Given his icy relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is the perception in some quarters that President Barack Obama is not an advocate for Israel or the Jews. That narrative was fueled further this week when language in the authorization for use of military force submitted by the president to Congress listed a few groups threatened by the Islamic State but left out Jews, despite ISIS calling for another Holocaust and one of the Americans beheaded by ISIS being Jewish. But is this the reality?
In both of his election victories, Obama had broad appeal among Jewish voters -- 78 percent in 2008 and 69 percent 2012, and far ahead of his showing among whites in general. The attacks on the president as not being aggressively pro-Israel have generally come from conservative American Jews with deep pockets, including Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolls the Republican Jewish Coalition. The group touts that the “biggest names in the Republican Party” are scheduled to speak at its April leadership meeting, including ex-President George W. Bush, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“Despite the fact that [Obama] has overwhelming support from the vast majority of American Jews, there has been this minority, this core group of American Jews who are politically conservative and vote Republican who have been very critical, both of his stance toward Israel and believing that he is somehow, if not at least hostile to Israel, unsympathetic to Jewish concerns,” said Dov Waxman, a political science professor and co-director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development at Northeastern University in Boston. “Anytime this administration does anything, that feeds into that narrative that Obama is somehow anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, even though his track record, particularly in terms of anti-Semitism, suggests otherwise.” Mainstream Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League have come to Obama’s defense, saying the president shouldn’t be accused of not taking anti-Semitism seriously.
But a spokesman at a Washington, D.C.-based Jewish communications and policy shop who requested anonymity because of the complexities of being critical of Obama while also hoping he becomes a bigger advocate for Israel, said the ISIS war authorization omission is just the latest misstep by Obama. The spokesman pointed out that Obama took heat when he initially characterized the Paris kosher supermarket attack as “random.” Former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino said Obama “owes the Jews of Europe an apology” after his comment. “I don't think [the administration is] anti-Semitic, but there is a broader story," the spokesman said. "All of these incidents on their own are just dumb ‘gotchas,’ but when they add up, people rightly begin to mutter. Incidents like this and incidents like the French supermarket oversight, that reinforces the perception” that the U.S. is insensitive to threats against Jews and Israel.
At Thursday’s State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said just because groups like Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen were listed in the ISIS authorization, “it certainly doesn’t eliminate concern for others,” such as Jews. In case, there are no longer Jewish populations in Iraq and Syria to be threatened by ISIS. Psaki disputed the contention that the administration isn’t sensitive to threats against Jews. “I certainly don’t think [the force authorization is] a reflection of that or intended to be any reflection of that,” Psaki said.
The outrage over the omission of Jews from that section of the language of the authorization is being fanned by U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., a freshman who is the only Jewish Republican in Congress. (Former Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia held that distinction until he was defeated in a primary last year.) Waxman said the fact that Jewish Democrats in Congress haven’t joined in Zeldin’s criticism signals that it’s not a concern for the entire Jewish community.
Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the political arm of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said the ISIS authorization is not on the Jewish community’s radar. “It’s implicit: We know [ISIS doesn’t] like Jews. I think that a number of people are expressing to me right now concern about what’s going on with the Bibi visit,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname while referring to the prime minister's address to Congress next month. “I think the issue is not so much the president of the United States as opposed to the seriousness with which he takes the threat to his own country and Israel,” he said.
Netanyahu arranged the visit to Congress with Boehner, behind Obama’s back. The Israeli prime minister is expected to outline the danger Iran poses to Israel and for the U.S. to adopt a harder line on stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Israel hawks want tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran, but the Obama administration contends such a move would only make Iran more committed to developing nuclear weapons. Some U.S. Jews fear that Netanyahu’s message is being obscured by the politics surrounding his visit, which comes just two weeks before Israel’s elections and is being slammed by Democrats who are calling the speech inappropriate and a slap to Obama.
Abramson said the American Jewish community wants “absolute ability to trust this president that he will assure Israel’s security against Iran. He has committed to doing that in a general sense, but we want to see specifics.”
Obama highlighted his administration's efforts on the issue in his State of the Union address last month. "Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material," he said. "Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran."