What Obama did and didn’t say about Ezra Schwartz
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What Obama did and didn’t say about Ezra Schwartz

President Barack Obama listening to reporters' questions during a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., Nov. 24, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama listening to reporters’ questions during a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., Nov. 24, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

How the Obama administration has handled last week’s murder in the West Bank of Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year-old from Sharon, Massachusetts, on his gap year in Israel, has raised painful questions among Jewish Americans upset by his senseless death.

“Obama Silent on Killing of American in Israel: Orthodox Jews Demand Answers” is the subject line of a pitch in my inbox from a publicist acting on behalf of the Orthodox Union.

That email is typical of much of what I see on my social media feeds, coming from across the political spectrum: Allison Kaplan Sommer raised questions about President Barack Obama’s response to Schwartz’s murder in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz.

In fact, Obama, or at least his administration, has not been silent. But how the administration has handled the murder of Schwartz, who was killed along with two other men by Palestinian terrorists, raises legitimate questions.

As happens so often in the Israel-Obama-Netanyahu relationship, fraught with emotion and expectations, some of the questions being asked are weirdly beside the point. They serve to obscure and distract from real questions about discrepancies between the Obama administration’s response to this attack compared to its response to similar acts around the world.

What’s beside the point

Timing: The attack that killed Schwartz occurred mid-morning Thursday Washington, D.C., time, and the teenager’s identity was confirmed mid-afternoon. The Obama administration’s condemnation, emailed to reporters and announced by State Department Deputy Spokesman John Kirby, came mid-afternoon Friday.

There was considerable consternation about the perceived delay (although Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, condemned it almost immediately). Just minutes before Kirby announced the condemnation, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent out a release: “We are deeply disappointed that the United States government has not issued a statement despite the death of an American citizen.”

On Tuesday, Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director, said in an e-mailed statement: “It seemed that neither the president nor his senior aides appreciate how devastating this particular attack was to the American Jewish community – and their slow, and still insufficient, response proves that.”

Yet, the delay is par for the course for administration statements, which are subject to a round robin of reviews by various bureaus and bureaucrats. Anything happening past early morning (9-9:30 a.m.) one day won’t get the statement treatment until the next afternoon, during the briefing, according to former State Department officials I’ve spoken with.

(There are exceptions, such as mass-casualty terrorist attacks – those in Paris and Mali earned immediate comment. But the consternation in this case has been less about how the administration has treated the attack, which was not on the scale of Mali or Paris, than about how it has treated Schwartz’s death.)

“A statement was made at the usual time for making comments or answering questions,” Mike Kraft, a former official with the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau, told me, repeating remarks he had posted on Facebook. “The pronouncements are originally drafted in one bureau or another and then have to be cleared with other parts of the department that are involved, such as the counterterrorism bureau, and the intelligence bureau.”

Consider the Nov. 13 Paris attacks: The revelation that American Nohemi Gonzalez was among the 129 people killed by terrorists came on Saturday evening, according to the CNN alert that popped into my inbox. The administration’s response, by John Kerry, the secretary of state, at a lighting ceremony at the Paris embassy, came almost two days later, on Monday afternoon, D.C. time.

Anita Datar, among at least 19 murdered Nov. 20 in Bamako, Mali, was mentioned, but not by name, by Susan Rice, the national security adviser in a tweet almost a day after the attack and by name on Nov. 22 by Obama in a press conference in Malaysia. (UPDATE: A reader points out that Kerry cited Datar by name on Twitter a couple of hours before Rice, 20 hours after the attack. Another wrinkle: Datar was in Mali as a contractor for the State Department’s development agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development.)

Tone: Sommer in Haaretz and Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst in an open letter posted online by the OU were appalled by Kirby’s rushed reading of the condemnation.

“It is disturbingly shameful in its perfunctory tone and tenor,” Teitelbaum wrote.

