Obama’s presidency has seen innumerable firsts during his six years in office. But we’re not talking the kind of firsts that will get recorded on plaques. No, these are firsts that many observers in the Black community feel are inextricably connected to his status as the first Black president.
From a Congressman screaming “You lie” during the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009 to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagging a scolding finger in his face on the tarmac in Phoenix in 2012, the president has been on the receiving end of gestures that his predecessors never had to endure.
The speech that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to make today to a joint session of Congress, a speech orchestrated by House Speaker John Boehner, directly against the president’s wishes, will quickly rise to the top of the list of nasty insults.
The symbolism of Netanyahu marching into Congress to deliver a rebuke to Obama’s foreign policy stance on Iran is so deep, so profound, that presidential scholars and historians will be mining this day for years, writing book-length analyses of what it means to a presidency to have the opposition party align itself with a leader of a foreign land over the sitting U.S. president.
But perhaps the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is so special in the mind of Boehner that he doesn’t even see Netanyahu as the leader of a foreign land. After all, the U.S. provides so many billions to Israel every year in grants, loans, cash disbursals—directly from the U.S. government and also in the form of tax-deductible donations to Israel from private U.S. citizens—that in the minds of many Israel is more of a beneficiary of American largesse than most of the communities of color that are actually filled with U.S. citizens.
At least the president will have the visible support of many members of his party—Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and more than 50 Democratic lawmakers plan to skip Netanyahu’s speech. Those who vote with their feet should be noted—they are likely the ones who don’t feel beholden to the powerful Israeli lobby and its campaign dollars.
The White House even helped along the boycott by House Democrats by inviting them to a trade meeting at the White House on Tuesday at a time that would make it hard for them to attend the speech.
There have been times when the president has been at the receiving end of insults that he has pretended weren’t insults at all , but this time he’s not playing that game. He refused to meet with Netanyahu during his visit. And during an interview yesterday with Reuters, he said the equivalent of the Netanyahu speech would be if Democrats in Congress had invited the French president to speak after he opposed President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
“I guarantee you that some of the same commentators who are cheerleading now would have suggested that it was the wrong thing to do,” he said.
The Black community watches all of this unfold with a knowing shaking of the head. To a community that has stockpiled generations of slights, large and small, parsing the etymology of the racial insult has become a long-honed art form. Of course, there is danger in seeing something that’s not always there, but we see far more danger in not seeing it when it’s sitting there wrapped in a big red bow.
“This is not a personal issue,” Obama said. “I think that it is important for every country in its relationship with the United States to recognize that the U.S. has a process of making policy.”
In other words, there are ways of properly voicing foreign policy disagreements—and this ain’t it. Even if Boehner was being incredibly disrespectful in extending the invitation, the prime minister, who is facing a close election in two weeks to keep his job, should have respected the American president enough to decline. Choose another American forum to publicly disagree with Obama’s decision to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear policy.
Minister Louis Farrakhan, as only he can, described the nature of the insult so that anyone could understand it.
“He’s the president,” Farrakhan said right before Netanyahu landed in the U.S.. “Here’s a man coming in your house. You’re the head of the house. And somebody in the house invites you in the house and you sneak in the back door and don’t even greet the head of the house and ask his permission. Is that an insult? Is that the way they think of our brother president? ‘We’re gonna do whatever we want to do, cause you ain’t nothing but a ni**er in the White House.’ Don’t tell me they don’t think like that.”
Netanyahu, in his speech before an estimated 16,000 supporters of Israel at the Aipac conference, said the whole thing was nothing more than a “family” fight that would ultimately be overcome. He expressed his gratitude to Obama for his support of Israel over the years.
“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds,” Netanyahu told the crowd, which greeted him with standing ovations. “I have great respect for both.”
What this really means is that Netanyahu is so secure in his country’s dominance of American politics, he fears no threat of any kind of retaliation or retribution. Politics is and always will be a power game. By stomping into the Capitol Building and giving the equivalent of a middle finger to Obama, Netanyahu is clearly demonstrating who has the power in the relationship.