Charmed and Relieved, American Jews Watch Their President in Israel

Oozing charisma and making his commitment to Israel crystal clear, Obama courts Israelis in his two-day visit, and his Jewish constituents at home are proud.

BOSTON – As Barack Obama makes his way through Israel, sprinkling his words with Hebrew, talking up Theodor Herzl, exchanging laughs with Netanyahu and declaring, before a cheering audience of young Israelis, that “peace is possible,” a collective sigh of relief can be heard across the globe by the American Jewish community.

“American Jews like when it when the American president and the Israeli prime minister get along,” said Martin Raffel, the senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

In his speech in Jerusalem on Thursday, the centerpiece of his two-day visit, Obama tried to reassure Israelis, and by extension any American Jews who might still be wondering about his devotion to the Jewish state that, “Atem lo Lavad" – "You are not alone.”

American Jews voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers in both elections, but by contrast, some of the main guard leadership has expressed doubts about just how heartfelt a connection and commitment Obama has to Israel.

“I think it was most important for him to really reaffirm how deeply and personally he gets it when it comes to Israel. And that he understands what is means to the Jewish people, whether they are there or here, in terms of their historic roots and emotional ties,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of J-Street, the liberal American Jewish pro-Israel lobbying group. “(But) it’s not just reaffirming the strength of the bond, but putting hard truths in front of close friends and saying let’s face it together.”

Ben-Ami hailed the speech that at times felt like a combination power pep rally and direct appeal to the Israeli people to fight for peace, even if that effort had to happen above the heads of their leaders.

“It’s an historic redefinition of what friendship between our two countries means and that it includes not just an iron clad commitment to Israeli security but a very clear-eyed assessment of the future and of truth telling about where the future is heading for the state of Israel,” he said.

The Anti-Defamation League was also sold on Obama’s warm feeling bona fides, releasing a statement that called his speech “A truly historic affirmation of the bonds of friendship between the United States and Israel, a heartfelt acknowledgement of the depth and strength of the biblical Jewish bond to the land of Israel and a clear articulation of mutual values and aspirations for peace shared by both countries.”

During the speech Obama used the word "occupation," speaking to, he said, how difficult it makes the lives of Palestinians. He also spoke of the need for justice.

Earlier in the day, following a meeting in Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Obama made tacit reference to the civil rights movement in the United States.

He said, “Whenever I meet these young people, whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian, I think of my young daughters,” he said at a joint press conference. ‘Those of us in the United States understand that change takes time, but change is possible. There was a time when my daughters did not have the same opportunities as somebody else’s daughters.”

Raffle said he might find fault with that comparison.

But he didn’t.

“I think he’s made a powerful case for that his commitment to Israel is real and personal, not just pro-forma. And that this commitment to Israel grows out of his own life experience is important to convey and civil rights is embedded in his experience so for him to draw on it is logical,” he said.

There was no peace plan in Obama’s presidential pocket. There was also no description by Obama of what the parameters of a peace deal might look like, but that may also be refreshing for American Jews who rather see real groundwork for a two-state solution finally take place, said Ken Bob, president of Ameinu, a progressive Jewish American organization that works to mobilize American Jews on social and economic justice issues in the U.S. and Israel.

The Israel Policy Forum, a non-partisan pro-Israel group, also welcomed Obama’s words.

“This speech demonstrated that the president intended his trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah to be substantive, not merely stylistic. We are glad that was the case. Though he did not bring a new initiative, he brought an important message to the peoples of Israel and the region: “Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do.”

“American Jews desperately want the president to be pro-Israel but I think a good portion of American Jews also want him to help Israel preserve the democratic and Jewish state of Israel,” said Bob.

He added, the American Jewish community, “really wants Israel and America to get along … and if they manage to coordinate, that would be a relief.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella group for America’s largest Jewish denomination, issued a statement reflecting some of that relief.

"I felt pride as an American and as a Jew in listening to President Obama's remarkable speech to the Israeli people today. It was an historic speech, perhaps the most important in recent memory by an American president. The powerful recognition of Israel's right to exist was important, as well his eloquent and heartfelt recognition of the challenges and the opportunities that Israel faces as it seeks a peaceful and hopeful future,” Jacobs said in the statement.

"I agree with our president that, 'Peace is necessary ... the only path to true security,’” said Jacobs.