Dear friends and family,
I've received so many questions over the last month about Barack Obama, his positions on Israel, and his relationship with the Jewish community. I've been deeply troubled by smears directed at Obama - claiming that he is a Muslim, suggesting that he is anti-Semitic, or implying that he is anti-Israel. On Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with Obama and a small group of Jews in Cleveland, during which Obama answered questions about these smears and discussed a wide range of issues that are critically important to the Jewish community.
Because I think it's important to know where Obama stands on all of this, I wrote up this report.
Please feel free to forward it widely.
Obama walked in the room at Landerhaven banquet hall shortly after 9 a.m. and was greeted with a warm ovation. There were about 100 Jewish leaders in the room, some supporting Obama, some not. Ron Ratner, who organized the event, was the first to speak. He said he had been supporting Obama for eight months, and had literally "given him his first-born son," Matt, who worked on the campaign.
Next to speak was Congressman Robert Wexler, who represents a district including Boca Raton, Florida, with 300,000 Jews. He spoke enthusiastically about Obama, saying he was a "unique person" who would deliver on a "moderate progressive agenda," mentioning health care, the environment, and the economy as key issues. He said Obama was a "stalwart supporter of the state of Israel," with a conviction that Israel needs to maintain its "military advantage." Obama, he said, unequivocally understands "America's heartfelt and long-term friendship with Israel." He cited a letter sent by Obama in January to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urging the U.N. to fully condemn Hamas (In that letter, Obama wrote: "The Security Council should clearly and unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks against Israel, and should make clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against such actions. If it cannot bring itself to make these common sense points, I urge you to ensure that it does not speak at all." (Here's a New Jersey Jewish Standard article about the letter: http://www.jstandard.com/articles/3790/1/Obama-supporters-speak-out%3B-he-writes-to-U.N.-on-Israel)
Wexler also noted that Obama was one of the first U.S. Senators to express U.S. support for Israel during the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. After Obama spoke at a recent AIPAC conference, Wexler said, he sought out Bibi Netanyahu, and the two discussed ways to isolate Iran, economically. (AIPAC has stressed that it is satisfied with Obama's positions on the Middle East; a spokeswoman recently told the New Republic: "Like all the leading presidential candidates, the senator has a strong record on issues of importance to the pro-Israel community.") Wexler noted that Obama is the lead sponsor of legislation, currently pending in the Senate, promoting divestment from Iran. (The legislation would "provide needed information about which companies are supporting Iran's energy industry, clarify that state and local governments have the authority to divest of such companies, and provide legal protection for those governments that wish to do so.") He mentioned an article by New Republic editor Martin Peretz, a staunch and long-time supporter of Israel, arguing that Obama has it absolutely right on Israel. ("Can Friends of Israel -- and Jews -- trust Obama? In a Word, Yes." Read the article here: http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=6bd11ed5-bf80-44a0-b683-a0563e11ab89&k=6923)
Wexler said Obama would promote a two-state solution in the Middle East, and understands that we can not "unilaterally ask Israel to make concessions."
He concluded with a flourish: "Obama had the wisdom of judgment to oppose the Iraq war, and to oppose the nomination of Alberto Gonzales. He fully appreciates that what is needed to be done is to change the ideology of Washington that permitted the war in the first place."
Obama took the podium, and, again, was greeted with a warm ovation. He started by thanking Ratner, and then ackowledged Mark Dann, "your terrific attorney general," and his wife, Alyssa, who were in the audience. He said he was thankful for the "support of so many friends in the Jewish community, dating back to my first days in public life in Chicago." He mentioned the late Chicago businessman and philanthropist Irving Harris as an early supporter, and noted that the "strong support of the Jewish community" in Chicago has been vital to his political success.
Obama next spoke generally about issues of importance to him, including health care, the need for an energy policy that "not only creates jobs and secures our planet but also stops sending billions of dollars to dictators and effectively leads us to fund both sides of the war on terror," and a change in foreign policy, beginning with ending the war in Iraq.
"These changes are founded in a view of the world that I believe is deeply imbedded in the Jewish tradition," Obama said, "That all of us have a responsibility to do our part to repair the world. That we can take care of one another and build strong communities grounded in faith and family. That repairing the world is a task that each of us is called upon to take up every single day."
He then said that he will carry with him to the White House "an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel. The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people ...I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries."
Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it "left a lasting impression on me."
"Seeing the terrain," Obama said, "experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.
