WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama went on the charm offensive last week, declaring publicly what his most ardent Jewish Democratic supporters have said he’s expressed privately: a love of the Jewish people and Israel.
Speaking before an audience of 1,000 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., Obama joked about his status as the “first Jewish president,” so conferred upon him by The Atlantic magazine writer and Adas member Jeffrey Goldberg, and declared that the values of Israeli pioneers “in many ways came to be my own values.”
But those strong sentiments did not cause the president to back down on criticisms of Israeli policies.
“I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland,” said Obama. “And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”
That criticism has been a hallmark of administration diplomacy of late, as several statements attributed to Obama, his advisers and members of his Cabinet have singled out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for blame in the failure of the peace process to move forward.
“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland,” Obama argued at the synagogue, “Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well.”
Though much applause and cheers rang out from the pews, there were more than a few audience members who sat in silence and saved their applause for when the president declared the Palestinians as “not the easiest of partners.”
“The neighborhood is dangerous,” said the president. “And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.”
With a white kippah perched atop his head, Obama forged on, addressing the ongoing nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran.
“I will not accept a bad deal,” he said of the nuclear accord expected before a June 30 deadline. “This deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise.”
Goldberg, who interviewed the president at length for his magazine, was seated just a few rows from Obama as the president acknowledged that a good deal doesn’t erase “Iran’s support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and ugly threats against Israel. … And that’s why the people of Israel must always know America has its back.”
Noticeably absent from the occasion was Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer.
The fraught relationship between Dermer, a former Republican Party operative, and the White House is an open secret inside the Beltway, but several politicos commented that given the rare appearance of a sitting president addressing a Jewish congregation from the bima — only the fourth time in U.S. history that America’s chief executive has visited a synagogue — the ambassador should have been present. (The first-ever official visit of a U.S. president to a synagogue was that of William Howard Taft to Rodef Shalom in 1909.)
Obama’s presence was in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month and coincided with Solidarity Sabbath, an initiative of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice that called upon world leaders to stand with victims of anti-Semitism.
Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the foundation and daughter of the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), for whom the foundation is named, was in attendance alongside her mother Annette Lantos. The initiative, she explained, “grew out of disturbing events in Europe and North America.”
She added that close to two dozen countries chose to participate in the Solidarity Sabbath and that the initiative’s website would soon be populated with information detailing information on how partner countries are combating anti-Semitism within their borders.
“We wanted to give governments a chance to put their makers down in an international context to say, ‘Yes, we stand with our Jewish communities,’ ” said Swett.
Greg Rosenbaum, chair of JAHM, shared similar thoughts.
“Persecution, historically, has been against a backdrop of leaders or government policies that had anti-Semitic themes,” said Rosenbaum. “If we can educate the population about the contributions of Jewish Americans to everyday life, then if something happened here, then the people would be less likely to support it.”
Obama named Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan, Albert Einstein and Louis Brandeis as examples of American Jews who have “made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect.”
The president recognized Ira Forman, special U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, seated toward the front of the sanctuary, and noted the “deeply disturbing rise in anti-Semitism in parts of the world where it would have seemed unthinkable just a few years or decades ago.”
“Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire,” said Obama. “And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread.”
Rachel Beyda, the University of California, Los Angeles student who faced an apparent anti-Semitic line of questioning in her quest to join her university’s student judicial board, was specifically requested to attend by the White House. Beyda, alongside Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, met with Obama briefly before his remarks.
The president’s condemnation of anti-Semitism resonated with Beyda.
“Jews seem to have lost their minority status. It was very interesting that President Obama made links between the struggles African-Americans and Jews have gone through,” she said. “That part of history is often forgotten and I think those attitudes need to change.”
Added Fingerhut, “I think [the speech] will turn out to be a moment when we became clear as a nation that what is happening on our college campuses is not simply anti-Israel political activity but anti-Semitic activity targeted at no other nation in the world, no other people.”
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who ceded his pulpit for the morning, said, “How blessed we are in our time to have a president of the United States to take the time to address the Jewish people, acknowledge our contributions [and raise] our awareness to the [rise] of anti-Semitism and how world leaders need to combat anti-Semitism.
“I thank God,” added the rabbi, “that we have a president like this who is able to make that kind of stand.”
Melissa Apter writes for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.