Obama Takes on the 'Kishke Question'

Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, which offered a good opportunity for President Barack Obama to strengthen ties with U.S. Jewish community leaders. On Tuesday the president attended a meeting of some 20 Conservative Jewish community leaders with White House chief of staff Jack Lew. According to the transcript of the meeting provided by the White House, Obama thanked the rabbis and lay leaders for the work they do to improve communities around the country and discussed their shared commitment to rebuilding the U.S. economy. He also "reiterated his unshakable commitment to Israel's security and steps his administration has taken to enhance it - including unprecedented security cooperation and the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran."

When the talk turned to Israel, Obama joked that Lew always warns him that sooner or later, "the kishkes question" will come up.

"I am not going to tell you again how I feel about Israel," he said, reminding his guests that "all [my] friends in Chicago were Jewish" and that at the beginning of his political career he was accused of being a puppet of the Israel lobby. In the Senate, he said, his support for Israel's military edge over its enemies was unwavering. Obama said that people doubted his support for Israel because of the differences between a center-right government in Israel and a center-left administration in the United States - because he pressed Netanyahu too hard with his insistence that it was time to seize the moment and pursue a peace initiative. He wondered why no one asks speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner or Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell about their support for Israel.

Serious and thoughtful

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization of Conservative rabbis, told Haaretz after the meeting that she didn't feel Obama's tone was influenced by the elections. "It was serious and thoughtful," she said. "It was a very wide-ranging discussion about domestic issues, the need of our country to come together, basic values, education, geostrategic partnership with Israel, sanctions against Iran. We thanked the administration for its very strong efforts."

In the meeting with Obama, two Israeli issues that attendees of the meeting have been following closely did not come up: the violent protests against the African refugees in south Tel Aviv and the announcement that Israel recognizes Reform and Conservative rabbis and will fund their salaries.

"The decision of the attorney general is an important first step - but a modest first step", Schonfeld said. "It reminds me of the civil rights struggle in the US - in Israel it's the same fight for basic civil rights. And the struggle for civil rights in a democracy goes piece by piece. Looking down the road, how would success be defined? Success would mean an opportunity for all kinds of vital and meaningful Jewish expressions to grow in Israel, and for a religious community to identify its leaders according to its conscience. And for that community to have the same support that any other religious community is entitled to. The struggle for religious freedom in Israel cannot hide behind any screen or fig leaf. It's very out there in the public."

On the Hatikva neighborhood protests, U.S. Jewish leaders reacted with reproach for Israeli political leaders who incited to racism and violence.

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman said in a statement that "while we recognize the complexity involved in properly addressing this issue, and sympathize with Israeli citizens whose personal security has been compromised by the lawlessness and violence of some migrants, we are disturbed by inflammatory public statements made by certain Israeli officials, some of which has veered into racism. These statements are counterproductive and only serve to further inflame tensions."

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs said Israeli authorities "must see that this vulnerable population, some of whom were forced from their homes by politically and racially motivated persecution, is fully protected and legitimate requests for asylum by refugees should be respected according to internationally accepted norms."

'Extremely disturbing'

Schonfeld said "it was extremely disturbing and distressing to see that in a neighborhood in Israel such a thing could happen - that individuals would express their anger violently against refugees. The government must protect those who are threatened and through a political process make determinations about very difficult issues. It is difficult for a small country to meet the needs of millions of people in the region who would love to live in the Israeli democracy. As much as the struggle for religious freedom goes on in the country, at the same time Israel is the sole beacon of democracy in the region, and she is surrounded by countries where millions and millions of people are victims of their own government.

"Still, the Israeli government has to convey messages of decency and respect," Schonfeld stressed. "It's complicated, because when you have people who come there starving - they steal food. And that's completely understandable - but not by the person whose house has been broken into, and it's a big job for the government to convey these messages to the Israeli public consistently so the riots won't break out." The White House's reception Wednesday marking Jewish American Heritage Month came on the heels of a Jewish-related controversy set off by Obama the day before. In a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, Obama described the heroics of posthumous recipient Jan Karski, a Polish Catholic resistance fighter during World War II. "Before crossing enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring the world to take action."

The reference to a "Polish death camp" infuriated Poland's government, and the White House was compelled to say the president "misspoke" himself. But history is a delicate topic, and Jewish reactions all over the blogosphere insisted that shouldn't be that angry, given their actions before, during and even after the Holocaust.

William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that while Poles were victims of Nazi atrocities and many died in death camps during the Nazi occupation, he thinks "Poles doth protest too much about this 'controversy.' Hiding behind the crimes of the Nazis does not lessen the fact that Polish anti-Semitism has hundreds of years of murderous history. Pogroms occurred before the Nazis occupied Poland, and they occurred after the Nazis were defeated. While there are many enlightened Poles today who speak out vehemently against crimes committed against the Jewish people, there are still too few who condemn continuing acts of anti-Semitism, such as the very popular Radio Maryja, which for twenty years has spewed hatred against Jews."

President Barack Obama talking at White House reception for Jewish Heritage Month. Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya

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