"And I know how much Israelis crave peace. I know that Prime Minister Olmert was elected with a mandate to pursue it. I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace. I will strengthen Israel's security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side-by-side in peace and security, with Israel's status as a Jewish state ensured, so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams."
He continued: "I also expect to work on behalf of peace with the full knowledge that Israel still has bitter enemies who are intent on its destruction. We see their intentions every time a suicide bomber strikes, we saw their intentions with the Katusha rockets that Hezbollah rained down on Israel from Lebanon in 2006, and we see it today in the Kasams that Hamas fires into Israel every single day from as close as Gaza or as far as Tehran. The defense cooperation between the United States and Israel has been a model of success and I believe it can be deepened and strengthened."
He went on to say that "the gravest threat ... to Israel today I believe is from Iran," noting that the "radical regime" is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.
"President Ahmadinejad continues his offensive denials of the Holocaust and disturbing denunciations of Israel," Obama said. "He recently referred to Israel as a deadly microbe and a savage animal. Threats of Israel's destruction cannot be dismissed as rhetoric. The threat from Iran is real and my goal as president would be to eliminate that threat.
"Ending the war in Iraq, I believe, will be an important first step in achieving that goal because it will increase our flexibility and credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake: I believe that Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of this war and I intend to change that.
"My approach to Iran," he continued, "will be aggressive diplomacy. I will not take any military options off the table. But I also believe that under this administration we have seen the threat grow worse and I intend to change that course. The time I believe has come to talk directly to the Iranians and to lay out our clear terms: their end of pursuit of nuclear weapons, an end of their support of terrorism, and an end of their threat to Israel and other countries in the region.
"To prepare this goal I believe that we need to present incentives, carrots, like the prospect of better relations and integration into the national community, as well as disincentives like the prospect of increased sanctions. I would seek these sanctions through the United Nations and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the UN, and I believe we will be in a stronger position to achieve these tough international sanctions if the United States has shown itself to be willing to come to the table."
He added: "We have not pursued the kind of aggressive and direct diplomacy that could yield results to both Israel and the United States. The current policy of not talking is not working."
All told, he spoke for about eight minutes. Then, he opened the floor to questions.
The first questioner asked about Obama's affiliation with his church in Chicago, and his Reverend, Jeremiah Wright. The questioner asked if Obama was still a member, noting that Rev. Wright has preached anti-Israel sermons, and that the pastor has a close relationship with Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam.
Obama started by describing his church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, to which he has belonged for 20 years. It's a "very conventional" African-American church, he said. If you go on a given Sunday, you hear gospel music and "people preaching about Jesus."
He then said: "It is true that my Pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who will be retiring this month, is somebody who on occasion can say controversial things. Most of them by the way are controversial directed at the African American Community and calling on them start reading books and turn off the TV set and engage in self help. And he is very active in prison ministries and so forth.
"It's also true that he comes out of the 60s, he is an older man. That is where he cut his teeth. That he has historically been interested in the African roots of the African-American experience. He was very active in the South Africa divestment movement and you will recall that there was a tension that arose between the African American and the Jewish communities during that period when we were dealing with apartheid in South Africa, because Israel and South Africa had a relationship at that time."
Obama said that relationship was "a source of tension" for his pastor.
"So there have been a couple of occasions where he made comments with relation, rooted in that," Obama said. "Not necessarily ones that I share. But that is the context within which he has made those comments."
Obama went on to say that Wright does not have close relationship with Farrakhan.
"I have been a consistent, before I go any further, denunciator of Louis Farrakhan, nobody challenges that." (Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, confirms this. Here is a link to an Anti-Defamation League statement, praising Obama's condemnations of Farrakhan: http://www.adl.org/PresRele/NatIsl_81/5208_81.htm.)
Noting that Farrakhan was given an award, in 2007, by the Church's magazine (for his work on behalf of ex-offenders), Obama said: "I believe that was a mistake and showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community and I said so. But I have never heard an anti-Semitic [comment] made inside of our church. I have never heard anything that would suggest anti-Semitism on part of the Pastor. He is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with."
Obama went on to talk more broadly about the relationship between blacks and Jews, saying: "the point I make is this: that I understand the concerns and the sensitivities and one of my goals constantly in my public career has been to try to bridge what was a historically powerful bond between the African American and Jewish communities that has been frayed in recent years. For a whole variety of reasons. I think that I have served as an effective bridge and that's the reason I have overwhelming support among the Jewish community that knows me best, which is the Jewish community in Chicago."
