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A very Rahm Chanukah

WASHINGTON – Rahm Emanuel had a serious message about mutual responsibility to make in a pithy, punchy speech before he helped light the “national menorah” Sunday evening on the Ellipse in front of the White House.

Still, the White House chief of staff being, well, himself, he couldn’t resist a couple of one-liners.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, rushed in a “thanks” to the performers before calling Emanuel to the stage. After taking the microphone, the Obama aide quipped that “The U.S. Air Force Band, the Three Cantors, and Dreidel Man — sounds a little like the title of a Fellini movie.”

Chanukah 5770

Emanuel went on to make the lessons of Chanukah a paradigm for the collective responsibility for those not able to defend or care for themselves.

“Standing up for what is right, even when it is hard, is not a job for some other people, some other time,” he said. “It is a job for all of us.”

And still, expounding on the holiday miracle, he couldn’t resist a dig at his former habitat, Congress.

“The oil lasted longer than anyone expected — kind of like the health-care debate,” he said.

Chanukah started on a Friday evening this year, which meant that as a result of Sabbath restrictions, the opening ceremony had to wait until the holiday’s third day. That left Emanuel in the unenviable position of having to light three candles from the wind-blown crane he shared with Shemtov; Shemtov’s father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov; a Secret Service agent; and a photographer.

This involved stretching to extend the shamas to the far end of the candelabrum — the younger Shemtov was ready with a cigarette lighter when the shamas blew out — to the oohs and ahhs of a thrilled and apprehensive crowd, apprehensive except maybe for Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule, who laughed and took pictures as her husband held on for dear life.

The event, dubbed the “national menorah” by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, filled all 4,000 free seats — and then some — despite mud-soaked fields.

And add one more miracle to the Chanukah canon: Drizzling rain, which plagued the D.C.-area over the weekend, stopped just before the festivities started. JTA

This article was adapted from JTA’s politics blog (blogs.jta.org/politics).

 
 

Jewish leaders caught between criticizing, defending Obama

WASHINGTON – With anxiety over the White House’s Middle East policy mounting in some pro-Israel circles, several Jewish organizational leaders have found themselves in a discomfiting position: criticizing the Obama administration in public while stridently defending the president in private against the most extreme attacks.

It’s an upside-down version of what pro-Israel groups usually do: lavishing praise on the U.S. government of the day for sustaining the “unbreakable bond” while making their criticisms known quietly, behind closed doors.

News Analysis

The criticism has come in the form of mostly polite statements and newspaper ads questioning Obama administration pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, particularly regarding building in eastern Jerusalem. Such criticisms are voiced as well in private meetings with administration officials.

The defense comes up in dealings with irate donors and constituents, in phone calls, e-mails, addresses to small Jewish groups, shul talk. The theme of the complaints is consistent, and shocking, said multiple leaders, who all spoke off the record, and reflect the subterranean rumblings about the president heard during the campaign: His sympathy lies with the Muslims, he doesn’t care about Israel, he’s an anti-Semite.

The Jewish Federations of North America is sufficiently concerned about the phenomenon to have convened a “fly-in” of Jewish organizational leaders to Washington for an as yet unannounced date in May. The leaders will meet with White House, State Department, and congressional officials, in part to “to convey concerns about U.S.-Israel relations” — but also, insiders say, to allay those concerns.

One recent flood of anxious queries followed the Obama administration’s announcement earlier this month of its long-awaited nuclear policy. The reality of the policy was a pledge not to threaten with nuclear weapons those nations that provably disavow their nuclear weapons capability. Nations that continued to maintain a threatening nuclear posture, the policy made clear, would still face the prospect of a U.S. nuclear response should they attack the United States or its allies.

Obama named Iran as such a nation.

Yet instead of being reassured, donors and members of national Jewish groups flooded Jewish leaders with anxious queries about a posture that they interpreted as being aimed at embracing a nuclear Iran and forcing Israel to abandon its own reported nuclear capability.

Another persistent — and unfounded — rumor has it that Obama removed the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” from the White House seder in March.

“Where the ____ are they getting this?” asked a senior official at an organization that has been publicly critical of Obama since last summer.

