The Bottom Line: Obama Speaks Jewish, Republicans Don’t

Obama knew how to touch all the right buttons of his Reform and liberal Jewish audience during his address to the Union for Reform Judaism.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

If I were a Republican watching the live stream of President Obama’s speech before the Reform movement’s biennial convention in Washington on Friday, I would have reached two immediate conclusions: 1. Obama, the consummate campaigner who has been more or less missing in action since his inauguration, is back and 2. Forget about the Reform Jewish vote. He’s got that locked up.

Indeed, they must have been tearing their hair out, the Republicans, to see the audience give wave after wave of ecstatic applause and standing ovations to the man who, as Mitt Romney put it, “threw Israel under a bus” - especially after weeks of having fallen over themselves to express their undying love and uncritical support for the Jewish state. Perhaps there won’t be a sea change in the Jewish vote, they might console themselves after this speech, but let’s hope for a modest stream, or a trickle, at the very least.

The main reason for dampening the Republican hopes, as Obama clearly showed in his masterful manipulation of his all-too-willing audience, was summed up four years ago by the late Reform Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of Chicago’s KAM Isaiah Synagogue. He told the Chicago Jewish News a week before the 2008 elections that “Obama is sort of Jewish in a way. His overachieving is Jewish, his intellectualism is Jewish, even his charisma has a Jewish side. I feel like he's one of us.”

"I like McCain too,” Rabbi Wolf added, referring to Obama’s 2008 Republican rival, “but he ain't one of us." And neither are Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachman, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman or Ron Paul, when you come to think of it.

Obama’s long years and close relationships with his numerous Jewish friends and financial supporters in Chicago were prominently on display in his speech, and he knew how to touch all the right buttons of his Reform and liberal Jewish audience: to say Shabbat Shalom, to speak of the weekly Torah portion, to nod to the Reform youth movement NFTY, to invoke the concepts of Hineni and Tikun Olam, to cite the great Jewish support for the black civil rights movement, to quote such liberal Jewish icons as Louis Brandeis and Abraham Joshua Heschel, to speak tough on Iran, to pledge undying devotion to Israel, to claim that his Administration has done more for Israel’s security than any other and to pointedly remind his audience that, unlike his rivals, he has been focused on the next generation rather than the next elections.

And, in what was probably the most human moment in his speech, to recount the arguments with his daughter Malia over the proper length of skirt that she should wear to the weekly bar and bat mitzvahs to which she is invited.

Midway through the speech, an Israeli friend texted me with his one word critique: “boring”, he wrote. Perhaps that’s because Obama wasn’t aiming his speech at Israelis but at American Jews who - as we’ve all been reminded in recent weeks in the controversy over the Israeli government ads aimed at returning Israeli expatriates - are a breed apart.

After months of relentless and often ruthless Republican attacks on his record and faced with prognostications of pollsters and pundits of the potential Jewish flight from his camp, Obama used his appearance before an excited home crowd to send a clear message to his concerned supporters and to his cocky critics. If one may be so presumptuous as to borrow a famous quote from American naval hero John Paul Jones, Obama’s message was crystal clear: “I have not yet begun to fight”.



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