WASHINGTON - The first-ever Jewish America Heritage Month celebration at the White House on Thursday underscored the Obama administration's determination not to be locked into Washington's conventional notions of Jewish leadership.
President Obama did not exactly snub the usual suspects who have peopled similar events for decades. There was Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and there was Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Both also happen to have been major fund-raisers for Obama’s campaign, as were several others among the 250 or so in attendance.
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But the image that the White House sought to convey was one of Jewish
America not necessarily bound to the alphabet soup of the Jewish
organizational world and of pro-Israelism. Instead, Obama presented an
array of Jewish heroes and celebrities who pronouncedly defied Jewish
Obama referred also to "the countless names that we don't know -- the
teachers, the small business owners, the doctors and nurses, the people
who seek only to live honestly and faithfully and to give their children
more than they had."
The reception was in the works for months, and planning predated the
tensions between Israel and the United States precipitated in early
March when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem
during an official visit there by Vice President Joe Biden, who also was
at Thursday’s reception.
Still, the White House’s message was timely: Obama would not be
second-guessed by his pro-Israel critics on his friendship to the Jewish
community and to Israel. The reception included a traditional reference
to the "unbreakable" Israel-US alliance dating back to within minutes
of Israel's establishment.
Jewish values, Obama said, "helped lead America to recognize and support
Israel as a Jewish homeland and a beacon for democratic values --
beginning mere minutes after its independence was declared. In fact, we
have the original statement by President Harry Truman on display here
Obama also made it clear, however, that he sees the alliance as part of
America's strategy of outreach to the world.
"My administration is renewing American leadership around the world --
strengthening old alliances and forging new ones, defending universal
values while ensuring that we uphold our values here at home," he said.
"In fact, it’s our common values that leads us to stand with allies and
friends, including the State of Israel.”
The dual message -- closeness to Israel coupled with global outreach --
has characterized the recent "charm offensive" launched by the White
House in the wake of the recent tensions with Israel. Obama is hosting
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next Tuesday, and the signs
are that it will be a higher-profile reception than the
thief-in-the-night encounter the two had when tensions were at their
highest in March.
But the president is also hosting Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas on June 9, and in both cases Obama has made it clear that
he wants to advance the "proximity" talks currently underway to direct
It's a message that his administration is taking to Jewish audiences,
and aggressively. His top Middle East negotiator, George Mitchell, this
week chose a fund-raiser for the Jewish Primary Day School of the
Nation's Capital to delicately advance a subtle but substantial shift in
U.S. policy. Mitchell, who rarely addresses such forums, likened Hamas,
the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip, to Irish Republican
hardliners during his five years negotiating the Northern Ireland peace.
Like Hamas, the hardliners did not accept the fundamental principles of
the peace talks, but Mitchell eventually broke down their resistance
"Everyone is welcome as long as they are prepared to accept" the
principles of recognizing Israel and swearing off terrorism, Mitchell
said. He did not say what incentives, if any, he had to offer Hamas, but
the expectation that he could wear Hamas down is new. Bush
administration policy was to theorize that Hamas would be welcome if it
changed colors, but to operate on the practical assumption that it was
incapable of doing so and to instead machinate Hamas’ replacement with
Mitchell was just part of what seems a never-ending effort in recent
weeks to simultaneously stay on message but to win over the Jewish
community: Laura Rozen of Politico this week reported that Robert
Wexler, a former Florida congressman who has a high Jewish establishment
profile and whose views on peace coincide with Obama's, is under
consideration to be the US ambassador to Israel. Jewish federation
leaders who flew in from across the country for a Jewish Federations of
North America briefing got meetings with some of Obama's closest
advisers, including Mitchell and Dennis Ross, the top Iran policy
official at the White House.
The administration's Jewish Heritage Month festivities amounted to a
bald emotional appeal to Jewish soft spots: The National Archives ran a
session on stereotype-defying Jews in the military during the Civil War.
The Library of Congress celebrated Jewish comediennes.
Nowhere were the emotions more in evident -- yet more controlled -- than
at the White House reception.
The Heritage Month was established after legislation passed in 2006 by
Rep. Debra Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), then a freshman in Congress. In
subsequent years, Jewish Democrats fumed that President George W. Bush
did nothing more to mark the month than issue a proclamation. After such
griping, it raised eyebrows last year when Obama did not mark the
month, so Thursday's reception was seen as inevitable. When Obama
pronounced this the "first-ever" such reception, Wasserman Schultz
leaned back in her chair and beamed at her congressional colleagues.
Rabbi Alyssa Stanton of Greenville, N.C., the first black woman rabbi,
read the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. When
she smiled and raised her arm to pronounce, "Give me your tired, your
poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," there was a gasp: A
descendant of immigrants brought to America in chains was celebrating
those who fled bondage and sought its freedom.
Regina Spektor, the "anti-folk" singer who performed on a grand piano,
presented a similar contrast: An alternative music favorite of New York
cosmopolitans who refuses to shake off her provincial roots as the
little 9-year old refusenik who came here in 1989 and who famously told
New York magazine when her career was taking off: "The Jewish question - it still exists."
Spektor had to breathe deep before starting. Prodded by a nod and a grin
from Michelle Obama, she attacked her first song, "Us," with lyrics
suggestive of Jewish frustration at coping with how others define Jews:
“They made a statue of us and put it on a mountaintop/ Now tourists come
and stare at us, blow bubbles with their gum, take photograph, have
There were military veterans, guided to their seats by servicemen in
white dress uniforms. There were athletes, including Darra Torres, the
five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose son snapped a photo of her
with Obama. ("Can you beat your mom yet?" Obama shouted at the
strapping teenager, who murmured "No.")
Jewish astronauts were invited, a White House official said, but none
could make it - although one, Garrett Reisman, carried Obama's
proclamation into space aboard the last mission of space shuttle
Atlantis, which returned to Earth this week.
There were establishment journalists, like Roger Cohen and Thomas
Friedman of The New York Times, but there was also Heeb publisher Josh
Newman, and Doug Bloomfield, an irreverent Democrat who has for years
been excoriating conservatives in Jewish weeklies. There was Michael
Adler, the Florida philanthropist and vice chairman of the board of
trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, but there was also
Eli Winkelman, the college student who founded Challah for Hunger, which
brings students together to bake challahs which are sold to raise funds
The star of the afternoon was Koufax, the legendary Dodger southpaw who
made baseball history by pitching four no-hitters and who made Jewish
history by bailing on a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur.
"We've got senators and representatives, we've got Supreme Court
justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic
athletes -- and Sandy Koufax," Obama said. "Sandy and I actually have
something in common -- we are both lefties. He can't pitch on Yom
Kippur; I can't pitch.”
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