Angst was stoked, too, when Obama spoke last week of peacemaking throughout the world necessitated by the cost of “American blood and treasure” through involvement in conflicts. It didn’t help that a New York Times analysis suggested the president had said that the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace threatened U.S. troops in other parts of the globe — even though the transcript of Obama’s remarks did not bear out any such linkage and Obama administration officials flatly denied one existed.

Jewish officials said a share of the blame lay with the Obama administration, partly for not adequately reaching out to Jews and to Israel, and partly because of the emergence of what appears to be internecine policy wars.

“The real story of The New York Times story is not that he’s changing Israel policy,” said another leader of an organization that has not been shy about criticizing the Obama administration. “The real story is, why are officials leaking” misrepresentations of his policy “to The New York Times?”

On the other side, one leader blamed the Netanyahu government for sending mixed signals on how to handle the tensions between Israel and the United States over settlement policy.

“Some are saying quiet is the best answer and others are saying loud noise is the best answer,” the Jewish organizational official said.

The official cited reports that Netanyahu personally approved public letters — from Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Elie Wiesel, the internationally known Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate — criticizing Obama’s demand for a halt in Jerusalem building.

Despite mounting criticism by some Jewish leaders, polls show that Obama’s support among Jews in general remains strong. His backing has dropped from astronomical highs after he was elected, but remains about 10 points stronger than in the general population. Moreover, to the degree that it has eroded, the dissatisfaction with Obama appears to have more to do with unhappiness over his handling of health care and the economy than it does Israel.

Those who are expressing their concerns, however, are among the most active members of the pro-Israel community and help set the tone for the trilateral U.S.-Israel-Jewish leadership ties. Some are acquiring their information from anti-Obama e-mail blasts and consistently partisan critics of Obama.

Richard Baehr, writing in the conservative online magazine The American Thinker, cited The New York Times’ misreading of Obama’s remarks in arguing that “this president is the greatest threat to the strategic alliance of the U.S. and Israel since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948.”

McLaughlin & Associates, a GOP polling firm, touted signs last week that Jewish support for Obama was eroding, but the survey questions were premised on shaky assertions. One question posited that Obama would support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, although U.S. officials have consistently said they would oppose such a move. Another suggested that Obama was ready to force Israel to give up the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, although there has been no such pressure.

Administration defenders cite signs suggesting that beyond the settlement rhetoric, the relationship is improving: Obama has increased defense cooperation, for instance, and strategic consultations between officials of both nations are more frequent than they have been in a decade.

“Our bond with Israel is unshakable and unbreakable both as it relates to security, as it relates to a common set of values and also as a common strategic vision because the threats to Israel are similar to some of the threats the United States faces,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said Monday on Bloomberg TV.

Jewish leaders welcome such reassurances but say they are made defensively, and repeatedly call on the Obama administration to become proactive.

Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the election and now heads the Center for Middle East Peace, suggested a more proactive posture was in the offing.

“Actions in the next several months will begin to reflect it,” he told JTA.

Notably, Emanuel held a behind-closed-doors meeting Tuesday with a group of leading Orthodox rabbis.

Meantime, Jewish leaders are walking a tightrope trying to balance traditional deference to the administration with concerns over the tensions. They also object to what they see as the unwarranted pressure on Netanyahu as opposed to relatively little pressure on the Palestinians to join talks that Israel has embraced with enthusiasm. Israel, they hasten to argue, remains America’s best friend in the region.

Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made the Israel-is-our-best-friend case last week at Israel Independence Day celebrations, sharing the stage with Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod.

“Israel stood by America in spirit and in action after the tragic events of 9/11,” Rosenberg said. “As both our great nations fight the same scourge of terrorism and Islamic extremism, it is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world.”

The Wiesel and Lauder letters offered a suggestive contrast over how to handle the tensions.

Wiesel’s critique was oblique, not naming Obama, and deferred to U.S. orthodoxy that a final-status agreement must accommodate Palestinian claims to the city.

“What is the solution?” Wiesel asked. “Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be.”

Lauder, by contrast, directly addressed Obama and suggested that the president was sacrificing Israel to improve relations with the Muslim world.

