Israel, American Jews, and President Obama: Learning to Hear Each Other

Barely two days after returning from leading a congregational mission to Israel, I was privileged this past Tuesday to attend a special session in the White House, with President Obama and some of his closest advisors. The topic was recent developments in the Middle East, their impact on American foreign policy, and more particularly on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The session was organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. As Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I was representing the rabbis of the Conservative movement.

An article on the meeting released yesterday by the JTA led with the following statement: “President Obama reportedly urged Jewish communal leaders to speak to their friends and colleagues in Israel and to “search your souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.”

Allegedly, some of my fellow Jewish leaders said that the President “implied that Israel bears primary responsibility for advancing the peace process,” and that the President’s comments were either “hostile, naïve or unsurprising.” Others perceived a “great hostility towards Israel.”

I sat at the same table as those whose sentiments were quoted above, and participated in the same meeting. I consider myself to be of sound mind and body, fairly knowledgeable about Israel, and as thoroughly committed to her security and survival as anyone I know.

And therefore it saddens me greatly to say that those statements are simply not true. They take little snippets of what the President said and distort them, deprive them of any context, and portray what was a candid and cordial event as an opportunity for the President to vent some imagined anti-Israel animus at American Jewish leadership.

How can it be, I’ve been asking myself these past few hours, that we were all at the same meeting, and came away with such radically different perspectives on what transpired there?

The answer to that question has to be a simple one. Some of my fellow members in the Conference went into that meeting with preconceived notions about the President’s attitude to Israel, notions that they were all too ready to have proven to be true. They heard what they wanted to hear, and emerged even more convinced of the truth of their opinions.

Here’s the problem. They heard what they wanted to hear. But they didn’t listen.

Let me state clearly and unambiguously that I do not agree with everything that the President said. Had he and I been in a private conversation, I would have challenged him vigorously on the validity of some of his assumptions about attitudes in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps, and indeed, he was challenged on some of these points by others at the meeting.

I am unabashedly partial to Israel, and wholly unconvinced that the Palestinian leadership represents anything close to the majority of Palestinians on the street. I have questions. Big questions. Troubling questions.

But at the same time, I think it the height of irresponsibility to report that in our meeting with President Obama on Tuesday, the President displayed anything like the attitudes that I quoted earlier.

From my perspective, what the President did display was thoughtfulness, a keen command of the issues and sensitivities involved, a deep respect for his audience, and an analytical ability to see one of the most complex disputes of our time from a variety of different angles and perspectives.

I must tell you… I found it remarkably refreshing to be spoken to by a politician- and not just any politician, but the President of the United States- in a way that was not canned, or full of applause lines that some speech writer had inserted to guarantee that those in the room would hear what they wanted to hear.

Most of our time together was for questions from the floor. In his brief introductory comments, the President forcefully and eloquently spoke to the unbreakable ties between the United States and Israel, born of the common values shared between two vibrant democracies.

Now more than ever, as so many countries in that region experience unrest and upheaval, those ties are vitally important both to Israel and America. I left with no doubt as to his sincerity in this regard.

But in the Q and A, President Obama did allude to the need for BOTH the Israelis and the Palestinians to realistically come to terms with what will be required for there to be any real chance of peace between the two. Conventional negotiations, he said, are characterized by two sides trying to gain the maximum concessions from each other while giving up nothing. In this instance, both sides need to be able to provide the other with political cover, and that will entail giving the other side some kind of a win.

Both need to realize that any resolution of this dispute will involve compromise that will be painful and costly. And both need to look inward, in recognition of what will be required, and ask themselves how badly they want this peace, and what are they willing to give up for it…

As I said earlier, I have many questions left unresolved. The stubborn persistence of virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda in even those Arab countries that are “at peace” with Israel, the continued glorification of terrorists and jihadists among large portions of the Palestinian population, the dangers of yielding still more land for peace while the memory of what happened in Gaza still is so painfully fresh… yes, I have questions.

But at the same time, I am completely convinced that if Jewish leadership both here and in Israel labels someone (much less the American President) as a soneh Yisrael- an enemy of Israel- simply because he has the temerity to raise difficult and sometimes uncomfortable, “inconvenient truths,” then the Jewish communities of both America and Israel are being poorly served by that leadership. There is ample room for one to be passionately committed to Israel’s security and long-term survival without vilifying those who share those goals, but would achieve them in a manner different from our choosing.

To put it bluntly, we don’t have enough friends in the world to be quite so arrogant and disrespectful to any President of the United States, much less one who is, when all is said and done, a friend. As long there are Jews who believe that a President who doesn’t think and speak like Jabotinsky isn’t a friend of Israel, our greater interest in Israel’s survival is compromised, and so is our influence. As an American, a Jew, and an American Jewish leader, I am completely convinced that we have to be better and more effective at loving Israel than that.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.