Natasha Mozgovaya
Haaretz (Opinion)
July 31, 2009 - 12:00am

When I ask a liberal American Jew involved in politics what he thinks of the claim that Rahm Emanuel is an anti-Israeli fifth column in the Obama administration, he laughs. "So, do they really think in Israel that Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Dan Shapiro, Mara Rudman, Dennis Ross and the other good American Jews who work with Obama are a fifth column?" And then he says slowly, like someone explaining something to a person who has difficulty understanding: "How many times do you have to be told ... "

"... that you love us?" I try to complete the sentence.

"No. That your policy is screwed up."

The most interesting stories about Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, are recounted with the recording device turned off. "He has a good memory, and I don't want a dead fish delivered to me," snickers one of interviewees. Emanuel once sent a dead fish to a pollster who predicted a significant gap to the detriment of the candidate for whom Emanuel was working then, at the beginning of his impressive career.

While associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are convinced that Emanuel is inciting the U.S. president against Israel behind the scenes - and providing the amateurish psychological explanation that he is "a Jew consumed by self-hatred" - people in Washington who disapprove of his conduct don't look for profound psychological motives. Indeed, some sum up their viewpoint simply by saying: "He's a jerk."

With his coarse short-temperedness, Emanuel stands out even in a city like Washington, D.C, about which Obama himself once said, quoting president Harry S. Truman: "They say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Emanuel can begin a conversation with the threat that if any of its contents are leaked to the media, none of those involved will ever see him or anyone else in the White House again, and finish it with an impolite hint that he needs to send an e-mail.

Those who are familiar with his almost obsessive preoccupation with order, his self-discipline and his determination, believe that his behavior is a tactical choice. He has a tendency to be insufferable, but he can cover for that with captivating humor at his own expense. He has a hot temper, but he also has healthy political instincts and an impressive record of successes. This despicable/charming duality was probably best summed up by Emanuel himself when he once said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: "I wake up some mornings hating me too."

When Rahm's father hears that the interlocutor is an Israeli journalist, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, a retired Jerusalem-born pediatrician who moved to Chicago in the 1950s after finishing his studies in Switzerland, switches to Hebrew.

"I'm simply surprised that in Israel they jump down his throat," he says angrily. "I love the country, my children are Zionists, they came to Israel every year, and I don't know why they're attacking Rahm. I support Netanyahu, I was a member of the Etzel" - referring to the right-wing pre-state military underground.

Benjamin Emanuel is not interested in discussing the gap between his views and those of his son regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We don't talk about his work," he says abruptly. "I don't have anything to say about it. And I'll tell you the truth, I don't talk to journalists. My son told me not to talk to any journalist, not an American, not a Frenchman. I spoke once and they turned everything upside down."

The father of the White House chief of staff refers to a statement published in the Israeli daily Maariv shortly after Rahm's appointment, when he was quoted as being proud of his son's new job, and saying: "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."

The son responded with swift damage control, and apologized in the name of his family to an organization of Arab Americans. On the Internet one can still see traces of this incident - for example, on a site dedicated to the subject of "Rahm Emanuel: Son of a Zionist terrorist."

Benjamin Emanuel's three sons, who grew up in Chicago, were once described as "the ridiculously successful family." The eldest brother, Ezekiel, whom they call "the smart one," and who studied at Oxford and at Harvard, and has advanced in the field of medicine (he is an oncologist, who worked as a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health and has since become advisor to Peter Orszag at the White House); his family is convinced he'll win a Nobel Prize some day. Rahm, who was a mediocre student and the quietest of the brothers, turned out to be a political animal. The youngest brother, Ari, a rather wild child who grew up on Ritalin and was diagnosed as dyslexic, became a highly successful theatrical agent in Hollywood and was described as the wealthiest one in the family.

Ari Emanuel served as an inspiration for the character of Ari Gold in the television series "Entourage" and Rahm, for a character in the series "The West Wing." Ezekiel participated in writing a proposal for a "medical" series and is still waiting for a character to be based on him. The three have an adopted sister named Shoshana, whose mother gave her up for adoption eight days after her birth, in the hospital where their father worked. She has been less successful and is said to have often caused the family to wonder about nature versus nurture.