“The administration’s desire to improve relations with the Muslim world is well known,” said Lauder, an active Republican. “But is friction with Israel part of this new strategy? Is it assumed worsening relations with Israel can improve relations with Muslims?”

One of the Jewish leaders said the contrast was instructive.

“For all intents and purposes, the WJC’s relationship with the White House ended last week,” he said of the group Lauder heads. “That’s not a relationship that pro-Israel groups can afford to have over the next couple of years.”

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has publicly criticized the administration on several Israel-related fronts. Still, he said, Jewish leaders have a responsibility to defend the president “when talking to those who accuse him of being an enemy of Israel or a Muslim.”

“For many years, you had a lot of Jews who didn’t vote for President Bush who would say, ‘I don’t like Bush but I love what he’s doing on Israel,’” Foxman said.

“Now the paradigm is changing. A lot of Jews are saying, ‘I like Obama, but I don’t like what he is doing on Israel.”

Foxman added that the most frequent question he hears when speaking to Jewish audiences is whether Obama is a friend of Israel.

“I say yes — but what’s wrong is the implementation of what he promised. What’s flawed is the strategy, not the goal,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader quickly added that despite promises to learn from past mistakes, the administration’s handling of Israel-related issues is “going from bad to worse.”

JTA

 
 

Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”

JTA

 
 

White House meets with rabbis to assuage concerns on Israel

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 21 May 2010

WASHINGTON – If you tell the rabbis, they will spread the word.

That was the thinking behind two intimate White House meetings — the second of which took place on May 13 — with a carefully selected slate of 15 rabbis from across the country and representing the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative streams.

Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi at Cong. Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., initiated the meetings after a talk he had with his friend Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, about the Obama administration’s perceived lack of friendliness toward Israel.

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White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, seen here at the national menorah lighting on Dec. 13, 2009, arranged two White House meetings in recent weeks for a select group of rabbis. Creative Commons

The two meetings, the first of which was held last month, were part of a “charm offensive” after relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments hit a low in early March, when Israel announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The Obama administration wants Israel to freeze settlement in the west bank and building in the eastern part of Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War and subsequently annexed.

In recent weeks, several high-profile Jewish communal figures have slammed the Obama administration over the intensity and public nature of its criticisms of Israeli actions on these fronts. Some of the critics accused the White House of exerting much more pressure on Israel than the Palestinian Authority.

Moline said the rabbis, all of whom attended both of the meetings, were selected because of the high profiles they have in their communities, and because they had concerns about how the Obama administration was conducting Middle East policy — but they had not displayed outright hostility to the president.

“The rabbis who were in this group were chosen because they’re in touch with their different congregations in different parts of the country,” Moline said.

Not all the rabbis came away entirely mollified, but nonetheless they were impressed by the seriousness of the outreach.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida said he left the meeting still wondering if the administration is on the right track, but still “cautiously optimistic” because of the depth of commitment to Israel he heard.

“I left with a clear impression that these individuals have a real passion about Israel,” even if he did not agree with them on tactics, Goldberg said. Their interlocutors at the two meetings were high level: Dennis Ross, who runs Obama’s Iran policy; Dan Shapiro, the deputy national security adviser who supervises policy for Israel and its neighbors; Susan Sher, the chief White House liaison to the Jewish community; and Emanuel.

“Among the rabbis there was a diversity of those who support the administration policies and feel the message hasn’t trickled down, and those who have problems with some of the policies,” Goldberg said. “But the universal message was you need to show more love; this is not how you treat family.”

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative congregation in suburban Potomac, Md., said he felt it was especially incumbent upon the administration to explain its actions, given the misgivings about Obama that had circulated in the Jewish community prior to his election in a rumor campaign driven by e-mail that described him as anti-Israel and sympathetic to Muslims.

“I even mentioned hesitantly the flurry of e-mails prior to the election that were widely circulated in the Jewish community,” he said. “This was one of the reasons there was concern, and this was why the concerns had to be allayed. The potential for that perception is out there already, and the recent actions didn’t contribute to dispelling that approach.”

The rabbis put questions to the group that ranged from the substantive to repetitions of rumors about the president and how he was perceived to have treated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poorly during a visit to Washington in March.

