I just briefed President Obama’s call with 900 rabbis. (Nine hundred rabbis walk into a conference call …)
Here’s what I found out:
WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama discussed the Middle East and education policy in a pre-Rosh Hashanah call with rabbis.
Close to 900 rabbis listened in on Obama’s call Thursday afternoon, which was arranged by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. Obama has made such calls since 2009, the first year of his presidency.
He fielded two questions, one about what the changes of the Arab Spring mean for Israel, the other about funding for schools. Obama said the United States was committed to Israel. He noted close U.S.-Israel cooperation and his efforts to isolate Iran as long as it advances its suspected nuclear weapons program.
In remarks obtained by the Washington Jewish Week, Obama said: "The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation for Israel is if we can actually resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis because that’s what feeds so much of the tumult in Egypt. That’s what I think has created the deep tension between Turkey and Israel and Turkey has historically been a friend and ally of Israel’s. That’s why we think direct negotiations are so critical."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said the phone call in addition to Obama’s speech this week to the United Nations created a positive impression.
"He spoke about his commitment to Israel and to peace around the world," Shafran said. In response to concerns expressed about poor funding for schools, Obama agreed and touted his recently unveiled jobs program, which includes a major teacher hiring component.
My Washington Jewish Week colleague Adam Kredo spoke to a listener who took notes. Here’s his scoop:
Asked about the instability in Egypt and what the U.S. can do to ensure Israel’s safety, Obama indicated that a re-ignition of the peace process could cool down the region.
"The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation for Israel is if we can actually resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis because that’s what feeds so much of the tumult in Egypt," Obama said. "That’s what I think has created the deep tension between Turkey and Israel and Turkey has historically been a friend and ally of Israel’s. That’s why we think direct negotiations are so critical."
The president added that "the U.S. relationship with Egypt is centered on their maintaining strong communications and maintaining the peace arrangement with Israel, and they’ve gotten the message."
The threat Iran poses to Israel also came up during the conversation.
"The biggest threat Israel faces from a security perspective is Iran’s nuclear program," Obama said, reminding the rabbis that he leveled harsh sanctions against the Iranian regime.
Conservatives have already seized on this as a signal that Obama blames Israel for, well, everything. Here’s Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, coupling her slam on Obama with one on Clinton for remarks I think have been overblown (I’ll blog in a bit on that:)
Today both former president Bill Clinton and President Obama shot their mouths off on Israel. The president, who’s spent two and a half years misreading the entire region, had this gem, as reported by Washington Jewish Week: “The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation for Israel is if we can actually resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis because that’s what feeds so much of the tumult in Egypt. That’s what I think has created the deep tension between Turkey and Israel and Turkey has historically been a friend and ally of Israel. That’s why we think direct negotiations are so critical.”
Ironically, this bit of Palestinian propaganda — all problems would be solved if they had their state — was told to 900 rabbis on a conference call. Do you think they even understood how ignorant the comment was? We’ve spent nearly a year watching the Middle East engulfed by turmoil having nothing to do with the Jewish state, yet he lays the problems at Israel’s door. (Moreover, if he wanted good billing at High Holy day sermons in Reform shuls, he should have talked about global warming.)
The worst part of all this? Apparently no one in Clinton’s presence (was there no Jew or gentile brave enough?) or among the Tikun-Olam- fantatical (“repair the world” morphs into the Obama campaign platform) rabbi-set (what passes for communal leadership) thought to speak up on behalf of those troublesome Jews? Shameful. Yet American Jews will still, I am sure, mostly vote for their beloved Democratic Party in 2012. It seems to have eluded them that theirs is an abusive, one-way relationship.
I’ll leave it up to you do decide whether Rubin’s account of Obama’s remarks is fair, but one thing is clear: The digs at Reform rabbis make no sense. All streams were on the call, as you can see from the remark by Aguda’s Rabbi Avi Shafran in my brief. Also, it was two questions and Obama had to go, which is par for the course for such calls.
More to the point, Obama is impressing more than just Reform rabbis. This is how Shafran described it to me, coupling the call with the president’s U.N. speech the day before:
The president was his usual eloquent self. [His U.N. speech] was remarkable in its endorsement of a home for the Jewish people — he was putting Jewish history before a body made up of rogues and scoundrels.
Tevi Troy, at the Wall Street journal uses such calls to slam what he says is the politicization of sermons. He cites a Yom Kippur sermon I attended.
In 2009, he invited a group of 1,000 rabbis to discuss his health-care plan and then preach about it afterward. Some certainly delivered. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., for example, gave a Yom Kippur sermon that year entitled "The Jewish Understanding of Health Care: A Moral Imperative," declaring that "working towards health care for all, however that might be accomplished, is a Jewish mandate."
Political sermonizing is a mistake for many reasons. First, the Holy Days are supposed to bring forth a universal message about the unity of the Jewish people, the importance of our shared religious tradition, and the need to rededicate ourselves to observance of the Torah in the year to come.
Then there’s the risk of alienating part of the congregation. Even if you know that 70%-80% of your synagogue votes one way—and public opinion polls suggest that this may be the case in Conservative and Reform synagogues—why risk alienating the other 20%-30%? In many (or most) communities, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only time certain congregants set foot in synagogue that year. Why risk driving them away with a message that could offend?
Furthermore, while it may appear easy to find support for left-wing political positions in the Torah and rabbinical sources, the truth is that the Jewish tradition doesn’t give much guidance on the optimum level of marginal tax rates, Medicare restructuring, or food-stamp funding. To claim otherwise is to give false guidance.
The passages read aloud on the High Holidays each year are filled with the most important problems of the human condition, including Jonah’s attempt to shirk his responsibilities, Hannah’s desperate plea for a child, and God’s testing of Abraham’s faith with the binding of Isaac. All of these stories still resonate today, and skillful speakers can use them to guide congregants.
The mandate of religious leaders is to convey to their communities spiritual encouragement and the wisdom of the ages. For the other stuff, there’s cable news.
Couple of notes for Tevi:
a) Judaism is not a hierarchy. A sermon is between a rabbi and his or her congregants. A rabbi has the "mandate" of the Torah, her conscience and her congregants. And that’s it.
b) Politicization of sermons does not just veer leftwards. Think Israel.
c) Thinking Israel, should rabbis avoid it because the policies of one government or another might be have a consensus of only "70-80 percent" of the congregation?
d) If sermons are not timely, who’s going to listen?
d) Rabbi Schwartzman spoke at a time when universal healthcare was within the American consensus. It is true that since then, the rise of the Tea Party and its open questioning of the need to insure those who refuse insurance has become an issue; back then, the GOP-Democratic argument was over how best to do achieve health care for all (as indeed it was during the 2008 election), not over whether everyone deserved it. And she made this clear during the sermon.
e) I wasn’t taking notes. It was Yom Kippur! But she did tie it into Jonah — and the anxious pains of truthtelling.