Then, returning to the question of his pastor, and repeating that his pastor is retiring this month, Obama said: "this is always a sensitive point, what you don't want to do is distance yourself or kick somebody away because you are now running for president and you are worried about perceptions, particularly when someone is basically winding down their life and their career."
(The Anti-Defamation League confirms that there is no evidence of anti-Semitism from Wright. For a recent JTA article examining Obama's positions on all of this, see "ADL leader says Obama has Settled Farrakhan Issue": http://www.jta.org/cgi-bin/iowa/news/article/2008022720080227obamafarrakhandebate.html)
The second questioner asked Obama about emails that have circulated, suggesting he's a Muslim. Obama called the emails "virulent"; they started early in the campaign, he said, and have come out in waves, "magically appear[ing]" in states before primaries and caucuses. They contend that Obama is a Muslim, that he went to a madrass, that he used a Koran to swear himself into the Senate, and/or that he doesn't pledge allegiance to the flag.
"If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim," he said. "We had to send CNN to look at the school that I attended in Indonesia where kids were wearing short pants and listening to ipods to indicate that this was not a madrassa but was a secular school in Indonesia."
The next questioner asked about the reports that Obama's advisors included Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter's national security advisor) and several others perceived as anti-Israel.
"There is a spectrum of views in terms of how the U.S. and Israel should be interacting," Obama said. "It has evolved over time." Obama said that when Brzezinksi was national security advisor, he would not have been considered outside the mainstream of that spectrum. Noting that Brzezinski "is now considered by many in the Jewish community anathema," Obama said: "I know Brzezinski. He's not one of my key advisors. I've had lunch with him once, I've exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce me for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan ... I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally."
He went on to say that the other advisors who he's been criticized for having on his staff are former members of the Clinton administration. He mentioned Tony Lake, the former national security adviser, and Susan Rice, the former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.
"These are people who strongly believe in Israel's right to exist. Strongly believe in a two-state solution. Strongly believe that the Palestinians have been irresponsible and have been strongly critical of them. [They] share my view that Israel has to remain a Jewish state, that the US has a special relationship with the Jewish state."
He then departed, a bit, from the topic of his advisors, and spoke more generally. "This is where I get to be honest and I hope I'm not out of school here," he said. "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress."
He took issue with commentators who suggest that talk of anything less than "crushing the opposition" is "being soft or anti-Israel."
"[If] we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel" in ways that are "non-military," he said, then "I think we're going to have problems moving forward. And that I think is something we have to have an honest dialogue about."
He pointed out that none of the emails about his advisors mention people on the other side such as Lester Crown, a member of Obama's national finance committee, "considered about as hawkish and tough when it comes to Israel as anybody in the country."
"So, there's got to be some balance here," he said. "I've got a range of perspectives and a range of advisors who approach this issue. They would all be considered well within the mainstream of that bipartisan consensus ... in terms of being pro-Israel. There's never been any of my advisors who questioned the need for us to provide Israel with security, with military aid, with economic aid. That there has to be a two state solution, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state. None of my advisors would suggest that, so I think it's important to keep some of these things in perspective. I understand people's concern with Brzezinski given how much offense the Israel lobby has raised, but he's not one of my central advisers."
He then noted that there has been a "fairly systemic effort" by Hillary Clinton's campaign to "feed these suspicions" about his advisors, citing a new Newsweek article documenting the effort. (Read the article here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/114723?from=rss )
The next question was sort of a follow-up. Given your range of advisors, the questioner asked, how would you approach foreign policy decision-making on Israel and the Middle East?
"Well here's my starting orientation," Obama said: "A - Israel's security is sacrosanct, is non-negotiable. That's point number one. Point number two is that the status quo I believe is unsustainable over time. So we're going to have to make a shift from the current deadlock that we're in. Number three, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn't mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues. It also means the Israelis will have to figure out how do we work with a legitimate Palestinian government to create a Palestinian state that is sustainable. It's going to have to be contiguous, it's going to have to work - it's going to have to function in some way.
"That's in Israel's interest by the way. If you have a balkanized unsustainable state, it will break down and we will be back in the same boat. So those are the starting points of my orientation. My goal then would be to solicit as many practical opinions as possible in terms of how we're going to move forward on an improvement of relations and a sustainable peace. The question that I will be asking any advisor is how does it achieve the goal of Israel's security and how does it achieve the goal of sustainability over the long term and I want practical, hardheaded, unromantic advice about how we're going to achieve that."
