Fifteen rabbis go the White House for a meeting. Were the destination not the Roosevelt Room to discuss the nature of American-Israeli relations this could be the opening line of a joke with a punchline I have yet to write. But indeed it was a meeting that was taken very seriously by all who attended. My colleague and friend, Jack Moline of Alexandria, Virginia, arranged the meeting and put together a diverse representative cross-section of rabbis from across the country, from all movements and different kinds of congregations.
The meeting was in response to the increasingly tense, and public, climate of U.S.-Israel relations of late. It was part of an effort to reach out to the Jewish community, which also included in recent weeks, Elie Wiesel’s lunch at the White House, a meeting with Jewish members of Congress, and speeches by Hillary Clinton and others at a number of Jewish organizations to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the US and Israel.
Any time you go into the White House it can be a bit intimidating. When we entered the Roosevelt room the door to the adjacent room was partially open, and the Oval Office was in view. We met with Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff of the President, along with the person responsible for formulating US policy towards Iran, Ambassador Dennis Ross. We were joined in our second meeting by Dan Shapiro, who also works on Middle East issues in the White House. Attending both of our meetings were Susan Sher the Chief of Staff of the First Lady and Danielle Borrin, who are responsible for outreach to the Jewish community.
So what do you say to the people who have the ear of the President of the United States?
I was amazed by how comfortable all 15 rabbis were in openly expressing honest criticism and not shying away from raising difficult and even unpleasant concerns. And I am pleased to report that the 15 rabbis each expressed in his or her voice a unified message on behalf of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Moline opened with a comment, which in its directness reminded me a little of Jay Leno’s question a few years ago to actor Hugh Grant after a particular exploit. He quoted an email that said, “There is something wrong with a man who is more concerned with a Jew building an apartment in East Jerusalem than a Muslim building a nuclear weapon in Tehran.”
That set the tone for the nature of the give and take.
Since I had been away in Israel for the two weeks prior to our meeting and wanted to be sure that I understood the pulse of our community I had sent out an email asking people to let me know what they would want me to convey to the White House. I got an astonishing 75 responses, and remarkably, as I reported to Rahm Emanuel and Dennis Ross, there was an amazing consensus: 72 of them were critical of the Administration.
When I had my chance to speak I raised the disproportionate response of the Administration in singling Israel out for criticism and pressure while giving the Palestinians a pass. I pointed to several specific provocative acts by the Palestinians, indicative of their unrelenting hateful incitement and antagonistic hostility towards Israel and the double standard that Israel must do certain things, while the Palestinians merely need to try to live by certain commitments. In light of the denial by Arafat and the Palestinian Authority of a historic Jewish presence in the Holy Land or Jerusalem, and their having been caught numerous times in outright lies, how could Israel be expected to negotiate with them in good faith?
I reminded our hosts that when the President had thanked the nations of the world for their aid and response to the earthquake in Haiti, Israel was noticeably absent, and that his comment at a press conference about Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons could have been phrased in more reassuring terms.
In our second meeting I asked about Egypt’s push to challenge Israel’s nuclear policy, and reminded them that it is not Israel that has threatened to wipe out its neighbors. I also made reference to the poisonous atmosphere on college campuses today and finally I said that reluctantly I needed to raise, in the open and honest spirit of exchange, the fear that based on recent actions the flurry of emails that circulated in the Jewish community prior to the election questioning the President’s feelings about Israel were accurate.
My colleagues each spoke articulately and passionately and raised concerns about Iran, inappropriate linkage of the Palestinian-Israeli issue to other matters, the need to keep disagreements more private and civil and various other critiques.
Not every point we raised was addressed or answered, but the gist of administration officials’ perspective was that the problem was primarily one of messaging, and that their message was not getting out. They pointed to a number of specific actions taken by the Administration, which show an ongoing commitment to Israel’s security.
As Rahm Emanuel stated, on the major issues the Administration has been steadfast in its support, primarily: on supporting Israel’s admission to the European community, the OECD, on condemnation of the Goldstone Report at the United Nations and elsewhere, on not participating in the Durban conference, and most important of all: on isolating Iran and on matters of defense cooperation. Defense Minister Ehud Barak had just expressed his pleasure with America’s support, including the announcement that the US was going to give $ 205 million to fund half the cost of one of Israel’s missile defense programs, “Iron Dome.”
Dennis Ross pointed out that there had been no change in US policy on these or the other issues, including the building of settlements. He calmly explained that one of the problems with the settlements is that unilateral actions taken by either side undermine trust and thus make progress in negotiations more difficult.
Were we convinced? Were they convinced? Time will tell. I think we are more interested in actions than promises.
We spoke and they listened. They spoke and we listened. And this is as it should be in a democracy. Most important of all, I felt that the system had worked. Rahm Emanuel pointed to the other high-ranking members of the Administration who were in the meeting, all of whom were Jewish, and assured us that if President Obama were not supportive of Israel, none of them would be there.
I cannot judge what is in another man’s heart. I, for one however, am willing to give them and this administration a second chance.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland.
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