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July 31, 2009

The Chutzpah of Obama’s Jewish Critics

Listed in: Israel, Other Foreign Policy, Stop the Smears, NJDC News, Opinions

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post and The Huffington Post

By Marc R. Stanley, Chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC)

President Barack Obama and his administration have undertaken an unprecedented effort to reach out to the Jewish community. The president has made moving the Middle East toward peace a priority and has spoken of the “unbreakable” bond we share with Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons “futile” and this week Obama had some of the most senior foreign policy figures in his administration meet with top Israeli officials—in Israel. Yet, there are still those in our community who leap at any chance to attack the president, including an op-ed in this week’s New York Times, “Why Won’t Obama Talk to Israel?” by Aluf Benn.

First, it is important to bring perspective to the distinct minority, albeit vocal, group of individuals in our community who remain unhappy with our president. Despite this group’s extraordinary efforts to smear Obama in the Jewish community during last year’s campaign, the president received 78% of the Jewish vote. The media has much experience over-hyping the man-bites-dog Obama-has-a-Jewish-problem story, but at some point Obama’s actual record ought to beat out salacious copy.

The small anti-Obama wing of the Jewish community has long found refuge in websites like American Thinker where their fictional understanding of the Obama presidency is confirmed (a representative title: “Obama’s hostility to Israel is clear”). But there are some times when elements of their argument spill into more respectable platforms such as the opinion pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.

One cannot get past the title of Benn’s op-ed in the Times without being struck by the question he poses: “Why Won’t Obama Talk to Israel?” Benn asserts, “neither the president nor any senior administration official has given a speech or an interview aimed at an Israeli audience.” He then dramatically writes, “The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we [Israel] got silence.”

Beyond the notion that Obama happened to be standing in front of an Arab audience, it is hard to understand how Benn misses the fact that Obama was not only speaking to the people in the room. In this digital world with the power of Internet and a 24/7 news cycle, the president was addressing all of us—including Israel. This was especially true when the president spoke clearly and powerfully about America’s unbreakable bond with Israel in front of that Arab audience. The message to Israelis from the Cairo speech was clear: you do your part for peace and I’ll pressure the Arab states to do the same. Meaning, Obama is not going to rely on the political playbook of platitudes when dealing with Israel and her neighbors; the president is interested in rolling up his sleeves and moving the process forward.

If Benn did not hear that Obama aimed elements of his Cairo speech to Israelis, he was not listening.

What may speak louder than Obama’s words are his actions. This week, as the ink of Benn’s op-ed was still drying, the president sent Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense; General Jim Jones, National Security Advisor; and George Mitchell, Middle East Special Envoy to talk with their Israeli counterparts. They spoke about important issues ranging from the U.S. policy against Iranian nuclear proliferation to the continuing strategic partnership between our two governments. We now see numerous media reports reflecting the reality that this administration will couple any settlement deal with sharp pressure on the Arab world to normalize relations with the Jewish state. The fact is that the Obama administration is not only talking with Israelis, they are intensely collaborating and communicating in person.

No one can credibly claim that Obama and his administration are not talking with Israel. In fact, Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu face-to-face about settlement growth. This administration is talking with Israel about the wide range of policies on which we agree—and also including those precious few areas on which we disagree.

Benn also attacked some of Obama’s most senior advisors, who also happen to be Jewish. ”[T]he president has fallen under the influence of top aides—in this case Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod—whom the prime minister has called ‘self-hating Jews,’” he wrote. That may be a compelling anecdote, especially since the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, for which Benn is the Editor at Large, broke that story. The only problem is that it isn’t true. Netanyahu’s spokesman had to correct the record when he denied those remarks and said, “The prime minister never spoke those words.”

I understand that we in the Jewish community can be a bit paranoid at times, but to say this administration does not support and communicate with one of our closest allies is to disregard reality. Obama, his pro-Israel policies, and the president’s pro-Israel advisers continue to receive strong support in the Jewish community. This administration has made an unprecedented effort to engage this community and has placed the pursuit of Middle East peace high on the agenda.

The long-term security of Israel will only be fully ensured if peace is achieved. The president has made clear that the road to peace is difficult, but Obama is working hard to make that day come. However, there will still be those who have the undying chutzpah to attack the president for not being engaged or sufficiently supportive of Israel. I urge them to actually listen to what the president is saying and watch what he is doing—they might be surprised.