by James M. Wall
The White House hosted two recent meetings with a carefully selected group of 15 American rabbis, Orthodox, Reformed and Conservative. Note carefully, the 15 rabbis are religious leaders.
The first meeting in the White House was on April 20. The second meeting was held May 13. Both sessions were designed to allow carefully chosen White House officials to explain President Obama’s feelings about Israel.
From reports that have surfaced in Jewish media circles, the meetings were a success.
The JTA sent out the story, just as the White House expected it to do. The JTA originally stood for Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an appropriate name for 1917, when the agency was formed.
Ron Kampeas reported the story for the very modern JTA:
Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi at Congregation 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 deficit of friendliness toward Israel.
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 Vice President Joe Biden.
After the first meeting with the President’s team, the rabbis returned to their local congregations to spread the word.
Aaron Rubinger said in a May 8 Shabbat morning sermon at Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative shul 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 Heritage Florida Jewish News after the second meeting this week.
He had gone into the first meeting, he said, “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, he said, he was assuaged. “We are mending and moving beyond this controversy,” he said.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida told JTA he left the first White House meeting still wondering if the administration is on the right track.
He remains “cautiously optimistic” because of the depth of commitment to Israel he heard from White House officials.
“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
The team the president assigned to meet with the Jewish religious leaders included Rahm Emanuel, the president’s Chief of Staff, whose loyalty to Israel is well known, and Dennis Ross.
Ross is the special assistant to President Obama and senior director of the Central Region at the National Security Council (NSC).
In March, 2010, after the settlements conflict arose between Israel and the US, Laura Rozen wrote in Politico, that the White House debate became heated over how to respond to Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence on settlements.
Dennis Ross argued that “Washington needs to be sensitive to Netanyahu’s domestic political constraints including over the issue of building in East Jerusalem in order to not raise new Arab demands”.
Other officials in the meetings, including some aligned with Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, argued that “Washington needs to hold firm in pressing Netanyahu for written commitments to avoid provocations that imperil Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.”
Since those heated debates in the White House, President Obama has been busy “reaching out” to Israel, a strategy of which the two meetings would appear to be a part.
The fact that George Mitchell did not meet with the rabbis while Dennis Ross did, suggests that in conversation with the American Jewish community, the Ross position prevails over the Mitchell position.
The Jerusalem Post reported on an important Ross contribution to the meeting:
Dennis Ross, who runs the administration’s Iran policy, tried to allay fears during the meeting that by calling for a nuclear-free Middle East, US policy regarding Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities was changing.
Since 1995, Ross explained, the administration’s policy, supported by Israel, was to push for a nuclear-free Middle East in conjunction with comprehensive peace.
The second most important figure in the meetings was, of course, Rahm Emanuel.
After the second meeting, the Jerusalem Post reported that Emanuel said the Obama administration has “screwed up the messaging” about its support for Israel over the past 14 months, and it will take “more than one month to make up for 14 months.”
During the elections there were doubts about President Obama’s support for Israel, and now they have resurfaced,” Emanuel said, according to one of those who participated in the meeting. “But concerning policy, we have done everything that we can that is in Israel’s security – and long-range interests. Watch what the administration does”.
As for Israel and a nuclear-free Middle East, the Post reported that Emanuel said:
“We understand Israel’s full layer of deterrence.”
Also in the meetings, though apparently not saying anything that the Post chose to report, were two other officials with responsibilities to relate to the international and US Jewish communities: Dan Shapiro, the deputy national security adviser who supervises policy for Israel and its neighbors; and Susan Sher, the chief White House liaison to the Jewish community.
Shapiro has served as a political advisor and lobbyist specializing in Middle East foreign policy issues, with a particular interest in Israel. Wikipedia calls him the National Security Council’s top Middle East expert.
Susan Sher is from Chicago where she and First Lady Michelle Obama worked together at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She joined the Obama administration as an associate counsel. In June, 2009, she became Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.
No doubt this was a good team to assuage the political concerns of the visiting rabbis.
But wait a minute. These are religious leaders from across the country. Were they not just a little concerned with issues like human rights for Palestinians? Does the future of an earthly kingdom transcend God’s instructions to follow his commandments?
These religious leaders sat with President Obama’s leading experts on the Middle East and all they discussed was Israel’s security?
There are moral issues here, which were apparently ignored entirely in two meetings in the White House.
No published reports have yet to surface that reflect any discussion of ethical or moral concerns over the continued occupation of Palestinian land and people.
Rabbi Jack Moline told Ron Kampeas:
The [Obama]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.”
Kampeas concluded: “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.”
Is there nothing the state of Israel did in its invasion of Gaza that made even one of these 15 rabbis pause and ask the Obama team not to forget that they represent the Hebrew tradition in their local communities?
These are scholars who study and preach from the Hebrew scriptures.
What an opportunity they missed by not asking the White House officials to take a message to the President, a message like this one from Amos, 5:23-24:
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The picture above is an official White House photo by Pete Souza. Rahm Emanuel is at left; David Alexrod stands in the center.