Again, this kind of toneless reading is par for the course for administration briefings. Review the first briefing after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, on Nov. 16: State Department Spokesman Mark Toner referred to the “terrible attacks of Friday night” and the “terrible tragedy” like he was reading a menu at a Chinese restaurant.

Briefings are not for emoting, they’re a jousting match between reporters and the modern-day gladiators that are government spokespeople. Toner started the briefing – remember, the first after one of the worst attacks in postwar French history – by joking with visiting student reporters at the back of the room. “These are the people you aspire to be like someday,” Toner told the students, referring to his adversaries among the press corps.

What’s to the point

The bearer: Kirby’s toneless delivery is certainly par for the course, but that’s exactly why he – or any spokesperson – might have been the wrong choice to make the statement about Schwartz’s murder. The delay in first mentioning him was shorter than the delay before mentioning Gonzalez or Datar. But Kerry and Obama made those respective announcements, and they have the status (and know-how) to give condolences genuine feeling.

Kerry, notably, twice mentioned Schwartz in moving terms on Tuesday, during an official Israel visit, and Obama and Kerry on Monday both spoke with Schwartz’s parents.

Kerry, speaking during his meeting with Israeli President Reueven Rivlin, attached poignant significance to Schwartz’s mission when he was killed, delivering snacks to soldiers, and the former Massachusetts senator claimed Schwartz as a native son.

“When citizens can be murdered like Ezra Schwartz, my citizen of Massachusetts, driving in a car on a mission to learn and to share, and when other citizens can be gunned down, and a soldier yesterday, in a marketplace in Jerusalem, this is a challenge to all civilized people.”

What went unsaid: The original statement, delivered by Kirby was:

“We continue to condemn in the strongest possible terms these outrageous terrorist attacks. These tragic incidents underscore the importance of taking affirmative steps to restore calm, reduce tensions and bring an immediate end to the violence.”

Why was there no similar prescription for the violence in Paris and Bamako? Why was the implication that it is incumbent on all parties — including Israel — to prevent the violence that killed Schwartz?

It’s an implication that may explain Obama’s decision in his Nov. 22 press conference in Malaysia to mention Gonzalez and Datar – but not Schwartz, as Sommer points out.

Here are Obama’s remarks from that press conference:

“Today, families in too many nations are grieving the senseless loss of their loved ones in the attacks in France and in Mali. As Americans, we remember Nohemi Gonzalez, who was just 23 years old, a design major from California State University. She was in Paris to pursue her dream of designing innovations that would improve the lives of people around the world. And we remember Anita Datar of Maryland. She’s a veteran of the Peace Corps, a mother to her young son, who devoted her life to helping the world’s poor, including women and girls in Mali, lift themselves up with health and education.

“Nohemi and Anita embodied the values of service and compassion that no terrorist can extinguish. Their legacy will endure in the family and friends who carry on their work. They remind me of my daughters, or my mother, who, on the one hand, had their whole life ahead of them, and on the other hand, had devoted their lives to helping other people. And it is worth us remembering when we look at the statistics that there are beautiful, wonderful lives behind the terrible death tolls that we see in these places.”

The word “senseless” stands out; wasn’t Schwartz’s murder senseless?

Obama, perhaps inadvertently, in his joint press conference Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande, got at some of the distinctions between the attacks in Mali and France, and the one in Gush Etzion, saying:

“It’s been noted that the terrorists did not direct their attacks against the French government or military. Rather, they focused their violence on the very spirit of France — and by extension, on all liberal democracies. This was an attack on our free and open societies — where people come together to celebrate and sing and compete. In targeting venues where people come together from around the world — killing citizens of nearly 20 countries, including America — this was an attack on the very idea that people of different races and religions and backgrounds can live together in peace.”

Was the attack that killed Ezra Schwartz not “on the very idea that people of different races and religions and backgrounds can live together in peace?”

That’s a hard question, both for the Obama administration, and for those Jewish Americans wounded by the distinctions the Obama administration appears to be making. It’s one that deserves answering, not in hints, feints and wounded entreaties, but in open dialogue.