Each of the three boys were tought to swim before the age of 2. Their parents used to hang their report cards side-by-side on the refrigerator. The enrichment menu included ballet lessons and visits to shows and museums. They also attended demonstrations with their mother, an activist for Afro-American civil rights, who was also arrested several times. Although Rahm did not pursue a career as a professional dancer, he inspired a spate of articles that presented him as proof of the fact that it's possible to be both macho and a ballet dancer.

Uncle Emanuel

On the wall of their home in suburban Wilmette hung a picture of Uncle Emanuel, who was killed in Palestine in 1938 in a clash with Arabs, and after whose death Rahm's grandfather changed his last name from Auerbach to Emanuel. Rahm has said in the past that his parents never failed to remind him that he was lucky to be living in the U.S. and that he shouldn't waste the honor and the privilege.

The boys internalized their parents' high expectations so well that one of president Bill Clinton's assistants once joked that a special trauma unit should be opened to treat people who wound up working with Rahm Emanuel, who grants no quarter to himself or to anyone else. Political consultant David Axelrod joked that once he began working with Emanuel, he no longer needed an alarm clock to wake him in the morning. The parents also tried to teach them two contradictory principles: One is to always challenge authority; the other is to always respect it. The only thing they ignored was the brothers' tendency to curse - something the parents never did - hoping that their sons would outgrow it. That didn't happen.

The other Emanuels also refrain from being interviewed about Rahm; his office assistant also sent a polite message saying thy have to decline the offer to contribute to the article. One Washington political strategist says he isn't surprised at Emanuel's silence: "I would advise him not to give any interviews to the Israeli press, with all his affection for Israel. Not now, and for sure not after the 'Arab' remark of his father. He's in the spotlight, people are out to get him, and it's not good - especially when the president is exercising his outreach to the Muslim world."

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities of North America, believes that Emanuel just "doesn't want to make news. He wants to be a public face at the administration, but my guess would be he wants to leave the talk about the peace process and U.S.-Israeli relations to the White House spokesman, to the secretary of state, to Senator [George] Mitchell. He has kept quite a low profile with the media since the elections, he's been a guy on the Hill doing health care, but he's not at the Sunday shows [television interview programs]. I don't think it's just a Jewish or Israeli thing. There are different ways to exert power in this town. He is very mature, very strategic, and probably he thinks his keeping low profile in the press now serves the president's interest and helps to get things done."

In 1991, during the first Gulf War, Emanuel flew to Israel and volunteered in Sar-El, the Israel Defense Forces program for civilian volunteers, at a base in the north, performing the unglamorous task of rust-proofing brakes on military vehicles. When he first ran in the primaries for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 2002, the then-president of the Polish American Congress, Edward Moskal, who supported his rival, declared that Emanuel was actually a "citizen of another country and served in their armed forces for two years."

As someone who used to ram a steak knife into the table as he shouted the word "Die!" while calling out the names of the political rivals of then-U.S. president Bill Clinton (Emanuel worked in the White House as an advisor to him), Emanuel, who has never had Israeli citizenship, reacted with uncharacteristic restraint.

Emanuel won that race, and subsequent ones as well, and as congressman from the 5th district of Illinois, he quickly advanced in the House Democratic hierarchy so that by last year, he was in the fourth-highest position of power. But since the three senior Democratic members of the House of Representatives - Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn - are around 70, Emanuel, who will turn 50 later this year, had no special reason to push his way in, and made do with the job of chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

Since his initial election to Congress, Emanuel had been considered the "golden boy" of the party, and was credited with playing a significant part in its successful comeback in the 2006 elections - thanks to his talent for aggressive fundraising and his refusal to consider defeat an option.

During the 2008 presidential primaries, Emanuel maintained neutrality, as befits a cautious politician, and did not express support either for the wife of his former boss or for his friend from Chicago. Only after it was clear that Obama would be the candidate did he endorse him. In Congress Emanuel was positioned left of center on the significant issues in American politics, with the exception of his support for the war in Iraq. This did not prevent him from supporting the more conservative Democratic candidates if they had a better chance of bringing victory in the general election.

