We’re not here to confirm your views or challenge your beliefs.

JI delivers a curated morning newsletter, the Daily Kickoff, which provides an overview of the news, buzz and stories that matter. The Daily Kickoff is distributed on weekday mornings.