President Barack Obama’s view of Judaism, Zionism, and Israel was very much shaped by his liberal and left-wing Jewish contacts in Chicago, some of whom became key members of his entourage. Among these influential acquaintances was Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf.
Wolf was of a type familiar in American Jewish circles. While in principle pro-Israel, he had certain views that made him highly critical. As what I would call a moral perfectionist, Wolf could not view Israel as good enough to live up to Jewish values that had been honed during a long galut during which Jews had no political responsibility and did not have to meet the real world demands of political power. At the same time, he was more attuned to Israel’s reputedly more idealistic era of Labor Party hegemony.
For Wolf, Israel was arrogant, not nice to the Palestinian Arabs, obsessed with the Holocaust, and thus simultaneously paranoid and over-confident. Not understanding the realities of Israel’s strategic situation, the compromises necessary in having a state, the actual facts on the ground, and other factors, Wolf thought that he and those who thought as he did knew better how to protect and morally improve Israel more than did its voters and leaders. One can glimpse many of these themes in Obama’s thinking today.
I’m not writing this article, however, to criticize Wolf, who was a serious and sincere thinker who tried to apply his standards consistently and does not deserve to be stereotyped in a negative fashion. Indeed, Wolf had some fascinating insights that deserve to be recalled today. Indeed, it would be wonderful if his most famous non-Jewish “disciple” was to understand them.
In the April 13, 1979, issue of Sh`ma, a tiny but then influential liberal Jewish newsletter, Wolf wrote an article entitled, “Islam in Power.” At the time, Wolf was arguing that the PLO was ready to make peace with Israel and should be engaged in dialogue. Yet his arguably naïve optimism in that direction—a thesis only disproven retroactively when it would be put to the test more than a dozen years later—by no means blinded him when he was directly confronted with evidence to the contrary on a related issue.
Wolf wrote in that article about his participation in an interfaith dialogue along with Professor Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago and Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Muslim World League. Wolf recounted:
“They lectured us brilliantly on the world significance of the ummah (Muslim nation) and unashamedly asserted that world peace depends finally on Islam’s ability to impose its system of justice on all mankind….Carefully distinguishing themselves from the Saudi [version of Islam] and from any desire to suppress other religious communities, they nevertheless gave no place to pluralist schemes or social democratic options. Islam, they said, is, of course, the only way.”
In short, they spoke about their views with far more candor than Muslim clerics employ today, especially in that kind of meeting.
“I asked Professor Rahman, a subtle and genial scholar, if he meant, for example, that Egyptian Muslims would forever be willing to die for the return of Jerusalem to Islamic control and he answered yes. I demurred that it seems to me that President Sadat was riding a wave of pacifist sentiment from among his war-weary people and that they had no more heart to make war for Palestinians. He did not agree. He said that the Muslim view of death was still very powerful and that no Muslim fears to die in a jihad, a holy war.
“Jerusalem is and always will be, he said, such a sacred cause. Muslims, he insisted, are not really like other people.”
Note that Wolf’s reaction to hearing these things—like many Westerners today—was to assert that he knew more about Islam than did his Muslim interlocutors. Of course, Wolf was right that the example of Sadat and of Egyptian policy at that time showed that the Islamist or harder-line traditionalist interpretation was not the only one. Still, of course, the power of that radicalism so deeply rooted in normative Islam, should never be underestimated. The Islamist revolution in Iran, that achieved power only a few days before the meetings Wolf describes, proved to reignite such ideas and the world has been living—and often dying—with them ever since.