U.S. Jewish leaders turning against Obama on Israel
American Jewish leaders who supported the Oslo Accords or have criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are now strongly challenging the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel. It’s the latest sign of a growing consensus in the Jewish community that the president’s vindictive approach toward Israel is unfair and overreaching.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, head of the Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue and the Ramaz Day School in Manhattan, was an early supporter of the left-leaning Israeli party Meimad, and its American equivalent, Shvil Hazahav, which supported the Oslo Accords.
But last week, in an email to his Upper East Side congregants, Lookstein criticized President Obama’s plan for “reassessing the Israel/United States relationship.” Rabbi Lookstein then strongly endorsed an article by syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote “there is zero chance” that a peaceful Palestinian state could be established “now or even soon.” Krauthammer derided “the crushing disappointment of the Obama administration and its media poodles at the spectacular success of the foreign leader they loathe more than any other on the planet. The consequent seething and sputtering are understandable, if unseemly. Blaming Netanyahu for banishing peace, however, is mindless.” Rabbi Lookstein wrote that the Krauthammer column “presents with utmost clarity an assessment of the reassessment. It deserves the attention of all of us.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was outspoken in his criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to address Congress. But this week, Foxman said he is “even more troubled” by the “statements now coming out of the White House calling for a reassessment of policy toward Israel.” While disagreeing with some of the prime minister’s statements and actions, Foxman emphasized “none of this, however, justifies what we are hearing from the Obama Administration. Their reactions raise deeper questions about their intentions and perspectives.”
In a similar turnabout, American Jewish Committee leader David Harris, who has often criticized the policies of the Netanyahu government, told the Jerusalem Post “The fact that the outcome of a Democratic election in Israel seems to be of great concern” to the Obama Administration “is cause for deep anxiety and puzzlement.”
“Whatever the failings of the prime minister, the way this is unfolding runs completely contrary to the spirit of U.S.-Israel relations,” Harris added. “The U.S. appears to have a reasoned interest in prolonging the crisis.”
New York Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt, who is certainly no hawk on Israel, wrote in his post-election editorial that while Prime Minister Netanyahu “has much to be accountable for” in the current state of U.S.-Israel relations, “President Obama is to blame as well.” In a pointed jab at the Obama administration, Rosenblatt expressed concern that “Jerusalem will come under increasing U.S. and international pressure...while the Palestinian Authority, which has consistently rejected every Israeli offer of compromise for decades, gets a free pass.” Rosenblatt concluded that in assessing the choice that Israel’s voters made, “we have to appreciate and respect the decision of those who put their lives on the line. That’s democracy.”
Some mainstream Jewish leaders are even invoking memories of pre-World War II appeasement. In an email discussion group on March 2, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a staunch Democrat and former chairman of the United States Holocaust Museum, wrote that the Obama administration’s deal with Iran “appeases Iran and enables it to arrive at nuclear breakout status. This is a disaster for the Middle East and an existential threat to Israel’s existence.” Greenberg added: “Imagine if the U.S. Congress or the British Parliament had allowed Eduard Benes of Czechoslovakia to speak out against adopting the Munich pact.”
Rabbi Greenberg, who in the past has expressed support for extensive Israeli territorial concessions, wrote that “a lot of the damage” to U.S.-Israel relations is the result of the fact “that the Administration has chosen to blow this up. They have spoken more harshly and delegitimatingly of Netanyahu and Israel than of Iran, a government which is tyrannical, persecutes religious minorities and gays, underwrites terror, crushes and jails opposition and whose two top leaders openly called for destruction of Israel...The President is showing extremely bad and naive judgement.”
Perhaps the strongest words have come from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a former American rabbinical superstar who is now chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Efrat. Over the years, Riskin has on various occasions expressed support for Israeli territorial withdrawals.
In remarks at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem last week, Rabbi Riskin said: “The president of the United States is lashing out at Israel just like Haman lashed out at the Jews.” He compared Prime Minister Netanyahu to the biblical figure Mordechai, who strove to rescue the Jews of Persia from destruction at the wicked Haman’s hand. When a member of the audience accused Rabbi Riskin of being “disrespectful” to President Obama, he replied: “I am being disrespectful because the president of the United States was disrespectful to my prime minister, to my country, to my future and to the future of the world.” He said he was proud of Prime Minister Netanyahu for addressing Congress, “even if it angered Obama.”
The Obama administration’s policy toward Israel has always been anchored in the ability of the president and his advisers to persuade mainstream Jewish leaders that he is genuinely concerned about Israel’s security. This helped ensure Jewish votes for Obama, and a willingness of most Jewish leaders to go along with the administration’s policies—or at least not protest those policies too vigorously.
But the latest statements by both rabbinical and secular Jewish leaders, all of them doves or dovish-leaning centrists, are evidence of a sea change in Jewish opinion. President Obama has gone too far this time, as the growing chorus of protests from the Jewish leadership shows.
Moshe Phillips is president and Benyamin Korn is chairman of the Religious Zionists of Philadelphia, and both are candidates on the Religious Zionist slate (www.VoteTorah.org) in the World Zionist Congress elections.