The last time Israel’s Consul General to the Midwest Roey Gilad and I got together was for dinner in Midtown last summer. At the time Gilad, who presides over the affairs of Israel for 11 states, was getting ready to go to Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield for a community-wide Israel Solidarity rally to address thousands of Jews in Southeast Michigan about the crisis between Israel and Hamas days after his return from Jerusalem. Part of the dinner menu was Detroit as a place with untapped potential and a city that Israel should seriously consider establishing meaningful ties with to promote trade and educational opportunities between the two.
Last Wednesday Gilad and I met again. This time it was for breakfast at Café Zola, but there was more to the regular menu. Initially we were scheduled for dinner at my house but due to last minute changes in his diplomatic schedule to return to Chicago later that evening, he suggested we meet for breakfast instead.
At breakfast it was clear that all seemed not too well right now between Israel and the United States, in light of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech before Congress next month. The White House is furious that the Israeli leader did not notify President Obama and his administration about the visit as a matter of diplomatic protocol, respect and courtesy for the Office of the President of the United States. To make matters worse, the defiant Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who extended the invitation to Jerusalem, only notified the White House an hour before he went public with the news.
On the other hand, Netanyahu doesn’t feel that the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Iran is a good omen for Tel Aviv, and is planning to make his case to the American public when he comes to Washington.
As Gilad and I exchanged pleasantries, shared personal stories and talked briefly about Detroit’s bankruptcy exit since our last get together, there was something hovering over breakfast like the Sword of Damocles: some powerful Black members of Congress plan to boycott Netanyahu’s speech to send a message to Israel. That threatens Black-Jewish relations at the highest levels of the federal government.
Key members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), led by civil rights hero and Georgia Congressman John Lewis and CBC chairman and North Carolina Congressman G.K. Butterfield, Detroit’s own Congressman John Conyers, the dean of Congress, New York Congressman Gregory Meeks and many others who view the failure to appropriately notify the White House of Netanyahu’s visit as disrespect to Obama, will either be a no-show during Netanyahu’s speech or have yet to commit to attend.
“To me, it is somewhat of an insult to the president of the United States. Barack Obama is my president. He’s the nation’s president, and it is clear, therefore, that I’m not going to be there, as a result of that, not as a result of the good people of Israel,” Meeks told Politico as he was leaving a lengthy White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama.
Another CBC member from Georgia, Rep. Hank Johnson, told Politico, “It’s not just about disrespect for the president, it’s disrespect for the American people and our system of government for a foreign leader to insert himself into an issue that our policymakers are grappling with. It’s not simply about President Obama being a Black man disrespected by a foreign leader. It’s deeper than that.”
Black America’s loyalty to President Obama is not only unquestionable(from the number of Blacks who voted for him overwhelmingly twice) but is also a historical obligation.
For many, Obama represents the embodiment of the Black experience in varied ways. He is the product of the blood that was shed on “Bloody Sunday” during the March on Selma.
To every Black child, Obama is the most powerful example of the possibilities there are for them in an America that is reluctantly accepting the notion of real inclusion. Even my own five-year-old son is enamored by Obama. He is not yet mature enough to understand the weight of history, but he already associates the American flag with Obama. When his preschool class two years ago held a mock election during the presidential campaign, he told his classmates to vote for Mitt Romney, but when it was his turn, he told his teachers he was voting for Obama.
Yes, America advanced into the palace of democracy by electing Obama twice. But for Black America it carries a deeper meaning than just having a president who is Black. It means arriving at a cycle of history that is comprised of an essential bitter past. And the vilification and delegitimization campaign carried out by detractors of the first Black president, which continues into his second term with the latest psychological assault from a mainstream GOP leader, Rudy Giuliani, that Obama doesn’t love America, only goes to reinforce what many Blacks see: there is a deep reluctance and resentment in this nation to accept the legitimacy of the first Black president who was legitimately elected twice.
Since Obama became the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we’ve witnessed unbelievable assaults on the presidency in ways never seen before. From outrageous and nonsensical assertions that he is a Muslim to preposterous remarks like “We want our country back,” his critics have tried to remove any veneer of respectability for the office of the president because of the occupant.
Thus when the White House is not properly and duly notified of an invitation to Netanyahu to speak to Congress, many in Black America see this as part of the continued attempt to remove the veneer of respect for Obama, despite the storied history of Jews standing side by side with Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement. That is why prominent African Americans like Congressman Lewis, prophet of the Civil Rights Movement, who himself has led dialogue on Black-Jewish relations, quickly came to Obama’s defense and saying to Netanyahu in unmistakable terms, “Don’t disrespect our president.”
I told Gilad during our breakfast this could be a pivotal moment in Black-Jewish relations because it is bad for the historical record as well as the legacy of Black-Jewish relations, for Israel’s current Prime Minister to be placed in history as part of the coalition that failed to accept the legitimacy of the first Black president.
“I think it is not good for the CBC to not attend. I agree there might be a protocol blunder,” Gilad told me. “But we would like to have our day in the court of the American people which is the Congress. Could things have been done differently? Yes. But at the end of the day this is where we are. I don’t think there will be any setback because at the end of the day Israel will be the best U.S. ally in the Middle East.”
Gilad said he does recognize the potential fallout with Black lawmakers in Washington could strain relations between African Americans and Jews, and is something he’s discussed in Chicago prior to our breakfast meeting. But he maintained that the bond between Blacks and Jews is too important to be broken in light of what some only call a diplomatic hiccup.
But here’s the problem: it’s more than a diplomatic hiccup. When Netanyahu comes to speak to Congress on March 3, his audience will be mostly Republican and mostly White.
If the members of the Congressional Black Caucus don’t show up it is very bad optics and is telling on a number of levels. Ironically, the leader of the Jewish state is coming to Washington, seemingly at loggerheads with President Obama, at a time when Blacks are preparing next month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. That event will be headlined by Obama and is expected to be attended by all former living U.S. presidents except George H.W. Bush. Key in that historic march to Selma was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, a foremost liberation thinker and leader of the American Jewish community who was a staunch ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Herschel described his participation in the Selma march this way: “When I marched in Selma my feet were praying.”
In 2012, I began doing some research on Black-Jewish relations for a literary project. I was curious about the much-publicized rocky relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. Because I wanted to document how these two leaders view each other, I decided to interview Israeli journalist Natasha Mozgovaya, who was the Washington bureau chief for Haaretz, Israel’s daily newspaper at the time.
“Personal relationship between leaders matters, and the two are obviously not in love with each other. They have different styles, in some spheres quite different ideology, and they surely had some awkward encounters. However, these moments received far greater attention than the negative impact it really had on the relationship between the countries,” Mozgovaya told me. “Did President Obama make a mistake talking publicly about disagreements over Jewish settlements? Should Prime Minister Netanyahu have ‘lectured’ him during their press availabilities? These are questions for another discussion, but it’s quite clear President Obama didn’t voice criticism to undermine Israel standing, but merely gave his sober assessment of the perspectives.”