When Obama offered him the position of White House chief of staff, Emanuel politely demurred, promising to help the president to the best of his ability from his position in Congress. Emanuel - who worked with Clinton for six years, until he left for private business after the signing of the Wye Memorandum, a 1998 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (in only two and a half years in investment banking, he managed to earn about $18 million) - was familiar with the job at first hand and was aware of its limitations.

'Practically mute'

Although the chief of staff's job provides an unprecedented position of influence in Washington, it requires extraordinary concentration, wisdom and an ability not only to prevent possible ego battles, but also to forget your own ego and to become a kind of megaphone for the president. Obama's tendency to listen to every possible opinion on any particular question was a guarantee that discussions would be chaotic. Emanuel's family - his wife, Amy Rule, and their three children, Zacharias, Ilana and Leah - were another reason for initially rejecting the offer, as was his own political future, which until then had seemed clear and promising.

But Obama, who has never been ashamed of looking for strong supporting players in order to compensate for the gaps in his own knowledge and experience, applied pressure, and was soon joined by Rahm's older brother, Zeke. On November 6, 2008, two days after the election, in which he gained reelection to a fourth term in the House, Rahm Emanuel made the decision to join the president's staff. On January 2, 2009 he resigned from his congressional position. When he entered the White House in late January, Obamamania was at its peak, but Emanuel has never been hesitant about telling the president what he thinks. Obama in turn has never hesitated to pay back his big-mouthed chief of staff with jokes at his expense. Once he said of Emanuel, part of whose middle finger was severed by a meat slicer when he worked as a teenager at a fast-food place, that the accident had "rendered him practically mute."

Emanuel has maneuvered without difficulty among the dozens of "czars" appointed by Obama. He gave Republican senators the number of his private cell phone in an attempt to enlist their support for the new president's policy, and even at a time when new employees at the White House were walking around with cartons containing their personal effects and were having trouble logging on to the computers in their offices, there were only minor glitches in the transition, such as the appointment of new CIA chief Leon Panetta - a decision that was made without the knowledge of the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein.

The Chicagoans in the White House, who include Emanuel's close friend David Axelrod, who is the president's senior adviser, had already consolidated into a team during the campaign. Emanuel and Axelrod met in the early 1980s, when the latter was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and Emanuel, then a young political activist, was eager to sell him stories about the achievements of the group he represented. Two years after meeting, they joined forces in the campaign of Paul Simon, a Representative from Illinois who ran for the Senate in 1984 - Axelrod as campaign manager and Emanuel as the talented fundraiser (according to one story, he used to embarrass donors who would write a check for $5,000 when he was convinced they were capable of contributing five times that amount). When Emanuel married Amy, whom he met on a blind date (and who converted to Judaism in a non-Orthodox process before the wedding), Axelrod signed the marriage contract.

In spite of his low media profile, Emanuel has been presented as the man who pulls the strings in the White House, and when people criticize the administration, his name is often mentioned in the same breath as Obama's - or, in the case of criticism of the new administration's policy vis-a-vis Israel, along with the name of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Emanuel has been criticized not only by opponents of the economic rescue plan and health reform, but also by the gay-lesbian community, who blame him for Obama not having kept his promises to promote their rights.

Family-friendly policy

The job has demanded sacrifice in his private life. On several occasions, Emanuel has said cynically that the White House's supposedly family-friendly policy is friendly to only one family: "the first family." The chief of staff can count more or less on one hand the number of times when he has enjoyed uninterrupted quality time with his family recently. Once he complained that he was forced to plan a date with his two daughters - a swim in the pool - for 5 A.M. As he did when he was working in Congress, he tried during the administration's early months to shuttle between Washington and Chicago, but at the end of the school year, he moved his family to Washington.

To date, neither Emanuel nor several other prominent Jews in the administration have given any local synagogue a reason to boast of their frequent visits, but there is now hope in the capital's Jewish community that because the children - who attended a Jewish school in Chicago - are residing in Washington, the Emanuels will choose a synagogue and a supportive community. In Chicago the family belonged to the modern-Orthodox synagogue Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who tries to refrain from political remarks, nevertheless commented during one interview that there are people who have been disappointed by Emanuel's attitude toward Israel.

