WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 (JTA) — Buoyed by an election victory on the strength of faith and values, President Bush began selling his second-term agenda to a Jewish community that is aligned with him on some issues but largely against him on others. Bush spent more than an hour meeting with a diverse group of rabbis Thursday, part of his annual Chanukah celebration. Bush said little new in the meeting about his objectives for the next four years, but articulated his agenda in a concise manner that could appeal to the Jewish community, participants said. “More than when I heard him in a public forum, I was able to get a clear sense of his ideas and faith that underpins him,” said Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, a Reform rabbi with the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. In particular, Bush stressed the need for the Palestinians to build democratic institutions before achieving an independent state, and stressed that the United States would support Israel when it takes military action to defend its citizens, participants said. He also reiterated his commitment to supporting faith-based initiatives, saying government should not discriminate against faith. President Bush made faith and values a cornerstone of his re-election campaign this year. While he garnered more Jewish votes than in 2000, many American Jews remain concerned about conservative values shaping White House policy. Bush met some resistance when he said his victory showed that a majority of the United States wants to return to values, wholesomeness and efforts to combat moral degradation. Perlmeter questioned that, saying one could perceive Bush’s views as intolerant, suggesting that those who didn’t support him aren’t motivated by values or are not wholesome. Bush quickly apologized, saying he understands that Democrats — explicitly naming his presidential opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts — also are driven by values. “I gave him the credit that it wasn’t his intention, but I was giving the example of how easily we can cross the line into intolerance,” Perlmeter said. The exchange arose as Bush made the case for his faith-based initiative program. He told the rabbis it was not the government’s place to bring religion to people, but that religious organizations do good work and can change people’s hearts. Several prominent Jewish organizations oppose faith-based initiatives, concerned that federal funding for religiously based social service programs violates the separation of church and state and will promote proselytizing. Orthodox groups back the program. Bush said the democratic process is the best defense against abuse of the program. He also stressed the need for the Palestinians to become more democratic, saying that democratic institutions — specifically, freedom of speech — must be put in place before a state is created. “He wants to see democracies established throughout the Middle East,” said Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, founder of the Hineni Heritage Center. Bush said that if a democratic Palestinian state still doesn’t live peacefully next to Israel, the Jewish state has the right to defend itself, and its efforts would receive U.S. backing. Many Jews credit Bush with standing strongly behind Israel in his first term, leading more Jews to back Bush in November’s election. At one point, Bush polled the room to gauge how the rabbis viewed anti-Semitism in the United States, and seemed taken aback that some see it as a problem. Several rated it a three or four on a scale of one to 10. “That surprised him, but it may have been important for him to hear it,” said Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. “He didn’t argue with it.” Bush said he felt anti-Semitism in Europe was a seven or eight on the scale, and pledged to continue working with European leaders to combat the problem, participants said. He also discussed the human rights crisis in Sudan, saying that for some issues there aren’t necessarily military solutions. Bush also said Saudi Arabia understands it still has work to do to combat terrorism within its borders. The White House has faced criticism from some Jewish leaders for choosing to meet with a hand-picked group of rabbis rather than appointed heads of Jewish organizations. Thursday’s meeting included predominantly congregational rabbis, many of them from swing states in the election. Some well-known names were present, including Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles; and Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University in New York. No Conservative rabbis were in attendance, a source of frustration for Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If he really wanted to find Conservative rabbinical leadership, it would not have been hard,” Epstein said. “I assume they made a conscious decision not to invite leaders from the Conservative movement.” Epstein said he did not know if any Conservative rabbis had been asked to attend but could not. White House officials wouldn’t say how rabbis were selected to attend. The meeting was part of a day of Chanukah celebrations at the White House. On Thursday afternoon, President Bush helped the children of the senior Jewish chaplain in Iraq light the White House menorah. “The Talmud teaches that the menorah lights should perform no function other than to proclaim the miracle of a just and loving God,” Bush said at the candle lighting. “Every generation since Judah Maccabee has looked on these candles and recalled the sacrifices that are made for freedom. And in every generation, these lights have warmed the hearts of those not yet free.” The White House also threw its annual Chanukah party. The event included an exuberant Jewish a capella group, Kol Zimra, which spurred attendees to start dancing the hora on the floor of the State Room. About 30 people also davened in the Red Room, participants said.
Bush holds Chanukah celebration