This column is a sequel to The case against Obama
Ignore the soothing denials; the reality is that the crucial Israeli-US relationship is at stake.
Over the years, American Jews have established remarkably sophisticated agencies to advance the Jewish/Israeli cause. The pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, helped create a bipartisan pro-Israel environment in Congress. American Jews (until recently) had no qualms in criticizing their own government when they felt it was behaving unjustly toward the Jewish state. Nor were they intimidated by accusations of dual loyalties. Indeed, they took pride in contrasting their assertiveness to that of European Jews, whom they frequently dismissed as “trembling Israelites.”
Nevertheless, to this day American Jews cringe when they recall the behavior of their forbears in the 1940s. Fearful of an anti-Semitic backlash and mesmerized by the popularity and perceived moral infallibility of Franklin Roosevelt, the Jewish establishment, to its eternal shame, remained silent when their president refused to act on behalf of the doomed Jews of Europe.
However, in the post-war era, aside from Dwight Eisenhower’s brutal threats in the wake of the 1956 Suez Campaign and a few brushes with presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, American-Jewish supporters of Israel were usually in sync with the White House. They certainly never encountered anything comparable to the confrontation looming with the Obama administration.
The current situation is especially sensitive because it is commonly believed that Barack Obama’s strategy relating to Israel is being orchestrated by two key Jewish members of his administration, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. Worse still, they may have succeeded in dividing the Jewish leadership.
American-Jewish lay leaders are basically unknown to the general public.
The three principal agencies promoting Jewish interests to the public are directed by civil servants – Malcolm Hoenlein of the Presidents’ Conference, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, all of whom are dedicated professionals.
THE ADMINISTRATION is now seeking to exploit the weakness of the lay leadership. In line with established practice, as political tensions intensified, the Presidents’ Conference (representing 52 major Jewish organizations) requested a meeting with the president. The White House agreed, but insisted on determining who would participate. Without consultation, critics like Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America were excluded while Israel-bashing groups like J Street and US Peace Now were invited. The administration thus not only provided equal status to fringe groups, it obliged mainstream organizations to share a platform with groups whose raison d’être is to force Israel to make additional unilateral concessions. During Operation Cast Lead, J Street even publicly condemned Israel’s campaign against Hamas.
The reluctance of the Presidents’ Conference to reject this arrangement may be a major strategic blunder. It enables the White House to determine who represents the Jewish community, and apply divide-and-conquer tactics against them. In short, it provides a mechanism by which the Obama administration can create an “amen” environment free of troublemakers.
AMERICAN JEWS face a watershed. Nearly 80 percent of them voted for Obama. That surely strengthens their right to convey concerns to the president. However, many of the lay leaders are wealthy philanthropists unaccustomed to political confrontations. Moreover, fearful of jeopardizing donations from Obama acolytes, organizations are reluctant to adopt controversial positions. This in turn makes it extraordinarily difficult for Jewish civil servants to carry the brunt of initiating opposition to a highly popular president.
That mainstream American-Jewish leaders lack a strategic plan at such a time is disconcerting. At the meeting with Obama, most participants appear to have been overwhelmed. Press reports suggest that most lay leaders remained silent, with some even expressing support for Obama’s policies. “It was a wonderful exchange,” gushed Andrea Weinstein, chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“I believe the president got the impression that there is broad support for his policies and some difference on tactical levels… I am willing to give this president an opportunity to try his strategy,” proclaimed Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick. Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie pointed out that “when it came to substance, not a single participant told the president: ‘You’re wrong.'”
No one raised concerns about the manner in which their president had embraced the Arab narrative and expressed moral equivalence between both parties. No one responded to Obama’s outrageously patronizing remarks about the need for Israelis to “engage in serious self-reflection.” No one pointed out that it was especially incongruous for the first African-American president to deny Jews the right to take up residence in Jerusalem, the cradle of Jewish civilization. Nobody suggested that by distancing the US from Israel, Obama was effectively discouraging the Palestinians from making peace.
However there is a ray of light. The statement recently released by Alan Solow and Malcolm Hoenlein, chairman and executive vice president of the Presidents’ Conference, condemning the administration for its heavy-handed treatment of Israel in relation to Jerusalem may be significant. For Solow, until now a dedicated Obama supporter who had originally requested the meeting with the president, to publicly express such views may signal that Obama’s negative attacks on Israel are at last beginning to affect his Democrat supporters. Similar remarks by David Harris of the American Jewish Committee criticizing Obama to a congressional group also reflect rising distress among Democrats as they begin to absorb the hollowness of the president’s stated concern for the welfare of Israel.
A public campaign must be launched. It is crucial that the case for Israel not rest exclusively with Jewish Republicans or Christian evangelicals. Jewish Democrats must be at the forefront if the bipartisan approach which for decades has been the hallmark of US policy toward Israel is to be retained.
Democrat champions for Israel like Alan Dershowitz should explain to Obama why employing so-called “tough love” against Israel is both immoral and counterproductive.
The burden rests on American Jews. Hopefully they will succeed in persuading Obama that if he seeks to ‘engage’ with tyrants and enemies of freedom, he can do no less than behave likewise to the only democratic state in the region and stop bombarding them with diktats. They must stand up and be counted. Jewish activists should make Obama understand that if he continues to appease Arabs by distancing the US from Israel and reneging on prior American commitments, the Jewish community, including many of his most devoted followers, will conclude that he betrayed them.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post