In another instance Lopatin was dragged into an online discussion about the permissiveness of the Orthodox stream, in the wake of a report that Congressman Emanuel had received permission from the rabbi to conduct conference calls on Rosh Hashanah in order to promote the economic rescue legislation in Congress. "When giving Rahm a heter [religious permission] for being on a conference call on Rosh Hashanah, I did tell him that if he could have a gentile make the call, it would be preferable. I feel as strongly now as I did a month a go that passing the bailout was a critical part of preventing the meltdown of the world economy, and that that is a pikuah nefesh issue [a matter of life and death] ..."

The rabbi was also forced to respond to the charge that Emanuel's wife would not be considered a Jew by the Jewish establishment in Israel. He wrote that he was not the rabbi who converted her, and that not all the members of the congregation define themselves as Orthodox, adding that the Emanuels should be asked how they define themselves.

"I worked in the White House with Bill Clinton and I'm very familiar with the people who are now working with Obama," says Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the left-wing pro-Israel lobby J Street. "They are American Jews who care deeply about Israel. And it will be a mistake for Israelis to try guessing 'why they are anti-Israeli' instead of listening to them and looking into the rationale of current decisions. Expansion of settlements, insisting on construction in Eastern Jerusalem - it works against the Israeli self-interest, it's clear-cut."

When asked whether Emanuel is now considered the most influential Jew in the United States, Ben-Ami laughed. "I'm not sure that American Jews look at him as a Jewish icon. He probably seems to them more as an incarnation of the raw politics."

Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, is an old friend of both Obama's and Emanuel's from their Chicago days. He says: "Rahm is a person who is in a public spotlight, and naturally people are going to comment on him for their own political purposes. People want to make him more mysterious than he is, but there is absolutely no indication that I've been able to observe that the president's chief of staff is doing anything but loyally serving the president of the U.S., which is his job. And there is no evidence that I've seen that indicates that he's in any way acting to undermine the historically strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel."

Some people familiar with Emanuel say he's changed, that he's not accessible anymore, he doesn't curse as much ...

Solow laughs: "I don't think either of these two is true. He was present at the meeting of the president with American Jewish leaders, I had a chance to speak with him, he certainly was available, and I think that overall this administration has a good working relationship with American Jewish leadership. There's always a process in which you get used to the new people, but several of the people working with Obama we have known for years already."

And does the fact that they're Jews help the organizations that represent the community?

"I think that they are viewed as people who work in the American political world who happen to be Jews. And their jobs are to serve the president of the U.S. And I imagine that just like any human being, values that they bring to their job are result of their life experiences. Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod - their Jewish background is important to them."

William Daroff, one of the Jewish leaders active in Washington, rejects the charge that every time Obama speaks about Israel, he is actually quoting Rahm Emanuel.

"The president said while he was campaigning that you don't have to have a Likud view of the world to be considered pro-Israel ... I know that Rahm Emanuel is very involved in the U.S.-Israel relationship. There are many Jews in Israel who are left of center, who agree with what the president is doing and saying, so again I think it's misleading to think that the prime minister of Israel is the final arbiter of what every Jew must think of the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to be a good Jew. And I think that would be the case whether Netanyahu or Rabin or [Tzipi] Livni or Yossi Beilin was the prime minister. I would say that Rahm Emanuel supports Israel. I would say that President Obama supports Israel. Their view of what supporting Israel should be - and what Israel should be doing regarding peace - might be different from [Yisrael Beiteinu MK and Minister of National Infrastructure] Uzi Landau's view, but might be the same as Tzipi Livni's view. It doesn't mean they are enemies of the state of Israel or betraying their Jewishness. Because Rahm Emanuel never had a right-wing view of the Israel-U.S. relationship. In Congress he was pretty much a centrist. I know that Rahm Emanuel feels very close to Israel."

During his period in the Congress, Emanuel voted with his party on the subject of Israel 98 percent of the time. He signed letters and draft bills in support of Israeli security, on the one hand, and efforts to promote peace efforts, on the other, beginning with the letter declaring Congressional support for the road map, which was sent to president George W. Bush. He was in favor of financial assistance to the Palestinians, but called on them to give up terror. He was one of the only two Jews in Congress who agreed to support the Geneva Initiative, in 2003.

