Obama's first meeting with Jewish leaders includes more left-wing groups

J Street and Americans for Peace Now make the cut; ZOA and Chabad dropped.

Barack Obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Barack Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The organized Jewish community's first official meeting with US President Barack Obama late Monday was set to include more liberal organizations than in years past, which groups on both sides saw as indicative of the White House's interest in magnifying their voices. The new J Street lobby and Americans for Peace Now made the final cut of a pared-down list that kept off traditional participants Zionist Organization of America, the Lubavitch movement and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, all of which are on the more conservative part of the spectrum. "They're looking to legitimize the more progressive parts of the pro-Israel community that seem to be more in line with where they seem to be going," said one Jewish leader involved with the planning of the meeting, set to take place after press time and last about 45 minutes. "Who is around that table is an indication of the importance given by President Obama and his team to those organizations," he continued. "He and his administration want to build up the relevance and the power of Peace Now and J Street, to help them spread their message louder and more credibly with the news media and the American Jewish community, because their vantage point is arguably more in line with the Obama administration's vantage point." At the very least, snagging an invitation helps a newcomer like J Street - a one-year-old progressive lobby that sees itself as the counter to the decades-old American Israel Public Affairs Committee - stake out a more established position in the community. "We're really pleased to be included in the meeting. The voice that we bring of pro-Israel, pro-peace Jews and other friends of Israel is extremely important to hear in understanding the diversity of views in the Jewish community," said J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami, whose group will be participating in an official meeting with the president for the first time. M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, a left-leaning group that was regularly invited to the Clinton White House but shut out during the Bush years, described the current attitude toward his organization as "very different" from the last administration's. The Israel Policy Forum, he explained, is now given great access, though it wasn't included in Monday's meeting, to which only 16 people were understood to have been invited. "They understand that they're going to get more support from the likes of Americans for Peace Now and J Street and Israel Policy Forum" than from the more mainstream Jewish organizations, he said. "They turn to organizations like J Street and us because we're their natural base of support." Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America was less sanguine about being kept off the list. He called several White House staffers demanding an explanation and said he had been told his vocal criticism of Obama in the mainstream media disqualified him. "Obama has said publicly that he wants to hear all different views," Klein said, pointing to the US president's outreach to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. "Except when it comes to Israel, he's not that interested in hearing views that are different from his." "The participants represent a broad set of viewpoints, and no one group was excluded - or included - because of their specific positions. Unfortunately, the Roosevelt room can only accommodate a set number of people," said White House spokesman Shin Inouye, in response to Klein's charges and questions about the shift towards more liberal organizations. Several mainstream organizations also didn't get a slot, including B'nei B'rith and the American Jewish Congress, as well as other left-wing groups like Brit Zedek v'Shalom. The other invitees included the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as well as representatives from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism; the National Council of Jewish Women; Hadassah; the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the United Jewish Communities; the Anti-Defamation League; the American Jewish Committee; the National Jewish Democratic Council; and AIPAC. The list was compiled by the White House "with input from various community leaders," according to Inouye, though several meetings with then-president George W. Bush were actually coordinated by the Presidents' Conference, which often had the prerogative to decide who was invited. Alan Solow, the Presidents' Conference chairman, said he had requested the meeting and was told by the White House that Obama "wanted to have substantive meeting and therefore he wanted to have a modest group that he could interact with and have a discussion with." Solow said he expected the group would discuss "the full range" of topics, including Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, as well as several domestic issues important to many American Jewish groups. Still, Obama's criticism of Israeli settlement construction was expected to be a major issue, as his demands that all such building, including to accommodate natural growth, be halted has erupted into one of the more public disputes between the US and Israel in recent years. The administration's handling of the issue has left some members of more established Jewish organizations "disappointed," in the words of one such leader. The meeting was seen by participants as a chance for Obama to stress that his approach was best for Israel and to tamp down the tensions, as well as perhaps try to have the organizations help bring messages of support for his program to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with whom several participants have close ties. One Jewish leader also suggested that he could sound out the group on a potential US peace initiative in order to get feedback from the community. But another organizational leader said he understood Obama would mostly be in "listening mode."