WASHINGTON – The extent to which American Jewish organizations favor an “even-handed” approach to the Middle East – one in which they show equal affection for the US and Israel – seemed to take a hit this past week.
As a dispute raged between Washington and Jerusalem, several mainstream Jewish organizations came down strongly on the side of Israel.
Some used neutral language, and groups on the left praised the US’s strong public criticism of Israel’s approval of 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s trip last week.
Biden “condemned” the move, the strongest diplomatic language available, and once he returned – and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had apologized for what he called a bureaucratic error of which he had no advance warning – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials then called Israel’s actions an “insult” and questioned its commitment to the US-Israel relationship.
Others though, chided Israel for poor timing with the approval of the housing, but still made it clear that they felt the fault lay with the Obama administration.
The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the box, as national director Abe Foxman declared that “to raise the issue again in this way is a gross overreaction to a point of policy difference among friends.” He also said in a statement distributed to the media, “We are shocked and stunned at the administration’s tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem. We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States.”
Soon a host of other groups joined in. The American Jewish Committee said it was “deeply concerned” by “the sustained harsh criticism of Israel by senior administration officials,” while The Israel Project asked, “Shouldn’t American leaders save the word ‘condemned’ for terrorists and for Iran’s dangerous nuclear program?” B’nai B’rith International expressed its “dismay” at the “incessant negative attention and harsh language” being employed.
Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which usually works behind the scenes and avoids public attacks on the White House, issued a high-profile rebuke.
“The Obama administration’s recent statements regarding the US relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern,” the lobbying group said in a widely distributed statement. “We strongly urge the administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel, in a manner befitting strategic allies, to address any issues between the two governments.”
“I can’t think of anything of this magnitude, certainly in recent memory,” said Jewish Federations of North America Washington director William Daroff of the public criticism of a US administration from Jewish groups. His own organization avoided any assignment of blame, instead saying, “The American Jewish community has united to encourage the United States and Israel to jointly resolve any tensions.”
“It was important for Jewish organizations to respond, and the fact that so many responded indicates that there is a consensus here about the harshness of the language and what would appear to be the [extreme] anger that was being expressed... and that it was unfair,” Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said of the administration.
He also warned about the “collateral” as well as bilateral damage, with elements ranging from moderate Arab states to terror groups “who can only take comfort in a public row.” As another Jewish leader, speaking anonymously, put it, “We had to stand up for Israel, and constituents at Jewish organizations who are aghast for the most part at the provocation by the Obama administration and are demanding that their national leadership speak out.”
Longtime Jewish Washington insider Doug Bloomfield suggested that that constituency has a political bent that leans away from the White House: “They are responsive to a very conservative donor base,” one which has never been positively disposed toward Obama and is more than happy to be critical of his administration.
AT THE very least, many Democrats are not pleased by the Jewish outpouring. The National Jewish Democratic Council put out a statement taking aim at the Republican Jewish Coalition and GOP politicians who have used the discord to bash the Obama administration. But the NJDC was also clearly less than thrilled with the criticism from the mainstream Jewish organizations as well.
“Some are engaging in over-the-top rhetoric for partisan gain, while others are speculating wildly or assuming facts not in evidence,” the statement read. “Some Jewish organizations have used inflammatory rhetoric, while at least a few politicians have engaged in purely partisan attacks of the worst kind.”
The organization also argued that releasing public statements only stoked the conflict, rather than helping it die out: “Now is the time for cooler heads to prevail, and for close friends to discuss how to strengthen this critical partnership directly and privately.”
But Mariaschin said his group’s statement and other like it were aimed at tamping down the tensions, just as the NJDC directed. And he expressed his hope that the public outcry would be taken in the manner in which it was intended.
“I would hope that administration would be the response as stemming from our dedication to the ideal of having as close as possible relations between our two countries,” he said.
But another American Jewish leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, thought the groups were taking a considerable risk.
“Any sort of criticism of the president doesn’t come lightly for most Jewish organizations,” he said. “Any time you criticize anybody you take a risk,” especially the leader of the free world.
Bloomfield contended, though, that part of the reason Jewish groups felt free to speak out was that Obama’s presidency had been weakened.
“I think they have a lot more latitude to go after Obama because right now he’s in a difficult time,” he said. Obama’s approval ratings have sunk below 50 percent in some polls, and he is struggling to convince his own party to pass his signature health care legislation.
The Jewish leader speaking anonymously agreed that Obama’s falling popularity, especially among a pro-Israel community already skeptical of his moves on Israel, contributes to the willingness of groups to speak out.
In contrast, he noted, “To a large degree for the first year of the administration, the pro-Israel organizations were silent, giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who was then a very popular president.”
Bloomfield compared the current flap to the last major run-in between the two countries. He came up with the tempers that flared between former president Bill Clinton and, as it happens, Netanyahu, when the latter resisted signing the Wye Accords during his first term.
On that occasion, Bloomfield can’t recall American Jewry piling on in criticism against the president, in part because Clinton was a very popular president.
In contrast, he asserted that Obama “might have gotten 78 percent of the Jewish vote, but he does not have a real strong base of support in the Jewish community and there’s a feeling that he hasn’t handled the account well,” adding that “the fact the he doesn’t have a really strong base in the Jewish community makes him vulnerable to attack by his critics and it nurtures those attacks of his critics – does he really love us?”
Biden’s trip, of course, was supposed to answer that question firmly in the affirmative. A White House official told The New York Times
that the housing approval “undermined Biden’s entire trip.” But a lot of leaders of the American Jewish community would say that it was instead the Obama administration’s reaction after Biden’s return that put the nail in the coffin.