"What's happening today makes me angry," says Yossi Beilin, one of the originators of the Geneva Accords. "The moment Rahm became such a significant factor in the administration and because he's also the son of a former Israeli and speaks Hebrew, he became a target. It's much easier for us to label Jews as enemies than a non-Jew. Because why are they, of all people, doing that? The entire world can pressure us, but for Jews to do that to us? I remember that in 1975, when I interviewed Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who was the leader of Gush Emunim [the settlement movement], he called [then-U.S. secretary of state Henry] Kissinger 'the husband of the non-Jew,' he didn't even call him by name. In Israel there were demonstrations and they shouted 'goy' [non-Jew]. In the Knesset they called Dan Kurtzer (then U.S. ambassador to Israel) 'Jew-boy.' The right in Israel considers people in the administration who want peace, whose views would be between those of Kadima and Meretz if they were to vote in Israel, a type of traitor."

But there is no chance that that will cause Emanuel to give up, says Beilin. "Do you think he'll stop just because someone here called him a 'self-hating Jew'? Kissinger didn't stop his activity, nor did Clinton's team, which received a lot of criticism and complaints. These people are angry at this attitude, because they really don't think there's a contradiction between being a friend of Israel and being a friend of the Palestinians, and primarily a friend of peace. It may only invite greater intervention. I know Rahm and his views, and Israeli-Arab peace is high on his agenda. It's not connected to personal grudges from the Clinton-Netanyahu period. He simply wants to promote this agenda. He belongs to the stream that is typical of most American Jews, certainly most of the people who are knowledgeable about the conflict. He's a liberal Democrat, who believes that there's a solution to the conflict and wants very much to promote it in his various positions, whether as Clinton's personal assistant, or in Congress, or in his present job."

Several of his speeches in Congress and some personal stories reveal that the tough Emanuel also knows how to be emotional. He speaks with open admiration about his maternal grandfather, who led the loud discussions at dinner in the family home ("and you were in trouble if you didn't come prepared for the discussion," Rahm's mother Marsha once said). The views that his grandfather brought from his days as a laborer and a trade-union activist had quite an influence on his grandson. The health-care issue also became his "baby" because of his father the pediatrician, his mother who was an X-ray technician and later a social worker, and his physician older brother.

Emanuel tried to deal with the expensive and cumbersome U.S health care system in the past as Clinton's adviser, with only limited success, and later in Congress too, and he is now trying again. Since he is familiar with the difficulties of promoting "revolutions" via legislative institutions, he has always favored moderate changes, but he has enlisted in favor of Obama's major revolution, with his older brother assuming the position of adviser to the head of the Office of Management and Budget in the area of health care. And the other issue that he has been dealing with for years is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

When he was president Clinton's adviser, Emanuel orchestrated the handshaking ceremony between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. It is even said that after Rabin's assassination, it was he who suggested to Clinton that he include the expression "Shalom, haver" (Goodbye, friend) in his eulogy to Rabin. But in spite of the disappointments of the intifada and his criticism of the Palestinians and the Arab states, which he called on to impose "pressure" on the Palestinians - he has not forgotten the September 13, 1993, ceremony at the White House, which moved him profoundly.

In December 2005, when Congress commemorated the 10th anniversary of Rabin's murder, Emanuel delivered a speech in his memory. "As a member of the Clinton administration, I had the pleasure of witnessing the signing of these historical accords on the White House lawn. Meeting prime minister Rabin was an honor I will never forget, and his example continues to inspire me to this day."

Two years later, in a discussion in advance of a decision regarding Jerusalem on the 40th anniversary of the city's reunification, Emanuel spoke again in the House, this time about the opportunities presented by the 1967 war: "People remember the military accomplishment, which was unique and stands out in the 20th century, but it also created an environment that allowed peace to happen, at least with the two countries that have chosen the road of peace with Israel .... We were always and always will be the indispensable leader in that region. The moment we walk away from that role, the parties lose interest in discussing among themselves. I would hope that immediately the president would again ... nominate somebody to be a Middle East envoy, to again create a dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians, to find what the Jordanians and Egyptians have found with the Israelis: peace."


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