Presently, there is an unintentional debate at the NY Jewish Week between Editor and Publisher Gary Rosenblatt and Washington Correspondent James Besser concerning the American Jewish community's concerns about and support for President Obama. Yesterday, the Jewish Week, the largest Jewish newspaper in America, made Mr. Rosenblatt's op-ed, "Whispered Worries About Obama", available on its website. Today, Mr. Besser's blog article, "Obama Angst Points To Widening Jewish Leadership Gap", was published. This conversation is very important for the American Jewish community, as well as other parts of our society, as our President deals with Israel, Palestine, and the larger Middle East.
After reading Mr. Rosenblatt's columns over the years, I have always found him to be a capable person who is passionate about Judaism, Israel, and affiliated Jewish American communities. Over the last several weeks, I have noticed a more urgent tone in his writings. I believe that this change reflects a perception within the Jewish establishment that they are losing the ideological battle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the existential threat from Iran.
On June 10th, Mr. Rosenblatt published an interview he had with New York Times Columnist Roger Cohen, "Times' Cohen: Getting Under Our Skin". Mr. Cohen has never been accused of being on the radical left with respect to Israel and its relations with other Middle East nations. However, it appears that the behavior of the Israeli government and its military during this winter's "Operation Cast Lead" disturbed Mr. Cohen to the point where he re-evaluated his past beliefs and became much more critical of the Israeli government and the established Jewish American leadership.
After giving Mr. Cohen space to describe his views regarding Israel, Judaism, the War In Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian (I/P) conflict, and Iran, Mr. Rosenblatt challenged him with old ideas and personal criticisms that have been used often, in one form or another, by Jewish leaders when someone within the faith speaks out publicly.
-And while Israel, like every other nation on earth, has its shortcomings, it is too easy, and historically dishonest, to harp on its obligations to the Palestinians without mentioning Jerusalem’s repeated offerings of compromise and sacrifice, each rejected outright — not to mention a Palestinian culture that glorifies suicide bombers killing Jewish women and children amid calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
-It would seem from his writings and conversation that he believes that when it comes to the Mideast conflict, it is Israeli hearts that have hardened and that the government in Jerusalem is trying to ignore terrible things. He is welcome to his beliefs, of course, but Roger Cohen should be wary of conflating one tragedy with another.
Call it lack of balance or fairness, but to cite only one party to blame for the Israeli-Arab conflict is to deny history and reality, and to weaken one’s credibility beyond logic or truth.
Reading Cohen lately — the anger, blame and one-sidedness of his argument — one wonders whose heart, indeed, has grown brutal.
Mr. Rosenblatt's most recent op-ed reflects that he is more panicked about the standing of the establishment positions than he was a month ago. He enlists American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris, Anti-Defemation League Director Abraham Foxman, and Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations Malcom Hoenlein to help sow the seeds of doubt about President Obama and his commitment to the State of Israel. These statesmen of the American Jewish establishment start by defining the supposed problem that the President is not supportive of Israel and losing the confidence of many American Jews.
- Leaders of American Jewish organizations note an unease among mainstream supporters of Israel and Jewish causes — we’re not talking about marginal "Obama is a Muslim" critics here — who say they voted for and admire Barack Obama and support many of his policies, but feel he is being overly critical of Israel and too soft on the Palestinians and on an Iranian regime bent on developing nuclear weapons that could end up aimed at the Jewish state.
As one leader put it: "Moderate people come up to me and ask, ‘Should I be worried?’ "
It’s a good question, though it’s being whispered more than spoken these days.
- Lately, he (Mr. Harris) says, he is "hearing a growing number of questions and concerns about the U.S.-Israel relationship, and a sense that the Obama administration’s response to the Iran crisis was slower than it should have been."
- Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, says the normal anxiety level among American Jews when a new administration takes shape has been heightened to new levels because President Obama "champions change, and American Jews tend to approve of U.S. policy toward Israel and don’t necessarily welcome change" on that front.
- He (Mr. Hoenlein) later said his remarks (about President Obama's Cairo speech) were taken out of context, but he told me the other day that "judging from phone calls" he has received, and other responses, "there is an increasing unease" about a number of the Obama administration’s recent statements and actions.
Once creating the impression that American Jews who once supported the President are worried about his beliefs and actions towards Israel, these pillars of the traditional Jewish community attempt to explain why this is so.
- But the Obama administration has a different take, and its seemingly willful refusal to recognize past U.S. commitments makes Israeli leaders worry about the trustworthiness of guarantees in the future.
- Such a blunt, public statement (concerning the total freeze in settlements) about a close strategic ally caused a ripple of worry among Jewish leaders, one of whom told me the only conclusion he could reach was that the administration wanted to bring down the Netanyahu government, hoping it would be replaced by a more moderate one.
