During Hol HaMoed Pessah, I received a phone call from a colleague, Rabbi Jack Moline with an unusual request. He explained that he is friend and rabbi of the President’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, with whom he had recently shared a seder. They had discussed the ‘slippage’ of support for the president among American Jewish voters, given diplomatic events between Israel and the White House. Mr. Emanuel asked Rabbi Moline to assemble a diverse group of rabbis to visit the White House to discuss the current status, perception, and truth about US-Israel relations. My name was on the list of people to get invited. Would I go?
How could I not?
There wound up being two meetings in the West Wing between our group of fifteen American rabbis and senior administration officials. We came from various parts of the country and spanned the denominational spectrum. It was remarkable to me that rabbis from three different movements were meeting in the White House with four senior White House officials – all Jewish. What made our meetings so powerful and challenging was the fact that all parties were honest, frank, and open.
In reflecting on these meetings, I began to frame the conversations in light of a first-century rabbinic text referring to Rome where Rabban Gamliel said: “Be wary of the government for they befriend a person only for their own advantage.”
One member of my community has already accused me of “being used.” While I certainly don’t agree, I do believe we have gained a deeper understanding of what his happening between Washington and Jerusalem. I believe our meetings proved that the administration is listening and is concerned about US-Israel relations. As I would with whoever sits in the Oval Office, I am cautiously optimistic and believe we have very good support in the White House but we must remain ever vigilant that the US-Israel relationship is a close one.
Since the supposed rift between Israel and the US, administration officials have made a variety of statements to prove that there is no separation between the two countries. Throughout the Presidential Cabinet, everyone was reading from the same playbook as they discussed policies and actions. More than words, actions always speak loudest. Our delegation made quite clear to the administration that hearing President Barack Obama himself, speak of the commitment to Israel would go a long way. We expressed the need for the president to visit Israel and speak to the Israeli populace. If Obama nurtures his relationship with Israelis, it would make a favorable impression on the American Jewish community.
Behind the scenes, there is much happening to which we are not privy. We know the US is deeply committed to isolating Iran, removing the American footprint from Iraq, and developing direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. America takes this approach not only because it makes sense for American policy, but also because it would hopefully lead to peace for Israel.
ULTIMATELY, I believe American Jews want to support Obama. There has been a lot of misinformation, some of which came up in our meeting. The administration knows that it needs to get perception to meet reality and it is working on that gap. Perhaps we were befriended for just that reason. But in order to learn the truth, I don’t mind becoming friends.
The administration officials with whom we spoke are deeply committed to the president and I gather only feel comfortable working for him knowing how deeply committed he is to Israel’s safety and security.
Many Jews fear that Obama does not have Israel deep in his heart. He might not. But we need the president – and all Jews – to have Israel not just in our hearts and souls, but in our minds as well in order to deal intelligently with the problems facing Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East.
There is no question that the president has Israel clearly on his radar.
He has had senior staff spend over two hours with 15 ‘random’ rabbis to
hear our and our congregants’ thoughts. The administration is working
closer with Israel – particularly on the military front – in ways that
Defense Minister Ehud Barak described as “never having been stronger”.
Another sage from the first century, Rabbi Hanina said, “Pray for the
welfare of the government, since but for the fear of it, men would
swallow one another alive.”
I think the fear expressed by many in the American Jewish community
(including by leaders like Elie Wiesel) has been addressed by the
administration. But we, as Jews, worry that the world will eat us alive
if governments like the US are not vocally and physically supportive of
Israel’s right to exist. And so I close with words from the Pslamist who
said: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you enjoy
tranquility. May there be peace within your walls, tranquility in your
We can hope, pray, and continue to lobby as I had the great privilege
and honor to do. I only hope that President Obama hears our voice and
begins to speak and move more openly toward personally nurturing that
relationship with Israel.The writer has served as the spiritual leader for Congregation Emanuel of Winston-Salem since July, 2001. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati, OH) in 1998 and is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is blessed with a loving wife, Marsha, and two children: a son, Eitan, and daughter, Harli.
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