The White House staffers answered the questions politely and with equanimity, Moline said.

“There was a lot of highlighting of the actual activities and policies of the administration,” Moline said — “and some frustration that” what the Obama administration has done for Israel “has not been comprehensively and accurately reported. They emphasized that whatever the messaging has been over the past year and a half, the policies have been in place.”

The officials emphasized, for instance, the closeness of the defense relationship. On May 13, as the rabbis were meeting with the staffers, for instance, the Obama administration authorized $205 million on top of the annual $3 billion in defense assistance for Israel to complete its Iron Dome short-range missile defense system.

The administration officials “spent a considerable amount of time emphasizing that the United States is addressing Israel’s security concerns in a manner that [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak called better than at any previous time,” Moline reported.

The rabbis in attendance — whose congregations ranged from Florida, the Midwest, Las Vegas, the Northeast, and the South — seemed receptive and took the message home.

“Our president is every bit as committed to Israel’s safety and security as any previous administration,” Rabbi Aaron Rubinger said in a May 8 Shabbat morning sermon at Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Orlando, Fla. “I do not believe the president is abandoning Israel or has any intention of abandoning Israel.”

Rubinger seemed even more upbeat in an extensive interview with the Heritage Florida Jewish News after the second meeting.

The rabbi said he had gone into the first meeting “with grave concern that even the public perception of too much space between Israel and the U.S. might give a signal to Iran that the U.S. was not as committed to Israel’s security as previous administrations were.”

Now, Rubinger said, he was assuaged.

“We are mending and moving beyond this controversy,” he said.

Rubinger’s fellow Floridian Goldberg said his congregants needed to know more.

Goldberg said some rabbis accepted the White House staffers’ argument that until recently they had not communicated their message effectively. Others, including Goldberg, thought that put too much weight on the message and not the substance of the policy.

“It’s easy to repeat the phrases ‘unbreakable bond’ and ‘shared values,’” he said. “We want to hear in no uncertain terms that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, that it’s great that the proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians “have started, but inevitably there will be an impasse, and when that happens, will they only apply pressure Israel, or have they learned something? My community in Palm Beach County is confused and has questions but is seeking answers.”

Weinblatt also pressed his interlocutors on the perceived imbalance in U.S. criticism of Israel.

“In many respects, I think there was a recognition on their part that the mistakes had been made in regard to the way Israel had been singled out so strongly,” he said.

Rubinger listed what he called “significant” administration talking points: The refusal to participate in the U.N.’s Durban Review Conference against racism last year in Geneva because the president believed Israel would be unfairly criticized; the rejection of Richard Goldstone’s U.N. report on Israel’s actions during last year’s war in Gaza, which pro-Israel advocates called inaccurate and biased; the refusal to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey when Ankara said it would withdraw if Israel were included; the ongoing cooperation between the United States and Israel on missile defense issues; and numerous recent visits to Washington by Barak, Israel’s defense minister.

Rubinger said he believes these actions far outweigh the negativity surrounding the housing “flap.”

JTA

 
 

With Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, will the Jews have access to Obama?

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White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates in November 2009 at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – They were two Jewish aides who had offices within shouting distance of the Oval Office.

But the resignation last week of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff and the imminent departure of David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, is raising the question of what the disappearance of the president’s top two Jewish aides will mean for the Jewish community

Top Jewish Democrats and leaders of Jewish organizations say there will be an absence — of optics, not substance.

“It’s not every day that a White House chief of staff has his kid’s bar mitzvah in a Conservative shul and takes the family to Israel,” said Matt Dorf, the managing partner at Rabinowitz-Dorf, a communications firm that represents liberal and Jewish groups.

“That gave a human face to this White House to many in the Jewish community,” Dorf said. “In terms of policy and the Jewish community’s relationship with the White House, I don’t expect any change in that relationship.”

The visuals are not unimportant, a top Jewish aide to a senior congressman told JTA.

“People like to have someone who looks like them near power,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You say ‘Shanah Tovah,’ their faces light up.”

Nathan Diament, who directs the Washington office of the Orthodox Union, said that even the visuals wouldn’t suffer.