- Complicating the problem further is that this administration is relying less on American Jewish leaders for input because two of the most powerful men in government, with daily access to the president, are high-profile Jews: senior adviser David Axelrod and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
- Those (Statements in President Obama's Cairo speech that trouble Mr. Hoenlien's acquaintances) include the president’s reference in his Cairo speech to 7 million American Muslims, when in fact most studies believe the number to be closer to 2.5 million; the narrative suggesting that Israel’s roots go back only as far as the Holocaust rather than to the Bible; the public pressure on Israel to halt settlements — as if they represented the key to peace rather than the Palestinians’ consistent refusal to recognize a Jewish state in the region — and the lack of specific demands on the Palestinians; and the concern that the president is still determined to engage in dialogue with Iran, despite the regime’s brutal behavior following national elections last month.
- "What troubles me most is a lack of consultation and the need [for the administration] to do things publicly. There’s a [U.S.-Israel] relationship of 60 years and all of a sudden they’re treating Israel like everyone else. I find that disturbing."
Now that the dilema has been defined and reasoned, Mr. Rosentblatt tells the readers what they need to do.
For now, it’s important for supporters of Israel to make their voices heard, pointing out the nuances and critical distinctions in discussing "the settlements"; emphasizing that the crux of the problem is and has always been Palestinian intransigence, terrorism and refusal to accept a Jewish state; and pressing Washington for a clear policy on dealing with Iran, and the Palestinians, beyond diplomacy.
Everything they have spoken, written, and recommended is understandable given their high ranking positions in the traditional Jewish communal world. For many years, these people were the defining voices on Israeli issues for American Jews, both inside and outside of the communal world. However, Mr. Besser's post points out that the power of their top-down influence has lessened significantly.
Last month I wrote a story suggesting the Obama administration is confident it can push Israel on the issue of West Bank settlements without risking a big political backlash from Jewish voters.
That story ignited a flurry of calls and emails from readers disagreeing with me, many from Jewish leadership types, and I had to concede they were right, up to a point: there is a spreading feeling of anxiety about Obama policies in the circles in which these responders move.
But they were also wrong, as far as I can tell, about the Jewish community as a whole. I’ve seen no evidence the almost 80 percent support the president received from Jewish voters in November has eroded significantly.
That points to the likelihood the always-significant gap between an Israel-focused Jewish leadership and rank-and-file Jewry is becoming a yawning chasm.
Reading Mr. Besser's article, it is apparent that many traditional "pro-Israel" American Jews already believe the things that people like Mssrs. Foxman, Harris, Rosenblatt, Hoenlein, and Dershowitz are talking about. A big problem for these groups and individuals is that their numbers are shrinking. The larger number of American Jews are not involved with these more traditional political, social, and/or religious groups and its leaders.
These voters are supportive of Israel, but it is not an exclusive issue. For them, a candidate needs to back Israel and the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but not as complete and total as the more communal members desire. As a result, most American Jews, who voted for President Obama, accept his positions on these issues, as well as the settlement freeze, and they continue to have confidence in him.
Several of those leaders, speaking off the record, account for the gap (between leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations and the majority of American Jews) by pointing out that they are more knowledgeable than most people about the complexities of U.S.-Israeli policy, following it every day on a high level.(emphasis mine)
For several decades, these traditional American Jewish groups and leaders held control over the "pro-Israel" message and greatly influenced the general Jewish community, as well as elected officials. While these people still influence elected officials, their control over the majority of American Jews is ending. As more people have come to realize that the ideas and opinions from these leaders have kept America stuck in an intolerable status-quo with respect to Middle East peace, they have started to think for themselves regarding Israel, the Middle East and the I/P conflict.
These Jewish Americans have started to find out that groups like Brit Tzedek v' Shalom and Americans For Peace Now offer views that are more compatible with a progressive pro-peace viewpoint, much like the President that they overwhelmingly voted for this past Novmember. They are also finding out that the rapid growth of J Street offers them a chance to change the last part of the equation, the opinions of elected officials.
As the President continues his strong leadership to resolve the various Middle East conflicts, and maintains his large support within the Jewish American community, these traditional leaders will seek to re-establish their control with even more intense challenges to the President. When this happens, please remember that these people are simply becoming more desperate because there are growing numbers of Jewish Americans who support a bottom-up democracy in their country and their faith.
Since Mr. Rosenblatt offered a set of "asks" at the end of his article, I feel the need to do something similar. Learn, for yourself, about the various issues concerning Israel and its Middle East neighbors.
For those people who desire to get involved with more progressive D.C. Jewish organizations:
- Sign Brit Tzedek v' Shalom's Pledge to Support President Obama
- Donate to J Street PAC and any/all of their endorsed candidates
- Attend J Street's first National Conference: Driving Change, Securing Peace Oct. 25-28 2009 in Washington D.C.
- Sign up for American For Peace Now's weekly Legislative Roundup and Action Alerts to keep up on the governmental issues related to the Middle East.