Nearly 100 members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community met Monday at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill to watch the third presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
The event, hosted by J Street Pittsburgh, aimed to facilitate discussion among members of the community on various foreign policy questions, specifically focusing on Middle East tensions between Arab nations and Israel.
“J Street is a nonpartisan group striving to facilitate talks about a two-state solution,” said J Street Pittsburgh co-chair Nancy Bernstein. “Our hope tonight is that both President Obama and Gov. Romney will use this debate to talk about key issues in the area.”
University of Pittsburgh political science professor Scott Morgenstern opened the debate by asking the audience how they felt both Obama and Romney would handle issues on foreign policy. The majority of the audience expressed thoughts on ongoing tension with Iran’s attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon.
“Obama will say what he believes, while Romney will say what he thinks Americans want to hear,” said Squirrel Hill native Farrel Buchinsky. “I don’t think this debate will be policy based.”
As the 90-minute debate progressed, both Obama and Romney discussed foreign issues concerning Libya, Syria, Iran, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The candidates also discussed trade issues with China and geopolitical issues with Russia.
At no point did Obama or Romney discuss a two-state solution for Israel. In fact, both candidates spent ample time discussing domestic issues, despite the debate’s advertised focus on foreign policy.
“It’s really not surprising, when you think about it,” said J Street Pittsburgh Secretary Dan Resnick. “Foreign policy is not high on the agenda right now. Voters are more focused on domestic issues than what is going on in the Middle East. It shows that we have not reached our full maturity as a society.”
Mark Fichman of Squirrel Hill said he was disappointed with how much focus domestic issues received, but was happy with the result of the debate.
“President Obama did well for himself,” Fichman said. “Romney seemed to have trouble distinguishing between what Obama has done and what he would do differently.”
Fichman added that he was “disappointed that both candidates did not go into more detail about foreign issues.”
“It’s baffling that, despite the sacrifice of our troops in the Middle East, there is such little focus on foreign issues,” Resnick said.
The event, open to everyone, gathered a distinctly pro-Obama crowd. The audience laughed and clapped for several of Obama’s points, including when Obama mentioned “horses and bayonets” in reference to Romney’s complaints of Navy cuts in the U.S. military’s budget.
Even though he believed horses and bayonets would be the topic of discussion for the next news cycle, Resnick said he was happy that the comment is based on facts.
“They say that entertainment is the bridge to education. You cannot take away Obama’s serious undertones with that comment,” he said.
Buchinsky said that his political opinion has not changed because of the debate.
“I always knew who I was going to vote for,” he said. “This just confirms my beliefs.”
Resnick said he believes that whoever wins the election will have to continuously deal with Middle East issues.
“These issues are not going away soon,” he said. “Whoever wins will have a lot on their plate with the Middle East.”
(Tony Sonita can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)