He added that when he was in Ramallah, he told the Palestinians "you can't fault Israel for being concerned about any peace agreement if the Palestinian state or Palestinian Authority or Palestinian leadership does not seem to be able to follow through on its commitments." With respect to negotiations, he said, "you sit down and talk, but you have to suspend trust until you can see that the Palestinian side can follow through and that's a position that I have consistently taken and the one I will take with me to the White House."
"One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel," Obama continued, "was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It's very ironic. I sat down with the head of Israeli security forces and his view of the Palestinians was incredibly nuanced because he's dealing with these people every day. There's good and there's bad, and he was willing to say sometimes we make mistakes and we made this miscalculation and if we are just pressing down on these folks constantly without giving them some prospects for hope, that's not good for our security situation. There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel. All of you, I'm sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the U.S. pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I'm saying though is that, ultimately, [that] should be our goal -- to have that same clear-eyed view about how we approach these issues."
The next questioner asked what Obama would say to the Jewish community about George Bush and his support for Israel. Obama noted straight off that the Jewish community is "diverse" and "has interests beyond Israel." He said the Jewish community in America has a tradition as a "progressive force" concerned with children, civil rights, and civil liberties.
"Those are values ... much more evident in our Democratic Party and that can't be forgotten."
He said that to the extent some Jews have gone over to the G.O.P, it's been because of Israel. "And what I would simply suggest is look at the consequences of George Bush's policies. The proof is in the point. I do not understand how anybody who is concerned about Israel's security and the threat of Iran could be supportive of George Bush's foreign policy. It has completely backfired. It is indisputable that Iran is the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq. We have spent what will soon be close to a trillion dollars strengthening Iran, expanding their influence. How is that helpful to Israel? ... You can't make that argument.
"And so the problem that we've seen in U.S. foreign policy generally has been this notion that being full of bluster and rattling sabers and being quick on the draw somehow makes you more secure.
"And keep in mind that I don't know anybody in the Democratic Party, and I will say this for Hillary Clinton and I will say this for myself, who has indicated in any way that we would tolerate and allow to fester terrorist threats, that we wouldn't hunt down, capture, or kill terrorists, that haven't been supportive of Israel capturing or killing terrorists. So it's not like we're a bunch of folks asking to hold hands and sing Kumbiya.
"When Israel launched its counterattack against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, I was in South Africa at the time, a place that was not particularly friendly to Israel at the time and I was asked by the press, what did you think? And I said, if somebody invades my country or is firing rockets into my country or kidnapping my soldiers, I will not tolerate that. And there's no nation in the world that would."
At this point, one of Obama's aides told him he had time for one more question. A questioner asked him about press reports that he would consider Sen. Dick Lugar for his administration, given, again, his lack of friendliness toward Israel.
Obama said he was good friends with Lugar, and that Lugar "represents old school bipartisan foreign policy." He said that, among Republicans, Lugar was less ideologically driven, more driven by facts on the ground. After praising Lugar, he said he would "not be so presumptuous" to start talking about his cabinet, given that he is not yet the Democratic nominee.
Obama then decided, since his answer was relatively short, that he would take more questions. I raised my hand, and Obama called on me. I told him that I thought his approach to foreign policy -- negotiating with your enemies - could be powerful, strategically. I said that a few days earlier, I had met with my rabbi in Akron, and mentioned to him that I was going to be here this morning.
"The rabbi asked me to ask you whether you would meet with Hamas," I said.
"The answer is no," Obama said.
"What's the distinction, then," I asked, "between Hamas and Iran?"
"The distinction would be that ... they're not the head of state," he said. "They are not a recognized government ... There is a distinction to be drawn there and a legitimate distinction to be drawn."
"Now, again," he continued, "going back to my experiences in Israel and the discussions I've had with security officials there, I think that there are communications between the Israeli government and Hamas that may be two or three degrees removed, but people know what Hamas is thinking and what's going on and the point is that with respect to Hamas, you can't have a conversation with somebody who doesn't think you should be on the other side of the table. At the point where they recognize Israel and its right to exist, at the point where they recognize that they are not going to be able to shove their world view down the throats of others but are going to have to sit down and negotiate without resort to violence, then I think that will be a different circumstance. That's not the circumstance that we're in right now."
He then turned to the audience to take one more question, about Indonesia (where Obama lived as a child) and the United States' approach to the Muslim world.