He noted that Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew who likes to regale audiences with tales of the difficulties of reconciling observance with the 24/7 schedule of senior public service, is set to take over the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB director — essentially the administration’s numbers cruncher — is a cabinet-level position, one Lew also held toward the end of the Clinton administration. He is leaving his position as deputy secretary of state to take the job.

“If you’re measuring Jewish prominence, there will be prominent Jews in the administration,” Diament said.

With Emanuel in Chicago running for mayor and Axelrod set to leave early next year to run Obama’s re-election campaign, access won’t otherwise change, Jewish organizational officials across the board said.

“Axelrod’s role for being a key conduit for taking advice from Jewish leaders will presumably continue when he has a political hat, not a government hat,” said William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Additionally, Obama’s official liaison to the community, Susan Sher, is still on the job — as chief of staff to Michelle Obama, the first lady, she occupies a fairly senior post.

Emanuel’s replacement, Peter Rouse, is seasoned at dealing with constituencies, including among the pro-Israel and Jewish communities, having worked as chief of staff to Obama when he was in the U.S. Senate and previously for Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader.

“It’s more important that that person have a positive disposition to issues of concern in the Jewish community than be Jewish,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch.

Privately, Jewish officials said Emanuel’s departure could smooth relations between Obama and the Jewish community for two reasons: Emanuel had earned a reputation in Israel as anti-Israel, and his overall style had alienated core constituencies, among them the Jews.

One Jewish organizational official said Emanuel’s brusque “just listen to me” style had severely hampered Obama’s agenda, leading not only to tensions with the pro-Israel community but with gays, liberals, and groups seeking health-care reform.

“Part of the reason he got into the trouble he got into were relationship issues,” the official said.

Additionally, Emanuel’s departure means that on Israel policy, Obama no longer will be able to say, as he did in an infamous meeting with Jewish leadership in the summer of 2009, that he has Emanuel to check his policies and does not need to consult with the wider community.

It was a blinkered “If Rahm and Axe are Jewish and they think this is OK, it’s OK” policy, is how the Jewish organizational official put it.

The problem with that view, some Jewish observers said, is that White House staffers — even at that senior level — are likely to defer to the boss, whereas Jewish leaders would be blunter in their assessments. But with two Jewish staffers, Obama mistakenly thought he didn’t need to consult with the Jews, these observers said. They blamed that insularity in part for tensions over west bank settlement-building that dogged the first year of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship.

Despite those troubles, some Jewish organizational leaders were baffled by a view prevalent in the Netanyahu government that Emanuel somehow had guided Obama down a path that was hostile to Netanyahu.

Emanuel, in fact, had little to nothing to do with formulating Middle East policy, although he did take a role in selling it — most recently when he met with Netanyahu over the summer on his son’s bar mitzvah trip.

Furthermore, the two individuals now running the policy in the White House — National Security Council staffers Daniel Shapiro and Dennis Ross — are sensitive to Jewish concerns.

“Rahm was not running Middle East policy,” Diament said. “Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro are still there.”

JTA

 
 

Democrats launch major pro-Obama pushback among Jews

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Former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, right, shown speaking at Obama inauguration festivities in January 2009 with former Jewish War Veterans chief Ed Goldwasser, is among Democrats speaking out forcefully now on President Obama’s Israel policies. Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON – President Obama is a stalwart friend of Israel.

That’s the message some top Democratic Jewish figures are promoting to push back against the notion that Obama is out of step with the pro-Israel and Jewish communities.

Within the next two weeks, two figures associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — past AIPAC president Amy Friedkin and board member Howard Green — will be among the hosts for a major fundraising event for the president, charging $25,000 per couple. The target of 40 couples — bringing in $1 million — is close to being met, insiders say. Notably, the organizers have received a nod from the AIPAC board’s inner circle to solicit donations.

Last week, top Jewish Democrats, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), blitzed the media with Op-Eds denying any split with the president in the wake of his call last month to base Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

And the White House has taken the unusual step of posting a lengthy defense of Obama’s Israel record on its website.

Some of the Op-Eds were coordinated, insiders said, and meetings will take place over the coming weeks to hammer home the message.

