White House Jewish outreach on steroids
07/17/2009 - 12:30
James Besser

White House Jewish outreach on steroids

Pretty much every Jewish reporter was focused this week on President Barack Obama’s meeting with 16 Jewish leaders at the White House – a presidential performance described as masterful even by some participants uneasy about his evolving Middle East policies and his determination to speak bluntly to Israel about issues such as settlements (read the Jewish Week story on the meeting here).

What’s really interesting is that this meeting was part of an expanded outreach operation that  has boosted Jewish access to the Oval Office and its environs.

“There is engagement with an incredibly broad array of organizations, on so many different issues,” said Hadar Susskind, vice president and Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) – which now sits on two different White House task forces, on poverty and the environment.  “People in the Jewish community aren’t used to having that kind of engagement; with the last administration, engagement was focused much more on the single issue of Israel.”

On the Middle East front,   it’s hardly a surprise that the progressive J Street and Americans for Peace Now,  which  aggressively support administration policy on issues like settlements and is pushing for even greater U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, have become regulars in Jewish outreach calls and meetings.

But even the hardline Zionist Organization of America has been included in some conference calls, although it was conspicuously not invited to Monday’s White House meeting.

On domestic affairs, both major Orthodox groups – Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union – have not seen their access slip since the Bush presidency, even though they are much less in sync with the Obama administration on some of their top issues, starting with public funding for religious institutions.

“Since the administration arrived, our access, which started off on good footing, has been steadily increasing,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, the Agudah Washington director.  “I can’t say we’ve been invited to every meeting, and I wouldn’t expect to be. But I have not had problems having meetings and making contacts with people I need to. I feel that there’s an openness to having the Agudah there and listening to its concerns.”

The revamped administration faith based office – which some liberal groups wanted dismantled – has “turned into a very potent avenue of access for a lot of organizations,” Cohen said.

At the same time, progressive groups like the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW)  are enjoying vastly greater access than during the Bush years.

Part of this expanded, reenergized outreach is undoubtedly  a function of an administration that knows it faces political dangers as it cranks up its aggressive Mideast peace efforts.  Giving a broad range of groups input on domestic issues may be a way of tempering criticism on the foreign policy playing field.

But it also reflects a president who actively sees differing points of view as he formulates policy, an attitude that seems to pervade his administration.

The high levels of access and outreach also reflect a vastly expanded and increasingly sophisticated approach to a number of groups, especially in the religious community, administration watchers say.

For the Jewish groups, the paradox is obvious:  pro-Israel leaders may be increasingly anxious about where the administration is heading on Middle East issues, but more organizations  – including some of the same groups whose leaders have gripes on Mideast policy – are working closely with the administration on key domestic issue than ever before.

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