Obama said Indonesia represented a good case study. He said Indonesia actually had a very mild, tolerant brand of Islam when he was living there. This existed up through 1997. That year, the Asian financial crisis hit very hard, and Indonesia's GDP contracted by 30 percent. Essentially, a poor country had been hit with a Great Depression. "There was a direct correlation between the collapse of that economy and the rise of fundamentalist Islam inside of Indonesia," he said.
Obama said there is a hard-core group of jihadist fundamentalists in the Islamic world who "we can't negotiate with." He said Richard Clarke, the former chief counter-terrorism advisor in the Bush administration, estimates that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 jihadists worldwide -- "the hard core jihadists [who] would gladly blow up this room." He added, though, that it's a "finite number."
"We have to hunt them down and knock them out. Incapacitate them. That's the military aspects of dealing with this phenomenon ... and that is where military action and intelligence has to be directed."
"The question then is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims who are along a spectrum of belief? Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last 7 years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster. And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women's rights. We will consistently invest in the kinds of educational opportunities for children in these communities, so that madrasas are not their only source of learning. We will consistently operate in ways that lead by example, so that we have no tolerance for a Guantanamo or renditions or torture. Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the Clash of Civilizations is not inevitable."
Obama closed with this: "Now, as I said, we enter into those conversations with the Muslim world being mindful that we also have to defend ourselves against those who will not accept the West, no matter how appropriately we engage. And that is the realism that has to leaven our hopefulness. But, we abandon the possibility of conversation with that broader Muslim world at our own peril."
(After the event, the Obama campaign released a partial transcript to the press. You can find it here: http://elections.jta.org/2008/02/25/obama-reaches-out-to-jewish-leaders/ )
Again, Obama received an extended standing ovation. He had spoken for about 45 minutes. And he was mobbed by well-wishers at the podium. One woman asked him why he was not nearly as specific in the debates. "We have 30 seconds!" Obama said. Another woman said: "It is so refreshing to hear someone think."
When it was my turn, I shook his hand, introduced myself, and told him I had been working hard to defuse the smear campaigns directed at him. "It means a lot," he said. "Thank you."
I asked him if he could give me an autograph for my sons, Meyer and Heshel, and handed him a piece of paper and pen. As he began to write, I started spelling the names. "M-E-Y-E-R," I said, "and Heshel, H-"
But Obama cut me off: "Like Abraham?" he asked.
I was surprised that Obama knew Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Maybe I shouldn't have been. After all, Heschel had marched with Martin Luther King and had been an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War; Heschel was a pious, pluralistic Jew committed to social action. But so few Jews today are even aware of Heschel and his legacy.
I nodded -- Heschel had inspired the naming of our son -- though we spelled it without the "c," something that I forgot, in that moment, to add.
"To Meyer and Heschel," he wrote. "Dream Big Dreams. Barack Obama."
I felt a keen sense, leaving the meeting room Sunday, that the media "storyline" I'd been hearing and reading of late -- that Obama is all eloquence, no substance; that he is a rock star generating a mindless cult of personality -- is itself over-simplistic and false. Obama showed a gut-level understanding of Israel's security needs and the U.S.-Israel friendship. He exhibited a deep sensitivity to the Jewish community's concerns and addressed them, one-by-one. He spoke eloquently and precisely, without notes, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of the complexities of Middle East politics, and a clear-eyed vision of how he would proceed as commander-in-chief.
And he was all the more credible because he did not pander. He knew his audience. He knew not everyone in the room would be satisfied when he said he met with Brzezinski because of his views on Iraq. Not all would agree when he said that we have to allow for a debate in this country beyond the hawkish Likud party position, or when he said a future Palestinian state would have to be contiguous. He said those things anyway - just as he told Palestinians in Ramallah that they would have to give up the right of return. He said them because he believes them. And he believes, ultimately, they would help Israel remain a vibrant and secure homeland for the Jewish people.
Obama clearly understood that he needed to reach out to the Jewish community. That's why he convened such a remarkable meeting, nine days before the Ohio primary. He also understood Jewish leaders needed to feel free to ask the toughest questions in an intimate setting. That's why the event was not on his official schedule; that's why the media was not invited.
But he also knew, or course, that only speaking to those 90 or so people would not be enough. As things
were coming to a close, after he finished taking questions, he turned back to the room one more time. "And go out and write emails, guys," he said.
That's what I'm doing.
I hope you'll join me in doing the same.
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