“The White House has a very strong record to defend, and the objectives are misrepresented and in some cases maligned, so yes the White house is pushing back,” said Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the 2008 campaign.

Wexler wrote one of two pro-Obama Op-Eds in the South Florida Sun Sentinel in recent days. Florida, a swing state with a substantual Jewish population, has been a key Jewish battleground in recent years.

Republicans have taken notice, and they have attributed the pushback in part to the success of attacks on the president by conservative groups. The Republican Jewish Coalition has targeted Jewish voters with automated phone calls, and a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel is running an ad thanking congressional Democrats it claims have split with Obama over his Israel policy.

“Clearly, the White House is playing defense after President Obama inserted himself into Middle East policy that put him at odds with Americans who support a strong Israel,” Reince Preibus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in an e-mail to JTA.

Democrats say two distortions have fueled their fury: the notions that Obama broke with U.S. policy to force Israel back to the pre-1967 lines and, as a result, that Jewish voters, a key base, are slipping away from the Democrats. A flurry of media stories in recent weeks have suggested that Obama is losing Jewish donor support, although few past donors to the president are reported to be reconsidering their support.

Where the Jews stand on Obama matters not just because of the Jewish vote, which is significant in key swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but also because of Jewish money. The 2012 presidential election will be the first since a Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate giving to candidates. The Obama campaign has said it will need more money than ever because big business tends to lean Republican.

Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and estimates over the years have reckoned that Jewish donors provide between one-third and two-thirds of the party’s money.

“Every two or four years Republicans say, ‘This is the year Jewish voters, or donors, or activists, are going to trend Republican,’” said Steve Rabinowitz, a strategist who advises Democrats and Jewish groups. “Every November it turns out not to be true.”

Republicans made clear that they see a new opening, given the “1967 lines” brouhaha.

“We’re stepping up our game with Jewish donors and other potential Jewish supporters that feel like Obama turned his back on them,” an RNC official who is not authorized to speak on the record told JTA.

Obama’s appointment earlier this year of Wasserman Schultz as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee came in part in response to concerns that Republicans were making headway among Jews. Wasserman Schultz also contributed an Obama defense to the South Florida Sun Sentinel over the weekend.

“They’re taking proactive steps that ensure they get in front of this,” said a Democratic operative close to the Jewish community who requested anonymity. “They’re explaining to the Jewish audience what’s going on so it doesn’t become a problem down the road. It’s better to get ahead of this and tell people what’s actually been said than play catch-up.”

The White House posting begins by addressing the “1967 lines” controversy.

“This territorial formula, which has been used in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for decades, means that the parties themselves will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967 to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years,” it said, adding that the formula “is fully consistent with the positions of earlier U.S. Administrations, including the 2004 Bush-Sharon letters.”

In fact, while previous administrations — including President George W. Bush in his letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — have acknowledged the 1967 lines as an aspiration for the Palestinians, Obama has gone further in embracing them as a basis for talks. That frustrated Israelis who say it narrows their options by setting parameters.

In the same May 19 Middle East policy speech, Obama also set restrictive parameters for Palestinians, for instance, in declaring that their state would not be militarized.

The difference between Obama and his predecessors is not as drastic as Republicans have portrayed, however, especially in statements like the one recently from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus that refer only to the “1967 lines” without noting “mutually agreed swaps.”

The White House is convening meetings of top Democrats in the coming weeks and months to coordinate message discipline.

Jewish Democrats are frustrated with their inability to bury perceptions that Obama has distanced himself from Israel, noting especially that officials in both countries agree that the defense relationship is closer than ever.

Democrats say their concerns extend to the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which for decades has been predicated on bipartisan support. Wasserman Schultz forcefully raised the issue in a meeting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held with top Jewish representatives of both parties last month.

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, shot back with a public letter accusing Wasserman Schultz of trying to gag debate by suppressing legitimate criticism of Obama.

Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster, dismissed talk of a “gag order.”

“They have the right to say whatever they want, but Democrats have the right to say it’s not wise,” he said.

Noah Pollak, the director of the Executive Committee for Israel, has acknowledged that Obama’s policies are not substantially different from his predecessors.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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