Are American Jews Worried About Obama? Should They Be?

Categories: Letters from the Leadership

While the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are being addressed by Special Envoy George Mitchell and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a side drama is being played out in the corridors of American Jewish organizational life. “Whispered worries about Obama” reads the front page headline in New York’s The Jewish Week.  Alan Dershowitz asks “Has Obama Turned his Back on Israel?” in the Wall Street Journal.

The upshot of the articles is that American Jewish leaders are concerned that there is less commitment from the Obama administration to Israel than previous American governments. In particular, they worry about Obama’s insistence on a settlement freeze and a perceived weakness on Iran. In addition, there is concern about access to the White House. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman is quoted as saying \”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.\”

Since I participate in my share of communal events and briefings, I was not surprised to see these articles. However I think it worth asking, is the emperor naked? Do such American Jewish leaders have a feel for the pulse of the American Jewish community and fully appreciate what is in the best interest of Israel?

The Jewish Week article states that “leaders of American Jewish organizations note unease among mainstream supporters of Israel and Jewish causes.” Interestingly, the article’s writer, editor Gary Rosenblatt, did not interview the president of the Reform rabbinical association whose 2000 members recently declared support for a complete settlement freeze. Might she not be considered a Jewish leader? I belong to my share of (read: too many) communal bodies – The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Jewish Agency Board of Governors, Jewish National Fund Board of Trustees and more – and I hear all sorts of comments, including many that are enthusiastically pro-Obama. As the articles acknowledge, American Jews are overwhelming supportive of the President and his policies regarding Israel. How then can we account for this gap between these Jewish leaders and the general community?

Back we go to The Jewish Week, which reports that “several of those leaders, speaking off the record, account for the gap 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.” Aha, so the problem is that if only American Jews were more knowledgeable, they would see the light and oppose Obama’s approach to Israel.

I would suggest that something else is at play here.

One of the sources for The Jewish Week article is the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee. Recently this organization posted a slick video presentation on the Internet which lays 100% of the responsibility for the lack of peace at the feet of the Palestinians. While the Palestinians certainly share responsibility for the lack of progress, this is exactly the “old school” approach that hasn’t worked. They say, let’s just invest our resources in producing materials that blame the other side.

NO! The organized Jewish community needs to change its tune. Perhaps employing scare tactics is an efficient way to raise money, but peace in the Middle East is too serious a subject. Why would the White House seek counsel from people who are not addressing the situation in a serious manner? American Jews may not follow every detail of the conflict, but they are well-read, knowledgeable citizens who can recognize simplistic, jingoistic slogans. From my contact with college students and young adults, they are turned off by this approach as well. Obama has correctly stated that the problems we face, particularly in the Middle East, are complicated and require sophisticated solutions.

The common complaint is that Obama is singling out Israel for criticism by calling for a settlement freeze. While supporters of the settlement enterprise chant the mantra “the settlements are not an obstacle to peace,” the rest of the world sees it otherwise. If a decision is reached between Mitchell and Barak on an acceptable freeze as being reported in the media, we’ll find out. If Obama and Mitchell can gain engagement on the Arab side and move the process along, we will see if the freeze is exactly what is needed to get the peace wagon out of the mud.

Alan Dershowitz wrote in his Wall Street Journal article that “getting tough on settlement expansion should not be confused with undercutting Israel’s security.”  I would go a step further and suggest that Obama’s push for a settlement freeze is Israel’s best chance to achieve true security through a peace agreement with the entire Arab world.  I hope the concerned American Jewish leaders take this to heart. Who knows, maybe it will improve their White House access.

About Kenneth Bob, National President

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu. He is a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors,  the treasurer of Board of Directors of J Street and a board member of the Forward Association. Ken is a past chair of the Habonim Dror Foundation, the national alumni association of the Labor Zionist youth movement, providing financial support for their educational programming throughout North America. In his professional life, Ken is an experienced entrepreneur and currently provides management consulting for small and merging companies.
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